Faces of the Railway: the last Station Master at Bukit Timah

9 06 2011

Working tirelessly through the day to keep the stretch of the Malayan Railway passing from Woodlands through to Tanjong Pagar safe is a quiet and unassuming gentleman by the name of Encik Atan. For Encik Atan, who will pass into history as the last Station Master of Bukit Timah Railway Station, the last station along the Malayan Railway, now Keretapi Tanah Melayu or KTM, that still uses the old fashioned key token system to hand authority over to trains using the single track, his daily shift starts with the first train that passes through before the break of day, and ends with the passing of the last train for the day well into the night. He does this practically every day, making his way from the KTM flats in Spooner Road in Kampong Bahru in the darkness of the early morning, and making his way back in the darkness of the late night, taking a break only on his off days when a relief is sent from Johor Bahru.

Encik Atan at his desk.

I guess it doesn’t help that the trains are often delayed with a significant part of the railway in the peninsula running on a single track as well. Trains often for another to pass and seldom run on time, and delays of an hour on average are quite common. This often means that Encik Atan’s day often stretches beyond the scheduled passing of the last northbound train for the day just before 11 pm and getting off pass midnight is often the case. If you do pass by the way of Bukit Timah Railway Station as we enter the last three weeks of its operations, do say a quick hello and shake the hand of a man who deserves a pat on his back for his tireless efforts in keeping us safe.

Encik Atan at the signalling table.

Rain or shine ... the passing of the trains through what is the halfway point on the Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands stretch, keeps Encik Atan busy.

The Station Master in action - this time scurrying off on a bicycle to pass the key token to the driver of a south bound train.

Encik Atan seen running off on another occasion to hand the key token over to a southbound train over the railway bridge at Bukit Timah.

Taking shelter from the rain that resulted in rising waters just over 200 metres from the station on the 5th of June.

Speaking to curious visitors to the station.

Strangers on a Train:

Strangers on a Train is an attempt to celebrate the passing of an era by a gathering on what is scheduled to be the last train that pulls into Tanjong Pagar Railway Station on 30th June 2011. If you are interested to join us, we are on Train 15 Ekspres Sinaran Timur (most of are in Coach 2 and are getting on that at Segamat). Do note that tickets for the Express services, which can be purchased up to 30 days in advance, to and from Singapore this June are fast selling, with trains for most weekends already quite full, and can be obtained at the station (advance bookings open from 8.30 am daily) or online at the KTMB website. If you would like to join us and have you tickets, you may drop an email to Notabilia or me with the subject line “Strangers on a Train”.


Further information of interest:

Information related to the station and its architecture can be found on a previous post: “A final look at Tanjong Pagar Station“. In addition to that, I have also put together a collection of experiences and memories of the railway in Singapore and of my journeys through the grand old station which can be found through this page: “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“.

Do also take a look at the proposal by the Nature Society (Singapore) to retain the green areas that have been preserved by the existence of the railway through Singapore and maintain it as a Green Corridor, at the Green Corridor’s website and show your support by liking the Green Corridor’s Facebook page. My own series of posts on the Green Corridor are at: “Support the Green Corridor“.






Amidst the rising tide, a tearful farewell to Romance

6 06 2011

Sunday the 5th of June 2011 will probably be remembered for what has been described as the worst flooding in 25 years in Singapore, triggered by two bouts of intense rainfall, one at mid morning which had some 65 mm of rain fall in a half an hour period. It was a morning that I found myself up at the break of day, greeted not by the bright Sunday I had hoped for, but by the greyness of the rain washed morning. The intensity of the early morning downpour and the resulting rising waters of the Bukit Timah Canal, wasn’t of course what this post is all about, but an event that, I would certainly have remembered the 5th of June 2011 for – the final departure of the luxury Eastern and Oriental Express train service from Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

The 5th of June marked the last departure of the E&O Express Trains from Tanjong Pagar, bringing an end to the era of Romance in railway travel from Singapore.

The last E&O Express to depart from Tanjong Pagar sits at the platform.

The significance of that to me is one that perhaps outweighs that of what would be the departure of the last train on the evening of the 30th of June, and brings to an end, the end of Romance in rail travel to and from Singapore that had come with the opening of a station that along with the stations along the Malayan Railway at Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh, possibly best represents the age when the Romance of rail travel was at its peak. The Eastern and Oriental Express, doesn’t of course, go as far back to those days having been introduced to Tanjong Pagar in 1993, but it does take one back to those days in attempting to recreate the luxury and romance that is associated with the glory days of the railway.

The E&O Express route from Singapore to Bangkok was introduced in 1993.

A farewell to Tanjong Pagar and a farewell to Romance.

The last E&O Express Train to depart sits in the rain that brought rising waters in many parts of Singapore.

A window to the luxury and romance of the E&O Express.

A final walk down the platform ...

A steward looks forlornly at the rain washed platform at Tanjong Pagar for one last goodbye.

Carriages seen at the platform.

A farewell ... to tears from the heavens.

With the departure of the train at approximately 11.30 am from Tanjong Pagar and its subsequent 15 minute passage to Bukit Timah Station and another 15 minute passage to Woodlands, northbound E&O Express passengers would have for the last time, be given the treat of a passage through a Singapore that is representative of the Singapore when Tanjong Pagar Railway station was built in 1932, a softer and gentler Singapore that after the 1st of July, may disappear as the northbound E&O Express did on that stormy morning. Perhaps it was fitting that it was not to the smile of the sunshine that I had hoped for, but to the tears from the Heavens that the E&O train made this final push up north … tears perhaps for an end to of the Romance of the railway through Singapore.

The last E&O service to depart Tanjong Pagar reaches the halfway point in a final northbound journey through the railway corridor in Singapore, Bukit Timah Station.

Handing back the authority for the south section of the Singapore track to the Station Master, Encik Atan for one last time.

The E&O Express slows to a halt at Bukit Timah at approximately 11.45am, as it waits for a southbound train to pass.

Looking north at Bukit Timah one last time.

The carriages of the E&O sits in the rain, as waters rise in the Bukit Timah Canal just 250 metres away.

The rain washed platform at Bukit Timah.

Handing the authority for one last time for the 15 minute northern passage through Singapore.

Off we go for one last northbound look at the Bukit Timah corridor.

Shunting back one last time onto the main track.

And through the truss bridge for that last northern passage through Singapore.

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Strangers on a Train:

Strangers on a Train is an attempt to celebrate the passing of an era by a gathering on what is scheduled to be the last train that pulls into Tanjong Pagar Railway Station on 30th June 2011. If you are interested to join us, we are on Train 15 Ekspres Sinaran Timur (most of are in Coach 2 and are getting on that at Segamat). Do note that tickets for the Express services, which can be purchased up to 30 days in advance, to and from Singapore this June are fast selling, with trains for most weekends already quite full, and can be obtained at the station (advance bookings open from 8.30 am daily) or online at the KTMB website. If you would like to join us and have you tickets, you may drop an email to Notabilia or me with the subject line “Strangers on a Train”.


Further information of interest:

Information related to the station and its architecture can be found on a previous post: “A final look at Tanjong Pagar Station“. In addition to that, I have also put together a collection of experiences and memories of the railway in Singapore and of my journeys through the grand old station which can be found through this page: “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“.

Do also take a look at the proposal by the Nature Society (Singapore) to retain the green areas that have been preserved by the existence of the railway through Singapore and maintain it as a Green Corridor, at the Green Corridor’s website and show your support by liking the Green Corridor’s Facebook page. My own series of posts on the Green Corridor are at: “Support the Green Corridor“.






Don’t miss the last train!

18 05 2011

The last day of June this year will bring to a close a long chapter in our history, one that will break a link we have had with the Malayan Railway, now operated by Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM), that went back some 108 years. The railway’s beginings can be traced back to the Singapore-Kranji Railway which started service in 1903 providing a link from the north down to the terminal station in Tank Road. A ferry service was introduced which provided rail passengers with a link to the Johor Railway across the Straits of Johor which was replaced by the rail link across the Causeway when that was built. It was a railway deviation in 1932 that diverted the railway to its current terminal at Tanjong Pagar, cutting a path through from Bukit Timah deviating from its original route over towards Ulu Pandan, Buona Vista, Tanglin Halt, towards the new grand terminal built to provide Singapore with a station that was befitting of its economic importance. Beside the grand old station, it was this deviation that possibly provided us with the many structures that give the areas through which the railway passes through a unique flavour as well as helping preserving parts of old Singapore: the two distinctive black truss bridges across Bukit Timah Road; the girder bridges across at the road entrance to Bukit Timah Hill and at the entrance to Hillview Avenue; the quaint old station at Bukit Timah and the wonderful green corridor that has been maintained along much of the railway land.

The last train will pass reach Woodlands Checkpoint at approximately 23:00 on 30th June 2011 and that will end 108 years of trains of the Malayan Railway chugging through Singapore.

And so, on the 30th of June, the locomotive that drags the 22:30 Senandung Malam through its half an hour passage across the island from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands would be the last to do so, pulling its way past what would have been familiar sights in the darkness of the night, breaking the silence one last time of what it would leave as a long and lonely corridor. With its scheduled arrival at Woodlands Train Checkpoint at 23:00, the familiar sights and sounds: the sights of the rushing flash of silver tinged with blue, white, yellow and red across the truss and girder bridges, roads (at the five level operational crossings) and through the many places that as children we would have watched the train pass by; and the sounds of the rattle of the diesels and blaring horns, would be but a memory. With that, that old world feel that one somehow associates with the train would be also be a thing of the past, as operations commence from Woodlands on the 1st of July, leaving passengers and well-wishers with little or no opportunity to experience that send-off or welcome or an arrival at a grand station that a journey by train somehow deserves.

A journey to or from Tanjong Pagar is a unique experience not to be missed.

Getting on the train from Tanjong Pagar would I guess be the best way to have that experience, but even if you don’t intend to do that, there are many ways to have a last experience of the last of the trains through Singapore. One of the best ways to do it is to watch the passing and waiting of the trains at the old Bukit Timah Station, accessible via a path on each side of the black railway bridge near King Albert Park. It is at this quaint old station that we can observe that old fashioned practice of the handing over of the key-token – the last place along the KTM Railway line that this is still practiced to ensure that there is only one train on the single track that is still in use. If you do go to the station at Bukit Timah, do remember that the station and the grounds around it are still very much the property of KTM, and that although for most part the Station Master is quite tolerant of curious visitors, it would be good to ensure that you do not impede the station’s operations as well as compromise your own safety. And, if you do intend to take a few photographs, or do video recordings, please remember to also seek the permission of the Station Master. To catch a glimpse of the trains and the handing over of the key token, the best time would be to do so in the mornings as trains would be most frequent then. The schedule of trains passing at Bukit Timah Station is: 04:45, 06:09, 06:45, 07:30, 08:15, 10:45, 13:15; 16:26, 18:11, 18:15, 19:10, 20:55, 21:47, and 22:45 (do note that KTM trains do not alway run on schedule). The last trains would be the ones on the 30th of June this year, so do make it a point to catch them, before they are gone, as many wonderful experiences on our island are now gone, forever.

It is also worth paying a visit to quaint old Bukit Timah Station to catch the passing trains as well as witness the old fashioned practice of the handing over of the key token - the only remaining place along the KTM line that this is still done.

The Key Token.

A key token for the northern section being handed over by an incoming southbound train.

Carriages of a south bound train waiting for a north bound train to pass at Bukit Timah Station.

The Station Master scurrying off on a bicycle to pass the key token to the driver of a south bound train.

A reflection no more after the 30th of June - the station at Bukit Timah being reflected off a passing train.

Silence will greet Bukit Timah Station after 79 years of hearing the frequent sounds of engines and whistles.


KTM timetable

Note: Times shaded in green are those at the start points, and those in red at the end points. There are two lines, the North South Line and the East Line which run out of and into Tanjong Pagar until 30th June 2011.

North-South Line Timetable (click to enlarge).

East Line Timetable (click to enlarge).


To read my series of posts on Journeys through Tanjong Pagar, please click on this link.


Party on the last train:

If anyone is keen to join Clarissa Tan, Notabilia, and myself on the last train into Singapore (not the last train which will be the northbound train from Tanjong Pagar), do indicate your interest by leaving a comment at Notabilia’s post on the subject.

In the Lianhe Zaobao on Sunday 29 May 2011

网上召集搭未班火车回家

约两周前,网上已有人开 始召集在6月30日到马来西亚一同搭回返丹戎巴葛火车站的最后一班火车,为火车站来个 “欢送会”。据召集人之一林坚源了解,当天晚上10时抵新的班车应孩会是火车战停用前最最后一班在这里停 的火车靠的火车。

“虽然丹戎巴葛火车站的最后一班车据说是当天晚上10时半由柔佛州苏丹亲自开往马来西亚的班车, 但是我们新加坡人来说,搭乘南向火车回家更具意义。”






There I go again … another journey through Tanjong Pagar

11 03 2011

I guess I have not had enough of it, despite probably having tens of, if not a couple of hundred journeys out of Tanjong Pagar. I did it once again, since proclaiming that that journey taken with some friends at the end of last year would possibly have been my last. Having had a mixed bag of experiences on the many journeys through the arches of the grand old station, the ones that probably I remember most of are the regular delays that one comes to expect on the far from reliable train service that KTMB operates. Part of the reason for this, some of the archaic infrastructure and practices still in use on the old railway, does perhaps lend itself to an experience that you would certainly not get on the efficient railways that criss-cross much of the European continent – one that seems out of place in the ultra modern and efficient world we have grown accustomed to in Singapore.

I will certainly miss taking train journeys out of Tanjong Pagar ... something that will perhaps motivate me to take a few more over the next few months before the station closes.

Stepping into the station itself would somehow take you back in time, the atmosphere being one which seems more at home in the Singapore of the 1960s and 1970s. The large airy concourse that greets the visitor is adorned with mosaic murals that speak of a style that was prevalent of a time we have left behind and depict scenes from the Malayan peninsula that would have been more common in that era. Over the years that I had have an awareness of the layout of the concourse, nothing much has changed except perhaps that the occupants of some of the spaces, and an invasion of a Tourism Malaysia hut in the middle of it. It is in one of the spaces along the concourse that some nice food can be found and to perhaps add a old world flavour to the station, you would find food vendors that would be more comfortable conversing in Bahasa Melayu, once a common language on the streets.

The sight of the trains at the platforms of Tanjong Pagar will soon be nothing but a fading memory.

Beyond the concourse, the platforms do also take one back in time. With a cafe where one can sit back and enjoy the comings and goings on the tracks as well as on the platforms, over a cup of tea that perhaps one would bear only for the pleasure of what the setting offers. These days with the knowledge that the station would soon hear its last train whistle, one would encounter an army of photographers that sometimes seem to outnumber passengers making their way from the platform. Across on the departure platform, for long missing the Singapore checkpoint staff that had occupied the rooms at the end for some three decades before moving to Woodlands during a time when relations between Singapore and the northern neighbours wasn’t at its best. Somehow, the frenzy that accompanies the checkpoint on the Causeway is also missing from the Malaysian Customs and Immigration counters on the platform.

Last light ... the light is fading on the train station as it will hear its last train whistle by the time the first of July comes around.

Beyond the platforms, the highlight for any train passenger awaits, one that takes one through parts of Singapore that have remained untarnished by the waves of development that has altered the face of much of the island, and it is for this that a train journey through Tanjong Pagar is certainly worth the while. The initial part of the journey through to the Bukit Timah area past the two truss bridges cuts through some parts that might well have remained untouched since the Railway Deviation of 1932 took the railway line through the Ulu Pandan area to Tanjong Pagar. There are huge tracts of greenery, particularly in the Buona Vista / Portsdown and Ulu Pandan areas, much of which are certainly worth keeping – something that the Nature Society of Singapore advocates in their proposal to turn the rail corridor into green corridors. Unfortunately, it does seem like the vultures have started to hover over some of these places based on the Foreign Minister’s mention of plans during the budget debate on 3 Mar 2011. Beyond the station at Bukit Timah, there would also be parts where the original Singapore to Kranji line would have run up to 1932. And it is along these stretch that we see some of the parts of the railway that fascinated me from my early days, including the bridges and the level crossings that we might soon see the last of, as come the first of July, the railway line that we have seen cut through Singapore for a century or so, would see its last train.

Foreign Minister George Yeo on the schedule for the shift of the terminal station from Tanjong Pagar by 1 Jul 2011. Nothing new in the announcement except that some of the development plans for the railway land were mentioned.

The departure platform again. Not having had enough of journeys through Tanjong Pagar, I found myself on the platform taking another journey.

So, there I found myself on a Sunday morning with a few companions, boarding another train, to embark on what is perhaps not a final but one of my last journeys out of the station, taking it all in again. The view from the train pulling out from the sunrise shrouded station was dreamy to say the least, as were the views of the train yard, somehow feeling as if it was a movie of a forgotten time that I was watching. I took it all in … signal poles, distance markers, the green tracts, the Tanglin Halt area which I had been familiar with having spent my earliest days in nearby Commonwealth Crescent, that old station at Bukit Timah, the truss bridges and the level crossings. The train ride went a little too smoothly for it to be one that I was used to, leaving right on time and speeding past the station at Bukit Timah and skipping the ritual of the exchange of the key token. We were to find out why once we got across the Causeway … that I would leave to another post, as I will our destination for the day … this journey certainly won’t be my last and if I do have the time … it would be one of a series of journeys that would be to remember that we once had an old world railway line running through a Singapore that had long left that old world behind.

Pulling out of Tanjong Pagar.

Light Signals ...

Signal pole.

A fading memory ... the view out of the window of a train passing through Kranji area.


To read my series of posts on Journeys through Tanjong Pagar, please click on this link.






A final journey from Tanjong Pagar: into Malaysia before leaving Singapore

30 11 2010

Whatever our reasons may have been, some friends and I decided to embark on what may be a last journey by train from the station that has served as the southern terminal of the Malayan Railway, Tanjong Pagar Station, for a better part of a century. For some of us bitten by the nostalgia bug brought about by the knowledge that platforms of the station would have fallen silent by the time the second half of 2011 arrives for the grand old station, it was about reliving our fond memories of train journeys that we have taken through the station. For others, it was a maiden journey – one that needed to be taken before the station shuts its doors to train passengers for good, and one that needed to be taken for the romance perhaps of taking a train from a station that is very much from the old world.

The grand old station at Tanjong Pagar had served as the southern terminal of the Malayan Railway since 1932.

This thought of a last journey had come with a walk or discovery and rediscovery down the Bukit Timah railway corridor, and with little planning, a few friends decided on a day trip to Gemas, the significance of Gemas being that of the main railway junction where the lines running north split into eastbound and a westbound lines, a well as being about the furthest that one could go with the time afforded by a day trip. Having purchased tickets well in advance for the travelling party which had grown from a few friends to a party of 13, something that we decided would be best with the start of the peak travel season brought about by the school holidays on both sides of the Causeway, all that was left for us was to board the train when the day arrived.

The platforms at Tanjong Pagar would have fallen silent by the time the second half of 2011 arrives.

Going on what is the first train out to Gemas, the 0800 Ekspress Rakyat, meant an early start on a Sunday morning, having to arrive at half an hour prior to departure to clear Malaysian Immigration and Customs. Arriving at the station with time to spare, we were able to grab a quick bite at the coffee shop by the platform before making our way to the departure gates. At the gates, somewhat surrealistically, the frenzied atmosphere that had greeted my very first train journey was conspicuously absent, replaced by a calm that was certainly more in keeping with the laid back feel of the rest of the surroundings that early morning.

The was definitely a less frenzied atmosphere around the departure gates and platform compared to when I took my very first train journey out of Tanjong Pagar.

What had been up till 31 July 1998, the southernmost exit point from Singapore for journeys across the Causeway, the booths that were used by the Singapore Immigration Department before the big shift to the Customs, Immigration and Quarantine (CIQ) complex in Woodlands, now sit quietly and forgotten at the entrance to the platform. Beyond the booths lay ones that still had life, used by the Malaysian authorities, who have stubbornly resisted all attempts by the Singapore government to also shift the Malaysian checkpoint to Woodlands – one of what had been the many thorns that had been lodged in the side of bilateral relations between the two countries for a long time. With the Malaysian authorities continuing to operate their checkpoint at the station (claiming that it was well within their rights to do so despite the Singapore government’s insistence that it was illegal to do so on the grounds that whether or not KTM had a lease on the land, the land was still within Singapore’s sovereign territory), the checkpoint that we passed through is possibly the only one in the world that exists where the immigration clearance is carried out by the country into which entry is being made into first. What this also means is that passports are not stamped by the Malaysian side – an irregularity that is tolerated only as a consequence of train passengers leaving Tanjong Pagar station having technically not left Singapore, not having first cleared Singapore Immigration.

The booths that were once used by the Singapore Immigration prior to its shift to the CIQ complex at Woodlands on 1 Aug 1998.

A stamp on the Immigration Departure Card in lieu of one on the passport to indicate entry into Malaysia through Tanjong Pagar Station.

Passing through Malaysian Customs – I was quite relieved not to have encountered a particular Customs officer from the past, one whom most in the know would try to avoid back in the 1990s when every item of baggage would be rummaged through by the over zealous Customs officers stationed at Tanjong Pagar. The officer in question was one that stood out, being the only ethnic Chinese Customs officer amongst the mainly Malay officers, and one who seemed to think that everything that looked expensive or new had to be taxed.

The disused platform adjacent to the departure platform running parallel to Keppel Road.

An old passenger carriage at a disused platform at the station.

Finding myself on the very familiar departure platform after Customs, it somehow seemed a lot quieter than it had been on my previous journeys – perhaps with journeys by train becoming less attractive with Singaporeans heading up north, with the introduction of improved and very comfortable coach services to the major Malaysian towns and cities, which are not just much quicker, but also a cheaper alternative to the train.

The very silent departure platform.

Another view of the rather quiet departure platform.

Boarding the train brought with it familiar sights and smells ....

The train pulls out ... signalling its intent with a whistle and the blare of the horn ...

... as sways and jerks accompanied the first few metres of movement ...

The rustic charm of the train yard just after the station ...

More views around the train yard ...

There was a lot to take in along the way as well: once again, scenes that will be lost once the corridor through which the railway runs is redeveloped. Clearing the relatively built up areas as the train first passed the Bukit Merah and Delta areas, the bit of greenery around the Portsdown area before coming to Queenstown, Tanglin Halt and the Buona Vista areas, we soon found ourselves amidst the lush greenery of the Ulu Pandan area. The train pulled to a stop at Bukit Timah Station, not so much to pick passengers up but to make way for not one but two south bound trains, letting one pass before moving up the nearby railway bridge only to head back down to allow the second to pass. We were able to observe the handing over of the key token – an archaic safety practice where authority to proceed from the station would be “handed-over” by the station master to the train, before continuing on our journey north.

Pulling out through the Bukit Merah area ...

Pulling into Bukit Timah Station ...

Stopping for the first of two passing southbound trains ...

Crossing the truss bridge over Bukit Timah / Dunearn Roads ....

... probably to change tracks for the next passing train ...

Bukit Timah Station.

Signalling the second southbound train ...

Getting ready to hand over the key token ...

Getting ready to hand over the key token ...

Next, the train headed up the Bukit Timah corridor, past the first of the two distinctive truss bridges, through the notorious Rifle Range and Hillview areas before crossing the second of the bridges. Much of the area was certainly familiar from the recent trek some of us made down from the level crossing at Choa Chu Kang Road, which we in no time passed, crossing three more level crossings through some of the greener parts of the island before reaching Woodlands, where we disembarked to clear Singapore Immigration. Boarding the train, the jam on the Causeway soon greeted us, as well as a hazy and somewhat sleepy view of the Straits of Johore as we crossed the Causeway and rather uneventfully, we were soon at the spanking new Johor Baharu Sentral – just across from the old Johor Baharu Station, from where we would continue on the next part of our journey … northwards through the length State of Johore …

Through the Bukit Timah Corridor near Hillview.

Another view of the Bukit Timah Corridor near Hillview.

Enjoying the scenery of Singapore's nothern countryside near Kranji ... (don't try this at home!).

The sleepy view from the Causeway (looking at Senoko Power Station) of the Straits of Johore.

The water pipelines at the Causeway (supply of water was another thorn in the side of bilateral relations).

Arriving at spanking new JB Sentral ... the gateway to the north...

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