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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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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The second part of the walk down the Bukit Timah corridor: The mysteries around Hillview

24 10 2010

Leaving the compound of St. Joseph’s Church (Bukit Timah) with the sun peeking through the clouds, after a pause in our trek down Upper Bukit Timah Road, it was a good time to get reacquainted with the railway track side of the road. We crossed the overhead bridge which provided a wonderful vantage point from which I was able to take in the tremendous changes that the area, which lies in the shadow of Singapore’s tallest hill, Bukit Timah Hill, has seen over the three to four decades since I had first become acquainted with it. Somehow, it didn’t seem that long ago when I would view the area from the backseat of my father’s car en route to an adventure across the causeway or on a visit to the orchid nursery in the Teck Whye area which was run by a friend of my mother. There was a time as well – that would have been in the 1980s, when I did pass through the area on my own – on my way to a friend’s place up on Chestnut Drive, when the road was a lot narrower and the area around seemed a lot less built up.

The area where the tracks run opposite St. Joseph's Church.

After another pause at an area by the train tracks, accessible from the main road as what has become a popular short-cut had been trampled through the vegetation from Hillview Avenue, where we were able to have a wonderful view of what we could imagine of as a pass that was carved through a hill and where we were treated to a dash of bright blue in the form of a White-Throated Kingfisher perched on a branch of a tree by the tracks , we made our way south towards a building that had served for many years as a landmark in the area. The building is the Standard Chartered Bank branch building at the entrance to Hillview Road – a building from which I could count the number of bus stops to ensure I stopped at the correct one, on a side of the road that had once been devoid of any form of landmarks to identify where one was – especially in the dark of night. I would be always be reminded by my friend to stop at the second bus stop after seeing “Chartered Bank” – which had stood at the same spot – almost unchanged since it was first opened in April 1957.

A view of the "pass" near Hillview Avenue.

The tracks, looking north, near the shortcut to Hillview Avenue.

The Chartered Bank, a popularly referred to landmark in the area, as it looks today.

The Chartered Bank branch building at Bukit Timah seen at its opening on 6 April 1957 (source: The Free Press, 16 April 1957).

The view from Upper Bukit Timah Road of the entrance to Hillview Road had in itself, always interested me since the days of my backseat adventures. Hillview Road, and Hillview Avenue beyond it was one area that my father never seemed to go through. Looking through the narrow passage under the concrete supports of the railway girder bridge that runs across Hillview Road – always seemed to somehow suggest a sense of mystery of what lay beyond – the rise of the road beyond the bridge obscuring what lay beyond the little that was visible through the passage under the bridge. It was only much later in life that I actually discovered, to a sense of disappointment, what had lay beyond the bridge, on a visit to the Lam Soon Building during the early days of my working life. Later – the road would be one that I would become familiar with, on the many visits made during the course of my work to the installation that stands at the top of Bukit Gombak. By that time of course, much of the area that had in fact been one that was home to many factories in my days of adventure, being where the likes of the Union Carbide and Castrol factories had been located – had been turned into an area where many new sought after private condominiums had sprung up.

The narrow passage under the girder bridge at Hillview Road always seemed to suggest what lay beyond it was a mystery.

On top of the girder bridge at Hillview Road.

The other side of the "pass" near Hillview Avenue.

A scene of what's left of rural Singapore ... found along the railway tracks in the Bukit Timah Corridor - just next to the girder bridge at Hillview Road.

Across the road from the Standard Chartered Bank, I was pleasantly surprised to see a very recognisable distinctive roof structure proudly stood atop a hill – one that I had been familiar with in my days wandering around the area close to St. Joseph’s Institution in Bras Basah Road as a schoolboy there at the end of the 1970s, and one that had hitherto remained unnoticed by me. It is of course the roof of the church that is part of the Trinity Theological College, and is identical to the one on top of the building that was church of the same college, that still stands today – at the original location of the college atop Mount Sophia, next to what had been the Methodist Girls’ School – close by the shortcut I had used to get over to Plaza Singapura as a schoolboy.

The roof of the Trinity Theological College church - identical to its predecessor on the top of Mount Sophia.

The buildings that used to be part of the Trinity Theological College on top of Mount Sophia.

Crossing back to the other side of the road to the Fuyong Estate area where Rail Mall is, we were able to get on the side where the tracks crosses Upper Bukit Timah Road over the first of the two black truss bridges that I have somehow always identified the area with, pausing again for some photographs of the bridge. What is nice about the bridge is the arched pedestrian passageway through the concrete supports of the bridge on the footpath below. Getting a first glimpse of the bridge – I was able to appreciate the beauty of the riveted steel structure that has given the area its distinct flavour for close to eight decades. What I was also able to appreciate was the amount of effort that it would take to maintain the bridge if it was to be conserved once the railway has no use for it when the terminal station is moved from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands – something that perhaps might prove prohibitive in any considerations taken be the authorities for their preservation – something that many of us would like to see.

The Rail Mall is close to the first of the black truss bridges on the southward journey down the Bukit Timah Corridor.

The view of the black truss bridge from the Rail Mall area.

The northbound view of the black truss bridge from the tracks.

The southbound view along the tracks from the black truss bridge.

Another view of the tracks up the black truss bridge.

The arched pedestrian passageway under the bridge.

Further along Upper Bukit Timah Road – we came to the area opposite the Old Ford Factory – I guess we would all be familiar with the factory and its significance in Singapore’s history as this is already very well documented. A lesser known fact about the area is perhaps the existence of a keramat – one that as some believers would have it, had a part to play in the cessation of fighting (prior to the surrender of the British to the Japanese at the Old Ford Factory) during the Second World War. That keramat, the Keramat Habib Syed Ismail, also popularly referred as the Keramat Batu Lapan – a reference to its location at the eight milestone of Bukit Timah Road, had laid in a clearing across the railway tracks, through a path into the seemingly thick vegetation that had existed in the area. The keramat was excavated several years ago and doesn’t exist today. The keramat, one that is of an Indian Muslim saint, was said to have been where Muslims had prayed for an end to hostilities during the Japanese invasion in early 1942 and fighting had as some would have it, stopped miraculously just across the road – making the keramat a highly venerated shrine for many years that followed.

Another view of the black truss bridge ... the bus is heading south towards the area where the old Ford Factory and the site of the former Keramat Batu Lapan is.

The ridge of the hill where the former Ford Factory, which was once an busy assembly plant for Ford Cars, also featured Hume Industries – a steel maker to the north – and it was these greyish structures that would come into sight on the southbound journeys in the backseat before one of my favourite sights along the way would come into view – the huge Green Spot bottle that stood at the entrance to the Amoy Canning Factory which stood next to the Bukit Timah Fire Station, close to what had been a traffic circus. The station was one that was in fact typical of the Fire Stations found in rural Singapore and much of Malaysia in the1960s and 1970s – one that had with it flatted quarters for the firemen and their families. Interestingly – there is also a crest on the station that I noticed passing by – one of the old Coat of Arms of Singapore – similar to the one that can be found atop Mount Emily at the entrance to Mount Emily Park – just next to Mount Sophia. Further along the way – where again private housing now stands across the road opposite the area close to where the entrance to Hindhede Road is – there was another factory on the ridge – one with a logo painted on the wall that was well known to me – from the many ice lollies that I had feasted on as a child, the Magnolia Factory.

The old Singapore Coat of Arms on the former Bukit Timah Fire Station.

Similar to the one that appears at the entrance to Mount Emily Park.

The former firemen's quarters next to the former fire station.

The rest of the trek took us to another another girder bridge, past Jalan Anak Bukit across a notorious 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 on.





A walk down the Bukit Timah corridor: Wandering along the new railway and rediscovering the old

20 10 2010

During much of a rain and lightning interrupted eight kilometre walk with friends from the level crossing at Choa Chu Kang Road, I was surprised to discover that, despite the high-rises on the horizon and the other signs of modernity that have replaced what was a rural feel of much of Singapore beyond the city limits, I was able to immerse myself in a countryside where time seems to have forgotten. The walk, motivated by the sense of nostalgia for the old railway line which was prompted by the impending shift of the KTM station to Woodlands, allowed us to have a glimpse perhaps of a slice of Singapore that would be forgotten very soon after the last of the trains of the old railway which has been with us since 1903, makes a final stop at Tanjong Pagar sometime before the first of July next year.

Starting point of the walk - the Phoenix LRT Station in the new Singapore that has replaced the countryside of the old.

The walk took us through many of the areas that I have mentioned in another nostalgia related post on the railway, “Journeys Through Tanjong Pagar: The Station at Bukit Timah” (also on asia! as “Keeping Track of Time”), allowing me and several others a last look at the stretch of line that is characterised by the two black steel truss bridges that crosses Bukit Timah Road. For me, it was also a chance to revisit the area which I had become familiar with as a young child, and as a consequence, my childhood, having first been acquainted with it staring out of the opened window of my father’s Austin 1100 on the many road trips made through the area.

How the area might have once appeared to me ... a scene from the backseat of a car further south along Upper Bukit Timah Road (source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

The same general area as it looks today.

The first stop we made, having met at Phoenix LRT station, was the level crossing at Choa Chu Kang Road. This provided a wonderful opportunity for me to do what as a child I always enjoyed – that is catching the train traversing what must certainly be the last major level crossing in Singapore, a crossing that is today, made across the six lanes of Choa Chu Kang Road. Somehow, watching the trains running across at road level, just in the shadow of a modern elevated urban railway line, the Bukit Panjang Light Rail Transit (LRT) system, seemed surreal … as was the scene around the level crossing. Looking up the tracks on the north bound side of the crossing, it looked as if the tracks were taking a path to an abyss – the abyss being a plot of land that I had once been familiar with from the many occasions that I had walked through it as a shortcut to Woodlands Road from one of the camps I had been at during my National Service – Stagmont Camp. I had on many occasions as well been on training exercises during my stint at the camp which involved walking up and down the areas around the tracks – once leaving a rifle behind in the dark, which I was fortunate enough to find with the help of my army mates, only having discovered my carelessness a few kilometres up the tracks.

The northbound track into the "abyss" that I once was familiar with from my days in National Service.

On the other side of the crossing, a little hut that serves as the control station for the crossing stands – with a little yellow outhouse behind it, as well as a village like house that was perhaps a common sight in the area once, that served as the quarters of the railway staff manning the crossing. The area of the control hut is probably close to the site of Bukit Panjang Station, one of the stations on the original Singapore to Kranji Railway line. Bukit Panjang Station was also one of the main stops along the line after the 1932 Railway Deviation which gave us the grand station at Tanjong Pagar and the two black truss bridges we see in the area. I am not sure when the station stopped functioning or was demolished – but perhaps like the Phoenix that the nearby Phoenix Estate and LRT station is named after, a new Bukit Panjang Station is slowly – but surely, rising out of its ashes nearby – part of the new railway line – the Downtown MRT line, which for a large part, will run parallel to the original railway line which ran from Kranji down via Newton to the original terminal at Tank Road.

The KTM control hut at on the other side of the level crossing.

A scene reminiscent perhaps of the countryside of old.

The KTM staff was kind enough to allow the use of the outhouse ....

The new railway is being built to replace the old ... the Downtown Line is being constructed parallel to the old railway line.

Deciding that it was too dangerous to walk physically along the tracks, not just because of the dangers of walking along or close to the railway track, but also in anticipation of the fury that, the god of thunder, Thor, seemed to want to unleash, we made our southward trek first along Upper Bukit Timah Road. This took us past the Murugan Hill Temple, a relatively recent addition to the area, having moved to its current location in 1992 from its original home in Sungei Tengah where it could trace its history back to a shrine that was put up in 1962. In getting there, we had also walked past a structure that is reminiscent of the very first overhead bridges in Singapore – constructed of steel with open sides – a temporary overhead bridge erected across Upper Bukit Timah Road that has perhaps been recycled from a decommissioned first or second generation overhead bridge.

An overhead bridge reminiscent of the first overhead bridges in Singapore.

The new Murugan Hill Temple which shifted to the Bukit Panjang area from its original home in Sungei Tengah in 1992.

Continuing further south, we had a quick look at the second level crossing in the area – a smaller one with a delightful old wooden gate, and some of the abandoned buildings around before the sheets of rain that accompanied Thor’s fury came down forcing us to take what little shelter the KTM buildings in the area had offered. After a while, with the rain not showing any signs of abating, we decided to cross the road to wait the rain out at a coffee shop and it was probably an hour before we were able to continue with our walk.

A scene from the "countryside" enroute to the level crossing at Gombak Drive.

Parts of Upper Bukit Timah Road still have that old world feel.

More of the old world feel ...

 


The railway building near the level crossing at Gombak Drive where we took shelter from the storm.

Looking north from the level crossing at Gombak Drive.

Further along the route, we walked past the Boys Town complex … this was the destination that, as boys growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, many feared they would end up in for misbehaving – or so many of our parents then had us believe. It was probably a huge misconception that existed then that Boys Town was a correctional facility and a home for delinquent boys – although it did actually house a boys home, as well as a vocational school which did also take in troubled boys as well as orphans, with a view to providing a home as well as an education. The home and vocational school was started in 1948 by the Gabrielite Brothers, a Catholic Missionary group, as the St. Joseph’s Trade School before being renamed as “Boys Town”.

The once feared Boys Town complex ...

Further along the way, we decided to explore the Stations of the Cross at St. Joseph’s Church – probably one of the last remaining village Catholic churches in Singapore – with a cemetery in its yard. The cemetery had once been a shortcut for me – getting from the church to a friend’s house up Chestnut Drive. Back then, the church side of Chestnut Drive had been lined with single storey wooden houses that were rented from the church who owned much of the land around Chestnut Drive. What is unique about the Stations of the Cross is that this is the only Catholic church in Singapore where the stations are located outside the church. The church building in itself is also rather unique – featuring a 33 metre tall pagoda like roof structure that rises above the area rather prominently. The building was completed in 1964 and consecrated by the then Archibishop of Malacca-Singapore, Michael Olcomendy on August 30, 1964, and built to cater for the growing congregation on the site of a previous building that had been built some 110 years prior to that.

The St. Joseph's Church building built in 1964 on Upper Bukit Timah Road features a pagoda style roof that rises some 33 metres.

The original St. Joseph's Church, built 110 years before the structure we see today (source: St. Joseph's Church website http://www.stjoseph-bt.org.sg/St_Joseph_Website/About_Us.html).

The outdoor Stations of the Cross - unique to St. Joseph's Church in Singapore.

Chestnut Drive as it appears today. It used to be lined with houses that were rented from the church.

There are probably not many who know this, but Chestnut Drive was where a temporary Magistrate’s Court was set up in 1967 in the newly built school building that became the Chestnut Drive School. The next part of the walk continued southwards towards the area where the first of the two black truss bridges in the area, as well as the girder bridge that straddles Hillview Road are … which I will continue with in another post.





Crossroads in my journey

18 10 2010

Wandering around the Bukit Panjang area with a group of old friends and some new found ones … I was transported back to a time when I had somehow seen the Bukit Panjang area as a crossroads of sorts. It had in fact, always been one in the physical sense – the former Bukit Panjang roundabout – what is now the junction of Woodlands Road, Upper Bukit Timah Road, Choa Chu Kang Road and Bukit Panjang Road, serving as a major intersection where north or south bound traffic could make a turn towards the rural and industrial areas that lay to the west via the then long and narrow Choa Chu Kang Road. The area was I guess where I had once come to another crossroad in life – one in which seated at the back of a 3-ton truck, I was transported into a journey into the abyss that was Pulau Tekong, first stopping off at Keat Hong Camp off Choa Chu Kang Road to pick up the kit bag that was to accompany me for the next two years of my life.

The intersection of Choa Chu Kang, Woodlands and Upper Bukit Timah Roads had always been a major crosss road ... back when Bukit Panjang Roundabout served the junction. The area which one boasted of a Railway Station has seen a huge transformation and now sees a Light Rail Line running across the old railway.

I had first come to know the area in my childhood on the many journeys through the area on the way to the Causeway when life in the back seat of the car involved taking the scenes that flashed by the opened windows rather than that on the 3 inch screen of a hand held game console. There were also several journeys especially those taken during the lunar New Year holidays on which we would turn off to the west – towards the Teck Whye area where a friend of my mothers ran an orchid nursery on a little road that turned upwards from Choa Chu Kang Road – and it was on those journeys that I first became acquainted with the level crossing just a short distance up the road.

The level crossing at Choa Chu Kang Road ... the last major rail level crossing in Singapore.

I am not quite sure how I had developed a fascination for trains –something that might have been fed through the many visits to the Robinson’s toy department which had a wonderful collection of model train sets that I often had my sights on and perhaps having had many encounters with the Hooterville Cannonball on black and white television, while being entertained by the then popular comedy, Petticoat Junction, but having had a fascination for trains – I also found anything else that had to do with trains fascinating – including many of the features seen along the tracks, particularly the few level crossings that I had come across, of which the first was the one on Choa Chu Kang Road.

Could my fascination with trains have been from the diet I had of black and white television in which I had become acquainted with the Hooterville Cannonball in Petticoat Junction? (Source: http://petticoat.topcities.com/hooterville_cannonball.htm)

I am not sure when I had first seen that particular crossing in operation, but it was something that I would look forward to seeing each time we were in the area. It always seemed surreal somehow how traffic would grind to a halt, as the man who manned the crossing, flag in hand, hurried about closing the wooden gates of the crossing, followed by the sight beyond the gate of a train zooming its way across the road …

I had always looked forward to seeing a train zooming past the level crossing at Choa Chu Kang Road whenever I was in the area ...

The wonderful sight of a train crossing the road ...

Signal flag used at the level crossing.

The crossing had been one that in the later part of my youth, I had left behind me, as school going years intervened and visits to the orchid nursery became less frequent. It was only many years later when I was doing my National Service that I had become reacquainted with the crossing during the four months that I had spent at nearby Stagmont Camp. By that time, much of the area had become unrecognisable and the roundabout had taken a bow. Somehow it did not seem the same – with most of what was around had disappeared, only a few rows of old shop houses along Upper Bukit Timah Road and Woodlands Road had been left behind … one for some reason that I had remembered for a fruit shop that seem to have the juiciest lychees that I had ever seen. I guess with that and perhaps not having had to time to explore much of the area which I had previously been familiar with, I took less of an interest in what was arond – passing at most a cursory glance at the crossing that I once held a fascination for.

The area which I would have used as a shortcut coming down from Stagmont Camp to Woodlands Road ... I crossed the tracks here on many occasions, as well as having been involved in many exercises along this same set of tracks.

The area where Ten Mile Junction is today used to have a row of shop houses as well as the huts of villages behind them and Stagmont Camp.

The new railway is being built to replace the old ... the Downtown Line is being constructed parallel to the old railway line which will be disused after the shift of the KTM station to Woodlands. Bukit Panjang used to also be where a main Railway Station had once been located - now a new Bukit Panjang station for the DOwntown Line will erase any memories we may have of the old Bukit Panjang Station.

With the impending shift of the KTM station in Singapore to Woodlands – we would soon see the last of level crossings such as the one at Choa Chu Kang Road, the last major level crossing that remains in Singapore – there are two other smaller ones that are along the same stretch of the railway line, one at Kranji Road and another at Gombak Drive. There isn’t much time left for me I guess … to relive that childhood fascination I had for them …

Besides the crossing at Choa Chu Kang Road, there are also smaller level crossings at Gombak Drive and Kranji Road.


We will soon see the last of the railway level crossings that had once been a feature of the railway in Singapore.





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.





Crossing the river in the days of old

1 06 2010

It was at the start of the 1970s that my parents first took us on a holiday to the East Coast of Peninsula Malaysia. They decided to do it more out of curiosity for what the East Coast had to offer, having already made frequent journeys to the likes of Malacca, Port Dickson, Kuala Lumpur, and the mountain resorts to the north of Kuala Lumpur, on the West Coast. It was on this maiden trip that, deciding to venture a little further than Kuantan, we discovered the peace and tranquility that the East Coast offered in a little place just north of the Pahang-Terengganu border, Kemaman, to which we would subsequently visit annually. We would stay in a quiet motel, set in a coconut grove, with a magnificent bay with a expansive sandy white beach, 5 miles north of Kemaman. This provided us with access to coconuts which we could pluck right off the tree, the wonderful beach that was washed by the surf of the South China Sea, fresh oysters which we could pry off the rocks that stood at the corner of the bay with a screwdriver, deliciously fresh seafood that the wooden shacks that were restaurants in the nearby town served up, and my favourite keropok ikan (fish crackers) that was made in the villages nearby and sold at the market in town. All this made that long and perhaps arduous road journey that we have to take to get there, well worth it.

Wiseman's Ferry across the Hawkesbury River, at the town named after the ferry, north of Sydney, is the oldest ferry crossing being operated in Australia, is a cable operated barge similar to the crossing that was at Rompin (source: Wikipedia).

The journey by road via Kuantan was often an unpredictable one, not so much for the North-East monsoons which bring the eastern states of the Peninsula torrents of rain in November and December making stretches of road impassable due to flooding (months which we avoided making the trip), but due to the fact that crossing some of the rivers was done in the good old way. That was a time when the infrastructure that now makes it a joy to drive to many parts of the Peninsula, hadn’t quite been established yet. Attempts to build the much needed bridges often stalled due to the lack of funds and it was common to see little or no progress in some of the road construction activity that we passed year after year. By the time we made our journey, two of the rivers along the route did not have bridges constructed over them yet, despite plans for many years to do so. The first, at Endau, was across quite a wide river, Sungei Endau, and the second, a narrower crossing at Rompin, across Sungei Rompin.

Wiseman's Ferry across the Hawkesbury River. Built as a link to the Hunter Valley from Sydney, it commenced operations in 1829 (still capture off a video taken in 2002).

The crossings had to be made then by a vehicle ferry, which was a rectangular steel barge on which vehicles could be driven on to via a ramp. Cars and smaller vehicles often shared the deck with the timber laden lorries that were a common sight on the East Coast roads. What it meant was, at the crossings, we had to wait in a queue of vehicles for the next available ferry. On a good day, the wait would usually be not longer than half an hour, and on a day when traffic was particularly heavy, or when the ferry broke down, the wait could stretch into hours, with a five or six hour wait not uncommon in the case of the latter. When this did happen, the wooden shacks that lined the road leading up to the ferry ramp, which served as makeshift refreshment outlets, would do a roaring trade, with the occupants of the vehicles filling the tables and chairs that would have normally been occupied mostly by houseflies.

The river vehicle ferries across the Endau and Rompin Rivers, as with Wiseman's Ferry shown here, always involved a wait, which could sometimes add a few hours to the drive up to Kuantan (still capture off a video taken in 2002).

The crossings which always seemed like an adventure to us, were not without danger, and it was common to see a barge listing dangerously from the weight of an incorrectly placed timber lorry. This brings to mind an incident which happened on Sungei Kerian in northern Malaysia sometime around the time we started making the annual trip, in which a similar ferry capsized, taking a schoolbus and several vehicles that it was carrying with it into the river, killing 33 people. The Endau crossing seemed particularly dangerous, not so much for the distance across the choppy waters, but for the very strong currents. The currents also meant that the tug-boat which towed the barge from the side had often to move on a heading upstream at an angle to the ramp on the other side of the river, to avoid us being carried downstream. The other crossing at Rompin, somehow seemed to provide less excitement. There, the crossing was much narrower and the river more passive, allowing a cable system to be used to pull the ferry across the river. What this meant was the wait would usually be longer, as only one barge could be used to ferry vehicles to and fro, even with the lower volume of traffic that used that crossing.

It wasn’t too long ago, sometime in 2002, on a drive around the Hawkesbury Region, north of Sydney, when I chanced upon a similar crossing to the one at Rompin, which brought memories of the ones we made on the East Coast of Malaysia, at Wiseman’s Ferry. The crossing which was built by a former convict Solomon Wiseman in 1829 to provide a link to Sydney from the fertile Hunter Valley, is the oldest ferry crossing still in operation in Australia, and provides a link across the picturesque Hawkesbury River. The charming old cable operated ferry is now operated by the state government and was certainly well worth the detour off the highway to get on to it. For me, it served to remind me of my own adventures on the ferry crossings on the East Coast, which said goodbye to us sometime around 1975/1976, when the bridges that had long threatened to render them obsolete, were finally built.








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