An old new world: the old train depot at Sentul

29 06 2022

I love an old space, especially one in which one finds a character that speaks very loudly of its past. It seems increasingly difficult to find one, especially as the pace seems to have quickened when it comes to repurposing old spaces to remain relevant in the present and for the future. Many, having been redeployed in a meaningful way, seem to lose the essence of what they were in the effort to keep them up to speed with the demands of modern world. It was thus quite a refreshing for me to step into three wonderful examples of repurposed spaces that remain a portal into the past in a short span of less than a fortnight — the first being Sentul Depot, which is across the causeway in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

Tiffin at the Yard at Sentul Depot, which is quite an instagrammable place to visit.

Old train maintenance yards always have a certain appeal for me and in them one finds many tales of the past and structures with much character. Stepping into the one at Sentul, which has partially been repurposed by a private developer as an arts and lifestyle destination, brought to mind the yard we once had in Singapore that had been part of the former railway complex at Tanjong Pagar. It is certainly a shame that the yard in Singapore or at least part of it, could not be retained and transformed in a similar way.


Workshops and maintenance sheds of the former railway yard at Tanjong Pagar seen in 2011
(since demolished)


The siting the depot at Sentul, originally named Central Railway Workshops, can be traced back to the formation of the Federated Malay States Railways (FMSR). The railway administration made a decision to house its huge build and maintenance complex in the area in 1902. The location, just three miles out of town along Batu Road, offered several advantages, chief among which was its position relative to both the main line running through the administrative centre of Selangor and the FMS, and to the Batu Caves. The Batu Caves were where the granite quarries that were exploited to provide railway ballast could be obtained from. A branch line was built to serve the workshop complex — described as “eclipsing anything of the sort in the East” — could also be extended to the quarries.

The entrance to Tiffin at the Yard at Sentul Depot

Construction on the Sentul complex began in 1903 and the workshops were fully operational by August 1906. The complex featured “huge blocks of buildings ” that housed stores, engine and carriage working sheds, running sheds, factories and foundries with a shed that was observed to be 38 feet (~11.6 metres) by 150 feet (~45.7 metres) wide. The complex was able to handle the working of up to 700 miles (1126.5 km) of open line. There were also quarters built for the engineers, supervisory staff, and also coolies (workmen) — quite a number of whom were members of the Tamil community.

Tiffin at the Yard at Sentul Depot
USAAF Raid on Sentul, 1945

Much of the yard and workshops would be destroyed by bombing during the latter stages of the Japanese Occupation. An obvious target for bombing raids made by the United States Army Air Force (USAAF), well over 60 per cent of the yard and workshop area, which covered an area of some 5.7 hectares, was destroyed in early 1945. This forced the Japanese to move and disperse the railway works further afield. Following the end of the war, a huge effort was undertaken to clear the wreckage left by the air raids. The major part of the rehabilitation effort was completed only at the end of 1952, some seven years after the end of the war, having been delayed by the communist insurgency. During this time, the site became known as the Sentul Works (or Workshops).

A view of one of the disused sheds.

Sentul Works, which employed a workforce of five thousand at its height, remained in use until the the early 2000s and was decommissioned in 2009 (although KTM — the successor of the FMSR and later Malayan Railway maintains an EMU Depot next to it). The complex has since been bought up a a private developer YTL, and is in the process of being redeveloped. Among the attractions housed within the Sentul Depot complex is Tiffin at the Yard, which provides an opportunity not just to visit the former railway works, but also to dine in it.

Tiffin at the Yard at Sentul Depot
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One response

29 06 2022
Constantine Ng

An insightful write up. Learnt a lot about how railways operate in the not too distant past.

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