Bukit Timah Railway Station revisited

7 02 2013

It was in the final days of the Malayan Railway’s operations through Singapore just over a year and a half ago that the former Bukit Timah Railway Station drew crowds it that had not previously seen before. The station, built in 1932 as part of the Railway Deviation which took the railway towards a new terminal close to the docks at Tanjong Pagar, was one that was long forgotten. Once where prized racehorses bound for the nearby Turf Club were offloaded, the station’s role had over time diminished. Its sole purpose had in the years leading up to its final moments been reduced to that of a point at which authority for the tracks north of the station to Woodlands and south of it to Tanjong Pagar was exchanged through a key token system. The practice was an archaic signalling practice that had been made necessary by the single track system on which the outbound and inbound trains shared. It had in its final days been the last point along the Malayan Railway at which the practice was still in use and added to the impression one always had of time leaving the station and its surroundings behind. It was for that sense of the old world, a world which if not for the railway might not have existed any more,  for which it had, in its calmer days, been a place where one could find an escape from the concrete world which in recent years was never far away. It was a world in which the sanity which often eludes the citizens of the concrete world could be rediscovered. It is a world, despite the green mesh fencing now reminding us of its place in the concrete world, which still offers that escape, albeit one which will no longer come with those little reminders of a time we otherwise might have long forgotten.

Scenes from the station’s gentler days

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Fading memories

5 06 2012

A year ago, Singapore was seeing the last days of the old Malayan Railway. The railway had served Singapore over a century, cutting a path through the island first with a line partly running on what is Dunearn Road today over to Tank Road. With the deviation of 1932, the line was set on its last path, turning at Bukit Timah to the docks at Tanjong Pagar. The line fell silent on the 1st of July and with that, all that was left were the physical reminders of the old railway and the collective memories we have of it.

The silence of the morning after a little over 79 years of operations at Bukit Timah Railway Station.

One year on, many of the physical reminders are no longer with us – most of the tracks and sleepers have since been removed and returned to Malaysia. The two station buildings have received conservation status – Tanjong Pagar Railway Station has been gazetted as National Monument and Bukit Timah Railway Station a conserved building. We do know that three other recognisable structures – the two truss bridges that define the Bukit Timah area and a girder bridge that many see as a gateway to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, will remain. There are several other smaller structures that we do see including the surviving signal huts at the various level crossings (the bright yellow one at Kranji Road fell victim to urgent road widening works soon after the 1st of July). It is unfortunate that several structures that still stand, were ones that have not been very well maintained when they were in use. As a result, most of the wooden structures are termite infested and are in rather poor shape. It does look as if, based on the signs that have been placed around the structures, that they may go the way of (if they haven’t already) the other physical reminders that since been removed.

The signal hut at the former Kranji Level Crossing was one of the first to go.

One which sees a “building unsafe” sign is the former Mandai (Stagmont Ring Road) Crossing’s signal hut. This would really be a shame – the hut bears an impromptu memorial on its door neatly scribbled in permanent market pen. Written on the door are the names of the last gatemen, presumably by one of them: Mr P Mohan A/L Ponniah, Mr Hamid B. Hashim and Rodwwan B. Mohd. Salleh. Below the names is a record of the passing of the last train at 2330 hours on the 30th of June noting that the train was driven by the Sultan of Johor as well as the years of the crossing’s operation (1932 – 2011).

The former signal hut of the Mandai Gate Crossing that is structurally unsound.

The memorial to the last gatemen and the last train.

With the removal of this signal hut, little will be left to physically remind me of this level crossing – just those few photographs, and the records and the memories that I have. And of all that I will miss of the old railway, it is the sight of the level crossings that I will most miss – seeing a train cross the road does serve as the earliest memory I have of the railway. As memories fade with the passing of time, it is this memory of the railway that I hope that I will hang on the longest to.

With the tracks and sleepers now removed, there is very little physically left to remind us of the railway.

The outhouse at the Mandai Crossing will also have to go.






The long and not so winding trek down a route less travelled

11 07 2011

I was one in that crowd that had gathered in a car park of Silat Estate early on a Saturday morning for what was to be a trek that did seem along parts of the trek to a bridge that was a little too far. Despite a start at a time of day when most would be catching up on their slumber, the trek which was led by Ministor of State for National Development BG Tan Chuan-Jin had attracted a sizable group of participants that included the good folks behind the proposal to retain the former railway land as a continuous green corridor, members of the Ministry of National Development (MND) and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) teams, plus many more who came in a show of support for the green corridor proposal.

The early Saturday morning trek started at Silat Estate and for most ended 13.6 kilometres later at the truss bridge at the Rail Mall - one of the bridges that will be retained. BG Tan (in blue) continued one his trek with some members of the NSS to Kranji after a pit stop at the Rail Mall.

Silat Estate is the southernmost point at which the tracks are accessible with the stretch leading into the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the Kampong Bahru train yard beyond the Kampong Bahru flyover closed to the public, and trekking along the corridor from that point up some 23 kilometres to Kranji (which BG Tan did), gives many of us the opportunity to take a pedestrian’s glance at a part of Singapore that was left largely unseen for a better part of a century save for the view one got of it from the speeding train. It is a part of Singapore that many who have their interactions with the more accessible parts of it, hold dearly in their hearts … bringing many back to a time when Singapore had a less built-up feel to it. For many like me, the railway land will always have a place in my memories for several reasons. There are many parts of Singapore that I will always associate with the railway – one being the Bukit Timah and Bukit Panjang areas where I had my first encounters with trains through the bridges and crossings that have given the area a unique character.

Ghostly figures in the dark ... the group setting off on the trek at the set of tracks close to Silat Estate at 6.25 am.

First light under a road bridge at Henderson Road.

The trek provided me an with opportunity to have a good look at some of the less accessible parts of the railway track before that is gone forever, having seen much of the areas south of the Tanglin Halt area previously only from the window of the train. It was not just for me a final chance to do so, but also to hear first hand from BG Tan and his team on the plans the MND had for the railway land. I was pleased to find that the Minister of State was friendly and approachable and certainly very forthcoming in explaining the considerations that the MND would be taking in planning for the use of the land. Throughout the trek, despite the rapid pace at which he moved down the tracks – he stopped slowed down to talk to participants as well as passers-by and also take quite a number of photographs himself, as well as finding the time to show that he has a sense of humour – remarking that there were quite a number of “lost soles” that we encountered along the way.

The trek provided me with an opportunity to have a good look at some of the less accessible parts of the railway track before that is gone forever.

The tracks near Alexandra Road.

A particularly green stretch near the former Alexandra Halt ....

Among the things that I was able to find out from the brief encounters with BG Tan that the trek afforded, was that there were as yet no specific plans for the redevelopment of many parts of the former railway land as yet. There are some though that will soon go ahead, as was mentioned by Mr George Yeo in a speech he made in his capacity as Foreign Minister during the budget debate in March of this year in which he made mention of plans in place for the development of Silat Estate and the expansion of the One North Business Park commencing from 1st July (see Straits Times report dated 4 March 2011). Even with this, BG Tan felt that the opportunity was there to integrate the idea of the green corridor into the redevelopment of the former railway land was certainly there. There also are no specific plans as yet for Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and Bukit Timah Railway Station which many would like to see use of which would make it more accessible to members of the public than what we have seen with a few other National Monuments and Conserved Buildings. One thing that was significant that did come out was that there were indeed considerations for what is termed as a “green spine” – which was mentioned on the day of the walk by the Minister for National Development Mr Khaw Boon Wan in his blog post “A Green Opportunity“, which was consistent with what BG Tan had mentioned and he did go on to mention that the MND would certainly be consulting NGOs and other interested parties, as well as obtaining feedback from the public as it draws up its plans (which he was keen to stress may take several years) for the use of the new found space, at the same time moderating expectations by saying that in an ideal world we could preserve much of what we see as it is, but in a land scarce Singapore, some balance was needed although the green spine idea was very much in their minds.

BG Tan catching up with the head of the group after spending some time to chat with participants and taking a few photographs along the way.

A couple holding hands under the AYE slip road out to Alexandra Road ...

The area around Jalan Hang Jebat.

The same couple ... they held hands all the way ...

Scenes of old Singapore on the approach to the Queenstown area.

More scenes of old Singapore on the approach to the Queenstown area.

One of the ideas put forward by the Nature Society (Singapore) or NSS which is fronting the green corridor proposal is the retention of the tracks and sleepers – something which we will unfortunately not see. This, BG Tan stressed was something that the authorities on the Malaysian end wanted to have returned to them. And while that and a few girder bridges (the ones at Hillview Road, near Ten Mile Junction and close to Kranji Loop) along the length of the tracks will very quickly disappear – these have to be returned by by 31st December this year, we will see the two black truss bridges over the Bukit Timah area and the girder bridge at Hindhede Drive retained, along with the one over the Sungei Ulu Pandan north of Clementi estate that was part of the Jurong Line retained.

Joggers along the track near Tanglin Halt.

What used to be a popular shortcut at Commonwealth Drive which is still very much used.

Songbird cages at Commonwealth Drive.

Graffiti on the walls of an abandoned KTM building at Tanglin Halt ... another part of Singapore we don't normally see.

Under the road bridge at Commonwealth Avenue.

The group heading out towards the Ghim Moh / Mount Sinai area.

Ghim Moh area.

While the removal of the tracks is perhaps unfortunate from a heritage perspective – for one Bukit Timah Station would certainly lose its character and part of its heritage
without the tracks and in particular the loop lines (a lot has already been lost as the historical equipment and most of the signal levers have already been returned to KTM), there are encouraging signs that the bulk of the green corridor proposal is being considered along with the intention of the MND to consult NGOs and other stakeholders, as well as obtain feedback from the public. The willingness to engage is also made very obvious from Saturday’s trek which wasn’t just for the invited few but opened to one and all that for many ended at what had seemed like a bridge too far near the Rail Mall. With a few brave hearts BG Tan set off for the remaining 10 kilometres of his trek up to Kranji finishing it some 3 hours later, and what was left was hope that the the greener and softer Singapore which many seek is possibly one that will take a raod less travelled and one that perhaps would lead to a bridge that isn’t too far …

Through the first of two Holland Road road bridges.

A human train seen at the Clementi Road woodland near Holland Green.

Cyclists seen crossing an obstacle in the midst of the lush greenery at the Clementi Raod woodland.

The media interviewing BG Tan at Bukit Timah Station.

BG Tan posing with a family at Bukit Timah Station.

All that's left of the signal levers at Bukit Timah Station.

The now fenced up Bukit Timah Station - many hope that the building would remain accessible whatever the plans are for it.

Continuing on the 3 kilometre stretch that will remain open up to the 31st of July.

Towards a very green area that borders the nature reserve at Bukit Timah. One of the thoughts in th green corridor proposal is to allow an uninterrupted green corridor to allow the passage of flora and fauna from the reserve to the southern ridges.


The Green Corridor:

The Green Corridor is an idea that is mooted by the Nature Society (Singapore) (NSS) to keep the railway corridor which extends through much of Singapore as a continuous green corridor, one that the railway has allowed thrive amidst the wave of urbanisation that has swept across much of the Singapore that the railway corridor runs through. A proposal was submitted to the Government of Singapore last October in which the NSS proposes that the corridor be allowed to be retained once railway operations through Singapore stops with the shifting of the terminal station of the Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) in Singapore, to Woodlands. The idea also extends to the disused Jurong extension, part of which is currently under threat from the construction of a new road in the Faber Heights area near Clementi.

The NSS’ proposal can be found at this link. More information on the Green Corridor can also be found at The Green Corridor (website). You can also show your support for the Green Corridor by “liking” the We Support the Green Corridor Facebook Page.


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Public feedback sought:

The URA welcomes feedback and ideas from the community in shaping the future development plans for the railway lands. The members of the public are invited to visit and provide their ideas at www.ura.gov.sg/railcorridor/.






Lend your support to the Green Corridor – take a walk with the Minister of State (National Development)

8 07 2011

In a note on his Facebook Page, the Minister of State for National Development, BG Tan Chuan-Jin, revealed his plan to walk along the entire length of the former railway corridor from Tanjong Pagar Railway Station to Woodlands with “friends who feel passionately about this piece of land and the life around it” and has apparently invited members of the public to join him on his walk. He will commence his walk at 6am from the area of the tracks just by the Silat Estate area and in his note indicates some possible timings. This provides a wonderful opportunity for all who feel passionately about retaining what is now the former railway corridor as a continuous Green Corridor through Singapore that is accessible to everyone, to let yourselves be seen and have your voices heard. Do join the walk or parts of the walk with the Minister of State if you have the time. Based on information provided on the Facebook note, the schedule for the walk is as follows:

The walk is scheduled for Saturday 9 July 2011.

6.00am Silat Estate: Starts trek at Silat Estate [please click for map]
6.30am Should commence after hanging around and sorting ourselves out.
9.00am (6km from Start Pt): Reach Buona Vista MRT
10.30am (10.8km from Start Pt): Reach Bt Timah Railway Station
12.30am (13.6km from Start Pt): Reach Rail Mall
1.30pm Proceed with rest of the trek along the corridor
7.00pm End at Kranji Road (23km from start point). Easier access from here to exit.

To obtain updates directly from the BG Tan Chuan-Jin, do follow his twitter feed @chuanjin1.

I will also be tweeting as we go along, so do follow @JeromeKG on twitter to receive updates on the walk.

Join the MOS(ND) on a walk through the railway corridor to lend your support to the Green Corridor proposal this Saturday.


The Green Corridor:

The Green Corridor is an idea that is mooted by the Nature Society (Singapore) (NSS) to keep the railway corridor which extends through much of Singapore as a continuous green corridor, one that the railway has allowed thrive amidst the wave of urbanisation that has swept across much of the Singapore that the railway corridor runs through. A proposal was submitted to the Government of Singapore last October in which the NSS proposes that the corridor be allowed to be retained once railway operations through Singapore stops with the shifting of the terminal station of the Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) in Singapore, to Woodlands. The idea also extends to the disused Jurong extension, part of which is currently under threat from the construction of a new road in the Faber Heights area near Clementi.

The NSS’ proposal can be found at this link. More information on the Green Corridor can also be found at The Green Corridor (website). You can also show your support for the Green Corridor by “liking” the We Support the Green Corridor Facebook Page.






Briyani no more …

24 06 2011

The 24th of June saw the last day at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station of the ever popular Ali Nacha Briyani stall. At 11 am on the day a queue of at least 30 people could be seen snaking around the confined space of the M. Hasan Railway food Food Station by the main hall of the station. Some in the queue were seen to be ordering as much as 20 packets of briyani which resulted in the queue reaching lengths never seen before. By 12.45 pm, a green sign was put up to tell customers that the briyani was sold out, bringing an end to the chapter for the outlet at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. Fans of the railway briyani may like to know that Ali Nacha would be starting a new chapter at Block 5, Tanjong Pagar Plaza, #02-04.

The media was all over the Ali Nacha Briyani stall, as the queue snaked around to the side of the station building.

The scene at 11.45 am ...

By 12.45 pm, the Briyani had been sold out, brining to an end a chapter for Ali Nacha at the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.





A peek into the early days of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

28 05 2011

Tanjong Pagar Railway Station started its life in the fourth decade of the 20th Century as what was to have been the southern point of an ambitious vision to link the Europe’s vast rail network with a network that would span the continent of Asia, and eventually connect with the rest of the Far East by rail, with the network extending potentially to the Indian and Pacific Oceans via sea routes, with Singapore serving as the gateway. The station’s main building was mostly completed at the end of 1931, its first act seeing not a rush of passengers through its main hall, but visitors to a Manufacturers’ Exhibition which opened on 2nd January 1932 – the very first to be held in Singapore. Coming as the world was suffering from the effects of the Great Depression, the exhibition served to bring to light Singapore’s hitherto unheard of manufacturing potential, providing local manufacturers with a platform to showcase their products and capabilities and at the same time to promote Singapore’s growing importance as a economic centre in the British Far East with the newly built grand station as its centrepiece. The aim of the exhibition as stated in the official guide was “to present as many aspects as possible of actual and potential manufacture in Singapore” and included amongst the exhibitors, some companies that were to become household names in Singapore such as Robinsons, John Littles, Malaya Publishing House which was to later become known as MPH, Diethelm and the Straits Trading Company. Opened by the then Governor of Singapore, Sir Cecil Clementi, the exhibition also provided many members of the public with their first view of the internals of the main building of the brand new station.

The main building of the station was first used as a venue for the first Singapore Manufacturers' Exhibition which opened on 2nd January 1932 (image source: Willis' Singapore Guide, 1936).

The actual opening of the station wasn’t until some months later on the 2nd of May 1932. To commemorate the opening, a passenger train, the first that was to pull into Tanjong Pagar, which, as reported by the Straits Times on 3rd May 1932, “comprised of an engine and three saloons to travel over the new deviation”, left Bukit Panjang Station at 4.30 pm with a load of guest that included the Governor, the Sultan of Perak and Mr J Strachan, the General Manager of the FMSR, and arrived “punctually at 5.15″. In his speech at the opening, Sir Clementi provided an insight into the vision which provided the motivation for building of a station of the stature of Tanjong Pagar, saying: “we stand here at the southernmost tip of the continent of Asia; and, since the Johore Strait is now spanned by a causeway which was opened for traffic on June 28, 1924, we may even say that we stand at the southernmost top of the mainland of Asia. This point is, therefore, a real terminus as well as a natural junction between land-borne and sea-borne traffic; and it is very right that the terminal station of the Malayan railway system should be built at Singapore, the gateway between the Pacific and Indian Oceans and immediately opposite the Tanjong Pagar docks, where every facility will be afforded for interchange between railway and ocean shipping”. The Governor also added that he had “not the slightest doubt that, for centuries, this Singapore terminal station will stand here as one of the most nodal points in the whole world’s scheme of communications.” While this, eight decades later has not quite come true for the station (we are also still talking about a Trans-Asian rail network, it probably has come true of Singapore as a wider communications node – the Governor could not have envisaged the phenomenal growth of air transportation at that time.

The location of the station, across from the docks at Tanjong Pagar, was deliberately selected so that the southern terminal of the what would have been an intercontinental overland railway network could be integrated with ocean shipping and extend the reach over the Pacific and Indian Oceans (image source: Willis' Singapore Guide, 1936).

The station, the work of Swan and McLaren, even in its current state having had much better days, is a wonderful work of architecture to marvel at. Described by an article in the 7th May 1932 edition of the Malayan Saturday Post on the occasion of the opening of the station as having a “palatial appearance”, the station is now overshadowed by the towering blocks that have come up at its vicinity, as well as by the elevated road, buildings and containers stacked high that obscures most of it from the the docks it was meant to feed. What must be the features of the grand building that stand out most are the entrance arches flanked by the triumphal figures, the work of sculptor Angelo Vannetti from the Raoul Bigazzi Studios Florence, that seem to stand guard over all that passes under the arches into the grand vaulted hallway described as “lofty and cool” in the same article. The main hall of the station extends three storeys (some 21.6 metres) above the visitor to provide for a sufficient pocket of air to allow the hall to be kept cool in the oppressive tropical heat. It is this lobby that impresses the most, with not just the vaulted ceiling, but also the six sets of mosaic panels that resemble batik paintings that immediately catch the attention of the visitor. It is the timeless beauty of the main hall, that, in any future developments being planned for what is Singapore’s newest National monument, should be made accessible to the public as it is today, and not as many other public buildings that have been conserved over the years, accessible to an exclusive few.

The main vaulted hall of the station in its early days. An impressive integration of architecture and public art. The lamps and the clock seen in this picture - has long since disappeared, but the hall remains, even in the state the station building is in today, a particularly impressive piece of architectural work. Caption reads 'Booking Hall, Singapore Station' (image source: Willis' Singapore Guide, 1936).

There is a lot more clutter in the hall today ... the lamps and the clock we see in the hall in the station's early days are also missing.

The Willis’ Singapore Guide (1936), provides an insight into Tanjong Pagar and the operation of the FMS Railway around the time of the station’s opening. It describes the FMSR as running from Singapore for 580 miles to Padang Besar where it meets the Royal State Railways of Siam and incorporates 121¼ miles of the Johore State Railway which was leased by the FMSR. As is the case today, the East Coast Line branched off at Gemas to the port of Tumpat some 465 miles from Singapore, where a short branch line connects with the Siamese Railways at Sungei Golok. We are also told that a branch line connects with what was then Port Swettenham (now Port Klang), with branches also serving other ports at Malacca, Port Dickson, Teluk Anson and Port Weld. A total of 1321 miles of metre gauge tracks were laid providing some 1067 miles of track mileage. A daily service of trains from Singapore to Penang was maintained with a day and night express service daily which took some 22 hours to reach Penang and some 9 hours (doesn’t seem much different from the journey these days) to reach Kuala Lumpur from Singapore.

The journey in the 1930s to Kuala Lumpur took some 9 hours.

The express train services in 1936 (source: Willis' Singapore Guide, 1936)

On the evidence of the guide, which I suppose would be referring to service in first class, the service provided does seem a lot more comfortable than what we’ve become accustomed to these days, as described by the guide, with Restaurant Cars which served “an excellent breakfast, luncheon or dinner”, “at a reasonable price”. Sleeping Saloons with two berth cabins were provided on the night trains (as they are now) and a “commodious Buffet Parlour Car is attached to the night express trains between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur”. Breakfast, tiffin and tea baskets were also available at the principal stations which could be ordered en route with the “Guard of the trains or any Station Master” able to “telegraph free of charge”.

Once the last train pulls out of Tanjong Pagar Station, it would bring to an end a little over 79 years of operation of a station that was to see centuries as one of the 'most nodal points in the whole world's scheme of communications'.


The information above has been put together from various newspaper articles and as well as the Willis’ Singapore Guide 1936, to provide a glimpse into the early days of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. More information on the station and its architecture can be found on a previous post: “A final look at Tanjong Pagar Station“. I also have a collection of experiences and memories of the railway in Singapore and of my journeys through the grand old station and if you care to read about them, do drop by my page “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“. Also, if you are keen to find out and support the Nature Society’s (Singapore) proposal to retain the green areas that have been preserved by the existence of the railway through Singapore and maintain it as a Green Corridor, do drop by the Green Corridor’s website and show your support by liking the Green Corridor’s Facebook page … I do also have a series of posts on the Green Corridor if that is of interest – please visit them at “Support the Green Corridor“.









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