Journeys through Tanjong Pagar: The Station at Bukit Timah

27 09 2010

My earliest impressions of the Malayan Railway were formed perhaps not so much by the station at Tanjong Pagar, but by the two black steel truss railway bridges that seem to give the area of Bukit Timah that they cross its character. I often passed under the bridges as a child, seated in the backseat of my father’s car on the many trips he took us on to and from the Causeway and to Jurong or to the Teck Whye area to visit a friend of my mother’s who ran an orchid farm there. Each time I passed under, my attention would be drawn to the heavy steel trusses, sometimes hoping that I could see a train traversing one of them. The bridges would serve as a landmark for me on the long road journeys from the Causeway. The stretch from the Causeway down Woodlands and Bukit Timah Roads always seemed endless, particularly having had been seated in the backseat for a large portion of the journey along the winding roads north of the Causeway, taking us past the monosodium glutamate processing ponds close to the Causeway and the Metal Box factory, then Bukit Panjang Circus and Bukit Gombak, and further on past Boys Town before the first of the two black bridges came into view. Seeing the first meant that the long and boring part of the journey would be coming to its end and I could look forward to seeing the Hume Factory, Ford Factory, and Magnolia Dairies on the hill, before the Bukit Timah Fire Station came into sight and with it, the huge Green Spot bottle at the entrance of the Amoy Canning Factory that I would never fail to look out for.

One of the two steel truss bridges that give the Bukit Timah area its distinct character.

Passing under the bridges and catching an occasional glimpse of a train on one of them would also bring with it a desire to make a train journey of my own, something that I only managed to do later in life. When I did finally embark on that very first train journey and on my subsequent journeys, I did find that there was a lot more than the bridges that captivated me. The train rides always provided an opportunity to catch a glimpse of a Singapore that would otherwise remain hidden to me, with the route that the train takes meandering through parts of Singapore that could very well be in another world. Two spots came to my attention on that first ride, having been provided with a good glimpse of from the unscheduled stops that the train made prior to reaching the Causeway. The two were a short distance apart, on either side of the first of the railway bridges that cross Bukit Timah Road, the first being at the Bukit Timah Station just before the bridge, a station that I had hitherto not known about, and the second just after the bridge – at the stretch just behind the Yeo Hiap Seng factory.

A southbound train crossing the bridge near the site of the former Yeo Hiap Seng factory.

The trains to and from Tanjong Pagar take a route through some untouched parts of Singapore.

Having caught a good look at Bukit Timah Station that very first time in the dim illumination it was provided with, I was fascinated, seeking to find out more about it when I got back to Singapore. From what I could see of it, it had looked to me like one of the little rural stations that might have depicted in one of the Ladybird books that I had spent my early years reading, one that could be one used to model a miniature station for one of those model train sets that I had often looked longingly at in the toy department of Robinson’s. It was in future train journeys in the daylight that I would get a better glimpse of it, being something that I would never tire looking out for on all my journeys by train.

Bukit Timah Station is a little known about station in Singapore, off Bukit Timah Road.

Bukit Timah Station could pass off for one of the little stations on a model train set.

The station I was to learn, was built in 1932 as part of a realignment of the original railway line which had run from Woodlands down to its terminal at Tank Road via Newton Circus. The realignment or “deviation” as it was referred to then, was carried out at considerable expense at the end of the 1920s, partly motivated by the need to elevate certain portions of the track as the old line had been prone to being overrun by the frequent floods that afflicted the low lying Bukit Timah corridor the line ran through, and at the same time allowing at the the number of what were considered to be dangerous level crossings to be minimised. The realignment also allowed the construction of a brand new and much grander terminal at Tanjong Pagar, one that could be considered as befitting of its status as the southern terminal of the railway line, and more importantly, as the gateway from the colonies in the Malayan Peninsula to Europe and also to the Far East by sea. Bukit Timah Station was also strategically placed to serve what was to prove to be a very lucrative service – the transport of racehorses to and from the racing circuits on the peninsula and the island, being a stone’s throw from the old Turf Club at Bukit Timah. The deviation of 1932 also gave us the two wonderful bridges that were to lend themselves towards giving the area its distinct flavour.

The distinctive truss bridges over Bukit Timah Road and Bukit Timah Station were completed in 1932 as part of a deviation to the rail line that cost a considerable sum of money.

The road out to Bukit Timah Road from the station ... a route that would have been taken by the many racehorses that were transported on the train to Singapore, bound for the old Turf Club.

A old signboard pointing towards Bukit Timah Station from the main road.

A train passing Bukit Timah Station.

The stretch after crossing the bridge over Bukit Timah and Dunearn Roads I had a good view of  through not what one might have called a stop, but a series of stops and starts. That gave me the opportunity to see what had occupied the narrow strip of land wedged between what was the railway track, the old Yeo Hiap Seng factory on one side and Rifle Range Road on the other. The strip was then, packed with some of the last remaining squatters that had survived in the 1990s, something I hadn’t been aware of until I had peered out of the window on that first train journey, right into what were the illuminated dwellings of the squatters which had seemed to be only an arm’s length from me. Much of Singapore had by then been cleared of squatters, most having by the time the 1990s arrived, been resettled in the high rise public housing that marks most of the landscape of what had once been rural Singapore. It was then difficult to evict the squatters with the then poor relations between Singapore and the Malaysian government that had effectively owned the corridor of land that the trains run through.

The bend in the tracks where the Yeo Hiap Seng factory was.

The narrow strips of land along the tracks in the area were occupied by the wooden shacks of squatters living on land belonging to the Malayan Railway.

Corrugated zinc sheets and wooden shacks were once a common sight along much of the railway line.

Another view of the tracks around Rifle Range Road which were once lined with the dwellings of squatters living on the Railway land.

A train carrying bricks passing a popular shortcut from Jalan Anak Bukit to Rifle Range Road, one that would have been used by squatters living in the area.

The shortcut from Jalan Anak Bukit over the tracks to Rifle Range Road.

Looking north from Rifle Range Road ... the train takes a path through much of a Singapore that would otherwise remain unseen.

Looking back, I suppose one of the things that came from having a Malaysian railway line operating through Singapore was that it allowed large tracts of the land along the railway and much of the areas around to remain undeveloped and retain the rustic charm that has been lost in much of our island through the rapid modernisation that has overtaken us since our independence, much of which I guess would soon be consigned to the past with the recent agreement on the land swap and the redevelopment of the Railway land. There isn’t much time left I guess for us to savour the rustic charm of the Railway land and some of the buildings that lay around it. I would certainly like to take a last train journey, to take all this in for one last time and to say a fond farewell to what will soon be lost.


This post is also featured on asia! through asian eyes, an online and mobile platform for Asian bloggers and other writers. asia! offers a place to get a feel for what ordinary Asians are thinking and saying and doing providing a glimpse of the Asia that lies beyond the news headlines.

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21 responses

27 09 2010
Chris Moseley

I arrived in Singapore at Paya Lebar airport in November 1966 to be sent to Terrendak, just north of Malacca. After seeing my girlfriend who was stationed in Tanglin I went by train the following day to Tampin in Malaysia (I have always thought of the country as Malaya, the old name, but never mind.) I have no recollection of boarding the train at all but as I was taken by road from Nee Soon camp I guess it must have been near the causeway, not the station at Tanjong Pagar. One thing I do remember is the train journey, it gave me a good idea of what Malaya was like and I really enjoyed mixing with the local people and watching the scenery pass by as I stood at the end of one of the old carriages. I was probably the only British person on the train that day, or at least I think I was. I wish I had a camera with me that day, I would have taken many pictures on that journey.
Chris.

29 09 2010
The wondering wanderer

Wow 1966 … that goes a long way back! I was only two then! Thanks for sharing your experiences, Chris! There are many who used to refer to the country as Malaya or the Federation (like my Dad himself) … I guess old habits die hard. What was Nee Soon like in those days? I am not sure if the station at Bukit Panjang was around then – but it might have been that station at which you might have boarded the train … that wouldn’t have been far from Mandai Road which would have led to Nee Soon Camp. I always enjoy journeys by train – wherever I am – for the same reasons you mentioned – that it gives a good idea of the countryside through which it passes as well as giving an opportunity to interact with the locals … and as you, I wish I had a camera to capture many of what I can only see in my mind these days …. :)

27 09 2010
Lam Chun See

Shy lah. I live within walking distance of the Bt Timah station and yet I have not explored the stretch on YHS side. Must do it quickly before they are torn down.

I have taken the train to Ipoh a couple of times in the 80’s. Very slow and boring affair. But for the sake of nostalgia, maybe I should try it one more time.

29 09 2010
The wondering wanderer

Really? Yes, it is a good idea to capture it before it goes … I know what you mean about the trains up north – can sometimes be a tad slow … was thinking of catching one up to Gemas and back for nostalgia sakes … :)

29 09 2010
esther

Hi I came across your site while researching for a photoshoot proj I have to do for school, wanted to incorporate these tracks into it and a shot of the train itself too. So I was wondering if you knew what were the timings when the train would go through the rifle range area?

29 09 2010
The wondering wanderer

Hi Esther, timings can be rather erratic to say the least … but I’ll drop you an email with some rough timings …

29 09 2010
esther

YAY THANKS SO MUCH! that would be so so great. cos I couldn’t seem to find any timings online. might go down and just wait and see myself sometime this week but any rough gauge would be so helpful :)

1 10 2010
Chris Moseley

In answer to your question, what was Nee Soon like back in 1966? well, I really have no recollection of it at all having only been there for a few hours. Bukit Panjang station was built in about 1902 and it may have still been around when I left Singapore by train, so it might have been there that I was taken to catch the train.

Chris.

4 10 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks Chris, would you have remembered seeing the rubber factory in the Nee Soon area? That would have been a landmark at that time.

4 10 2010
star

can i check with you, where is this train station actual location and is it open to the public?:D

5 10 2010
The wondering wanderer

I’ll send the exact location to you by email. The station isn’t actually open to public … as is most of the railway land.

5 10 2010
Erik

After the railway line is returned to the state, I hope they can convert at least some of it into a bicycle track. It will be really nice if all the bridges are kept.

5 10 2010
The wondering wanderer

That’s an excellent idea Erik! Would certainly be nice to see some of the line kept, in particular some, if not all of the bridges along the route. :)

20 10 2010
Page not found « The Long and Winding Road

[...] Journeys through Tanjong Pagar: The Station at Bukit Timah [...]

21 10 2010
Optional Mini Bus Charter

I still consider traveling by train faster and more convenient compared to buses. I have taken the train once back in 1997 from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, and I consider it one of my unforgettable journeys. it’s sad to know that I cannot take that same journey in the future.

24 10 2010
The second part of the walk down the Bukit Timah corridor: The mysteries around Hillview « The Long and Winding Road

[...] shortcut to Rifle Range Road, past the other black truss bridge and onto our end point – Bukit Timah Station – something I guess I would have to find time later to prepare a post [...]

1 11 2010
The final part of the walk down the Bukit Timah corridor: From the site of the Green Spot to a very green spot … « The Long and Winding Road

[...] bridge, it was a short walk to the quaint old Bukit Timah Station – which I have devoted a previous post to, still looking as I would always remember it. The station, we have been given to understand [...]

26 11 2010
Crossings through the passage of time « The Long and Winding Road

[...] the Railway Deviation of 1932 – one that gave us the two stations that we see standing today, Bukit Timah and the grand old dame at Tanjong Pagar, as well as some that have disappeared altogether. One of [...]

19 04 2011
luoposs

I still consider traveling by train faster and more convenient compared to buses. I have taken the train once back in 1997 from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, and I consider it one of my unforgettable journeys. it’s sad to know that I cannot take that same journey in the future.

24 04 2011
Angie

Came across your site while looking up on Bukit Timah Station. What is the exact location? Also where are the points along the track that are more easily accessible & able to see trains passing by? Would you also be able to let me know the rough timings of the train passing by. Thanks. Thinking of an outing with a 5yr old and relying on public transport & our own 2 legs only.

24 04 2011
The wondering wanderer

The station is off Bukit Timah Road, just where the truss bridge near King Albert Park is (coordinates: 1.334278,103.78104). The station is accessible on foot – about 250-300 metres from the main road – there are two semi-paved roads on either side of the foot of the bridge that lead up to the station. The station would be one place where it would be safe to watch the trains pass by …. I’ll send you a couple of scans by email of the train timetable – the trains take about 1/2 an hour to traverse the length of the line to/from Woodlands and Bukit Timah is about the halfway point. The area north along Rifle Range Road would be another good place to catch the passing train, as are some of the level crossings which would be quite a sight for a 5 year old: http://thelongnwindingroad.wordpress.com/2010/11/26/crossings-through-the-passage-of-time/; http://thelongnwindingroad.wordpress.com/2010/10/18/crossroads-in-my-journey/. Catch the trains before we see the last of the them! :)

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