Tuesday, 1 September 2015

My fascination with train travel in Malaysia

The railways and trains have always fascinated me. Growing up as a pre-school kid, one of my favourite toys was a train set going round and round endlessly on a circular track. Later, when I was given a train set with a figure eight track, you can imagine the joy that I got from this upgrade. :-)

Growing up on the island meant that I had little opportunity to interact with real trains, meaning those of the Malayan Railway (Keretapi Tanah Melayu, KTM), until I was about eight or nine years old. Then my parents took me on a very rare outing to Taiping. At that age, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience sitting in a real train as we crossed the channel in a ferry to the train station in Prai.

There, we boarded the train and maybe about two hours later, we arrived in Taiping. We stayed in a small room somewhere in this small town. It wasn't even a budget-style hotel: just a room above a shop. And from there, we visited the Taiping lake gardens on the second day before we took the train back to Prai. It was a small adventure that I still remember.

When I was older, there was this occasion that I first took the train from Penang to Kuala Lumpur by myself  travelling with one of my cousins and got ourselves caught up in the Great Flood of January 1971. Now bigger and more aware of my surroundings, I remember that the coaches had hard wooden seats, the coaches were not air-conditioned and we had to open the louvred wooden windows to let in the breeze or to close them to shut out the sun. In any case, at the end of the eight or nine-hour journey, our faces were sticky and coated with a fine layer of dust and soot from the coal-fired engines.

I remember sitting by the window watching the scenery roll by...the tall lallang fast approaching or drawing away, the rows and rows of rubber trees, the padi fields stretching for miles, the rail tunnel - now, that was the killer experience, going into the tunnel - and of course, the train rolling slowly across the Bukit Merah lake. One of my favourite past-times was to look out for the stations along the way. Once, I sat with a pen and paper in hand, noting down the names of the stations and the times that the train stopped there. Such was my fascination with train travel.

When I was studying in Kuala Lumpur, that was the time when train travel became more frequent for me. I remember going down to the Howe Cheang Dispensary at Penang Road to buy my train tickets. Howe Cheang was the agent for Malaysian Railways and one of the staff there would dutifully issue me with the train ticket.

So during the semester breaks, I would take the train to and fro Penang and Kuala Lumpur. During those days, the economy seats were unnumbered and once on board the train, chances were very great that you could be separated from any friend you were travelling with. There would be a clamber for any empty seat and once there, you would remain seated until the end of the journey, save for the occasional walk to the buffet coach or the toilet. But when the journey gets monotonous, as eight or nine-hour journeys can become after several experiences, I would choose to stand by the coach entrance, open the door and hang on to the railing, blissfully unaware of the possible danger of falling off from the train especially when it rocked on the tracks.

This clambering for seats in the unnumbered coaches became more critical during the holiday seasons for usually, Malaysian Railways would over-sell their seats. During the holiday seasons, it was not uncommon for rail passengers to sit in the aisle or attempt to share space with the luckier passengers who had already claimed their wooden seats.

Once during the run-up to the Chinese New Year holidays in the mid-1970s - it must be between 1974 and 1976 - I couldn't find a seat and had to settle down onto a space at the end of the carriage, where the doors were. Suddenly, a girl soon plonked herself next to me on the floor as she couldn't get a seat either. Soon, we started talking and she told me that she had also studied at the Penang Free School. But obviously, she  was my junior in the school as I don't remember her in any of the Sixth Form classes while I was at school in 1971 and 1972. Her name? Cardosa. Either Mary Cardosa or Elizabeth Cardosa. The years do funny things to one's memory and honestly, I can't remember which of the Cardosa sisters became my carriage mate during the long journey from Kuala Lumpur to Penang. But I must frankly say that the conversations with her certainly made the trip much less boring.

After I left Kuala Lumpur, I practically stopped taking the train except for once in the late 1980s when I followed some of my former bank colleagues on a trip to Cameron Highlands. I remember that there were about 10 of us and we decided to take the train down to Tapah Road Station where we would then catch a bus up to Cameron. There was another long interval before I took a train in Malaysia again; it could be in the 1990s when I joined a Malaysian contingent of chessplayers back from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur.

But the excitement of rail travel never left me. In 1978, when I was part of the Malaysian chess contingent that was invited to the People's Republic of China, I had a big thrill travelling by train from Kowloon to Canton (Guangzhou) through the border town of Sham Chun (Shenzhen). My first impression was that Communist China's trains travelled so smooth, unlike our own local trains. From Canton, we had flown to Shanghai, and from Shanghai we again boarded China's trains to visit Hangchow (Hangzhou) and Suchow (Suzhou). We then flew to Peking (Beijing) before flying back to Canton for the return trip by rail into Hongkong.

Then in 1982 when the Chess Olympiad was held in Luzerne, Switzerland, my team-mates took the super-efficient train rides between Kloten Airport and Lucerne, via Zurich. On one of the rest days for the Chess Olympiad, I arranged a visit to the mountain town of Engelberg. Apart from the snow on Mt Titlis, the highlight of this day excursion was the train ride up the Swiss Alps, passing by many picturesque Swiss villages and crossing the snow line at one point. The trains really ran like clockwork! Talking about Lucerne too, we also visited the Swiss Transport Museum there and needless to say, my biggest enjoyment was spent among the train exhibits, especially the St Gotthard railway model with its intricate set of miniature bridges, tunnels and signals.

Back home in Malaysia, I've started to take the trains more often again on my occasional visits to Kuala Lumpur. This started about four or five years back when I wanted to give myself another chance to savour a train ride at night. To my surprise, I found that so much had changed for Malaysian Railways. For one thing, the carriages are now all air-conditioned. The seats are numbered and there is no risk of not finding a place to sit. For importantly, the carriages were cleaner (though not the toilets which remained as yucky as ever, in my opinion), quieter and ran much smoother.

So that was the re-start of my new love affair with Malaysia's railway station. Since that first trip, I've used the Malaysian Railways service several times now, even experiencing travels in the first class carriages. In my opinion, rail travel is the way forward for me, especially as I now enjoy a 50 percent discount on the tickets as a senior citizen. The new railway station in Bukit Mertajam is hardly six kilometers from my house and I can reach the station within 15 minutes tops, unlike the Penang International Airport which is 32 kilometers away and which requires a one-hour journey. Plus, by train, I get straight to KL Sentral from where I can get connections to anywhere in the Klang Valley.

Presently, with the completion of the double tracking and the introduction of the electric train service (ETS) between Butterworth and Kuala Lumpur, a one-way train journey to KL Sentral takes hardly four hours to complete. That's only very slightly longer than preparations required for a flight but more importantly for me, shorter than driving down to Kuala Lumpur. Besides which, I don't get all stressed up having to concentrate on my driving on the highways, if I choose to drive. Let the train driver take the stress, not me!


Andrew Ooi said...

But how do you get from the island to Butterworth? Is it convenient?

SS Quah said...

Sure. The ferry service is still running!