The Rail Corridor that will be forgotten

16 11 2015

I miss the days of the railway.

Those were days when the rail corridor, long insulated by the wave of modernisation that swept across Singapore, had a special and a somewhat magical appeal. Free from the fuss and clutter of the maddingly ordered world there is little escape from in Singapore, the corridor was where time seemed to have long stood still.

It still is a place to run off as its awaits its future. Even with the reminders of the railway dismantled, its still bears some semblance to the corridor in the days of passing trains. The  relatively undisturbed world will however, soon see a disturbance that threatens to have us forget the joy that was the corridor of old. Soon to commence work will see a large portion of the corridor dug up to allow the laying of a water pipe that will carry water from the Murnane Service Reservoir off Rifle Range Road into the city (see: Another new journey along the Rail Corridor).

Along with the digging, scheduled to be completed at the end of 2019, the corridor is also the subject of an effort to expand its use by a wider community. A concept plan, which attempts to integrate the hopes and wishes of various interest groups and stakeholders, is currently under public scrutiny. This plan is being exhibited at the URA Centre and proposes several interventions.

The former well-loved railway terminal at Tanjong Pagar will also not be spared from upheaval. The former station, part of which has been gazetted as a National Monument, will see part of its iconic platforms – dimensioned for the longest mail trains, removed to allow a Circle Line 6 MRT station to be built. Studies are being done to determine if the removed sections can be reinstated upon the MRT station’s completion. Work for will start in 2017. It will only be in 2025, when the MRT station is completed, that we can hope once again to admire the wonderful perspective that the platforms provide.

All that is intended will deprive us of access to some of the best parts of the former railway and its land. We must hope that the corridor, as well as the former station’s platforms, are returned to the state at which they were best appreciated. The fear though is that by the time we can once again enjoy the corridor and its structures in their entirety, the world that used to be will be little more than a distant memory.

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We waved goodbye to the Malayan Railway trains through Singapore close to 4 years ago on 30 June 2011.

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The approach to the end point of my morning after walk .... the truss bridge near the Rail Mall.

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0856: The very green corridor near Hindhede Quarry ...

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The Rail Corridor, what will be

10 11 2015

The header of a graphic produced by the Straits Times related to the winning concept master plan for the Rail Corridor Request for Proposal reads “On track for big changes”.  It isn’t a big change however that many who came out in support of the idea to keep the Rail Corridor, much of which had been untouched by development during the days of the railway, as a continuous and undeveloped green space, were hoping to see.

A new journey along the rail corridor.

A new journey along the rail and hopefully still green corridor.

A panel at the exhibition.

A panel at the ‘Rail Corridor – An Inspired and Extraordinary Community Space’ exhibition.

The long anticipated announcement of the winning entries for the RFP to develop a concept master plan and concept proposals for the entire 24 km stretch and two special interest areas, launched in March of this year, was made at yesterday’s opening of the ‘Rail Corridor – An Inspired and Extraordinary Community Space’ exhibition at the URA Centre, by Minister for National Development, Mr Lawrence Wong.

Minister for National Development announcing the awards for the RFP and opening the exhibition.

Minister for National Development announcing the awards for the RFP and opening the exhibition.

Among the five design teams shortlisted for Stage 2A, awards were made to two teams. One was made to the team led by Japanese architecture firm Nikken Sekkei Ltd and local landscape firm Tierra Design for the concept master plan and concept proposal for the entire stretch. Another two – for the concept designs of two special interest areas, namely the adaptive reuse of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station for 20 years and the integrated blue-green public housing development at Choa Chu Kang, was awarded to the team from MKPL Architects Pte Ltd and Turenscape International Ltd.

Faces from the winning team for the concept master plan and concept proposal.

Faces from the winning team for the concept master plan and concept proposal.

The strength of Nikken Sekkei’s concept master plan and proposals, Lines of Life, seems not so much about big changes but interventions that many will argue is necessary to enhance the user experience and allow what really should be a community space to reach out to a wider group of users, many of whom will be from the estimated one million who live, work and go to school in the immediate vicinity of the disused rail corridor.

Viewing Nikken Sekkei's proposals.

Viewing Nikken Sekkei’s proposals.

What seems to be a plus point for the winning proposal is that it is built around core values of Space, Nature, Time and People. This with the aim to enhance the value of the space, build on its natural environment, remember the journey of the space through time and connect the various communities who will potentially use the space. The team sees nature being enhanced through four landscape strategies: a Grassland, a Rainforest, a Garden / Urban Park and a Wetland. Platforms – with a variety of amenities provided based on one of the four modular platform sizes are suggested to serve as much needed rest and comfort stops along the 24 km route.

An example of one of 21 modular platforms that perhaps resemble railway platforms to serve as a reminder of the corridor’s history.

Part of Nikken Sekkei's proposal.

One of the activity nodes of Nikken Sekkei’s proposal.

The team also suggests enhancing the flavour of what it sees as eight stretches with unique characters along the 24 km corridor, something that will allow a much more varied experience of the corridor that does following the departure of the railway, have the effect of leaving one with a feeling that it is more of the same.  Along with the themes, ten activity nodes are proposed. From the graphics on display, it does seem that large scale interventions are being proposed in and around the nodes. While this doesn’t seem to be in keeping with the hope some harbour for an undisturbed, natural and easy to maintain green corridor, it does have the desired effect of enhance the value of the space to the wider community.

The eight stretches and ten activity nodes that Nikken Sekkei sees.

The eight stretches and ten activity nodes that Nikken Sekkei sees.

One of the activity nodes proposed – The Community Cave under the PIE viaduct at Mayfair Park, includes a rock climbing wall that can be repurposed in the future.

The Cultural Valley at Buona Vista with the intention to cater to the working community at One North and the residential community at Queenstown.

A look out tower over the lush landscape at Bukit Timah Fire Station – The Green Connection, seems as a hub for eco-based activities.

The Station Garden at Bukit Timah Railway Station, which leverages on its idyllic setting. Amenities such a bicycle station and a cafe are envisaged for this node.

Plus points of the winning concept also include the introduction of much needed 122 access points along the corridor. The history and heritage of the corridor, sadly already minimised by the removal of much of the railway’s paraphernalia, will not be forgotten through adaptive reuse of former railway buildings and the restoration of its existing artefacts and structures. On this note, the railway line’s two very distinctive and iconic truss bridges will be gazetted for conservation – Minister for National Development Mr Lawrence Wong also announced yesterday that the process to have the bridges conserved has commenced. The bridges, constructed for the 1932 Railway Deviation that turned the trains to the new terminal at Tanjong Pagar, elevated the railway and minimised the number of railway level crossings, have long been a feature of the Bukit Timah area and has given the area much of its character.

The truss bridge at the 9th milestone - one of two that will be gazetted for conservation.

The truss bridge at the 9th milestone – one of two that will be gazetted for conservation.

Besides the concept master plan and concept proposals for the 24 km corridor, visitors to the exhibition will also get to have a look at MKPL’s and Turenscape’s ideas for the adaptive reuse of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the Choa Chu Kang development. The proposal for Tanjong Pagar Railway Station sees it re-purposed into a multi-functional community use building for an interim 20 year period before future plans can be made in relation to the intended Greater Southern Waterfront development that will take place after the lease expires at the port in 2027.

MKPL's and Turenscape's vision for Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

MKPL’s and Turenscape’s vision for Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

Panels showing proposals for Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the Lines of Life.

Panels showing proposals for Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the Lines of Life.

What is proposed will see art clubs, a railway gallery, exhibition space, auditorium, cafés and modular pop-up community kiosks placed along the platforms with a landscaped are in front of of the former station. Also proposed is the integration of the Circle Line’s Cantonment Station, which will be built under the platforms, with the former railway station (see also: Closing the Circle). The proposals – done up when it was thought that the portion of the platforms to be removed to allow the MRT station to be constructed had to be demolished – sees a new interpretation of the removed platform constructed and also the station exits opening up to the area where the tracks were. We do know from the joint SLA/LTA 29 October announcement that ways to reinstate the removed portions of the platforms are being looked into. What would certainly be good to also see is that the perspective provided along the platforms – among the longest along the Malayan Railway’s line to accommodate the longest mail trains and a testament to the importance of the former station, is not altered by the suggested interventions.

The platforms at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station were dimensioned to accommodate the longest mail trains and are among the longest found along the Malayan Railway's lines - a testament to the station's importance.

The platforms at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station were dimensioned to accommodate the longest mail trains and are among the longest found along the Malayan Railway’s lines – a testament to the station’s importance.

Minister for National Development , Mr Lawrence Wong viewing MKPL/ Turenscape's winning proposal for Choa Chu Kang.

Minister for National Development , Mr Lawrence Wong viewing MKPL/ Turenscape’s winning proposal for Choa Chu Kang.

More information on the winning proposals can be found at the URA’s Rail Corridor RFP website. The proposals can also be viewed at the exhibition, which is being held at the URA Centre Atrium and runs from 9 to 28 November 2015. The master plan and design concepts, which have already incorporated many ideas from the consultation process, are not finalised proposals and there will be scope to have them be refined based on further feedback from stakeholders and the general public. This can be provided at the exhibition where one can provide feedback on forms in one of the four official languages, or online http://ura.sg/railrfp.

Feedback can be provided at the exhibition.

Feedback can be provided at the exhibition.

Feedback can also be made electronically.

Feedback can also be made electronically.

Forms are provided in the four official languages.

Forms are provided in the four official languages.

The exhibitions will also be brought to neighbourhoods along the corridor in the first quarter of 2016, during which time feedback may also be provided, following which Stage 2B and 2C of the RFP exercise will be held, starting in the second quarter of 2016. The awarded teams will work with URA to refine the ConceptMaster Plan and Concept Proposals, taking into account the feedback received during stage 2B. A preliminary design and feasibility study for a selected four kilometre-long signature stretch of the Rail Corridor, covering the area from Bukit Timah Railway Station to Hillview Road area, will also be carried out by Nikken Sekkei in Stage 2C. This will be followed by a public exhibition of the proposals scheduled in June 2016.


Around the exhibition

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Closing the Circle

29 10 2015

One of the things the announcement identifying the sites of the Circle Line Stage 6 stations that will not go unnoticed is that parts of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station’s platforms will have to be removed for the construction of Cantonment Station. This may come as a surprise to many as the former station, at which operations ceased on 30 June 2011, was gazetted as a National Monument in April of that same year. Currently unoccupied, it is the subject of a concept plan being developed under the Rail Corridor RFP, part of which seeks to identify a use in the interim prior to the development of the future Greater Southern Waterfront.

The final journey on the Malayan Railway on 30 June 2011.

The final journey on the Malayan Railway on 30 June 2011.

The platforms of the former railway station are historically significant. They are amongst the longest found along the Malayan Railway’s lines, having been dimensioned to accommodate the longest mail trains. The platforms however, at least for the stretch that will be affected and based on the April 2011 gazette that accords the former railway station with National Monument status, have not been protected as part of the monument.

An extract of the May 2011 gazette showing the part of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station designated as a National Monument.

An extract of the Apr 2011 gazette showing the part of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station protected as a National Monument.

The end of the former station's platforms seen after its closure.

The end of the former station’s platforms seen after its closure.

Considerations made in selecting the site of Cantonment Station (its working name) include the need to protect the National Monument from damage as well as the presence of existing structures in the vicinity such as the Keppel Viaduct to the immediate south and HDB flats to the immediate north. Construction would involve tunneling work deep under the former railway station and the excavation of part of the area where the platforms are to construct the station.

The platforms were constructed in a modular manner and LTA is looking at removing the platforms in way of the excavation site in sections and reinstating them.

The platforms were constructed in a modular manner and LTA is looking at removing the platforms in way of the excavation site in sections and reinstating them.

The excavation work in way of the future MRT station will see sections of the platforms removed. It does seem that the intention is to dismantle the parts of the affected parts of the platforms, which were built in a modular manner, and restore and reinstate them once construction is complete. Other options that are being been considered include demolishing the platforms altogether and either reconstructing them in the same style or in a style that is in keeping with the former station’s intended use.

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Work is scheduled to commence in 2017. As this will only be completed in 2025, it does mean that we will not get to see the platforms on which many memories have been made, for close to a decade.

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Thinking about it, it does perhaps make perfect sense to have the new MRT station integrated into the former railway station, whatever its intended reuse in the future. While this may deviate from what had been intended in building the grand old dame, modelled some say after Helsinki Central to serve as the gateway to the oceans, it would be in keeping with its intended use as a transportation hub and serve as a fitting reminder of what once was.

Further information on Circle Line 6 can be found in the joint LTA / SLA Press Release found here.


More of the platforms in forgotten times

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Tanjong Pagar after dark

27 08 2015

It has been a little more than four years since the lights went out on Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. Left to the ghosts that are said to haunt it, the former station sees the occasional return of the living, as it did on Tuesday evening, when I got to see it again after dark with its ghosts scared off by the lights, sounds and action of the first of a series of this year’s Singapore International Festival of Arts’ (SIFA) Dance Marathon nights being held at the station.

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The evening, which had Japanese Ambassador Haruhisa Takeuchi hosting a small reception and introduce Archivist-Choreographer Mikuni Yaniahara as a Japan Cultural Envoy, saw two dance performances, starting with Yaniahara’s Real Reality at the main hall and followed by Yukio Suzuki’s Lay/ered on the tracks. The double-bill was the first of four dance evenings that are being held at the station. The three other evenings are on 28 August31 August and on 4 September.

The Ambassador of Japan, His Excellency Haruhisa Takeuchi.

The Ambassador of Japan, His Excellency Haruhisa Takeuchi.

Mikuni Yanaihara.

Mikuni Yanaihara.

The former station, intended as a grand terminal and a gateway to oceans, was built in 1932 and is thought to have been modelled after Helsinki’s Central Station. Gazetted as a National Monument in April 2011, it has been left empty since the Malayan Railway’s moved its southern terminal to Woodlands in July of the same year. The building, once the property of the Malaysian government through the Malayan Railway or Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) in more recent times, bears many reminders of the links Singapore had to Malaya throughout much of its history.

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The future of the well-loved monument, at least for an interim twenty year period before the port nearby begins a journey to the west (port operations are being moved to Pasir Panjang and eventually to Tuas), is now on the drawing board. As one of two special interest areas, for which a concept design proposal is being sought under Stage 2A of a Request for Proposal (RFP) for the Rail Corridor, the five teams shortlisted are required to suggest an interim re-purposing of the former station. The former station is seen as a gateway to the Rail Corridor, and it is a requirement of the RFP that any proposed reuse will allow the public to have “unfettered access so that they can appreciate the heritage of this building and its surroundings”.

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Submissions for the stage should have already been made. We should have some inkling of what the teams have in mind with a public exhibition of shortlisted submissions scheduled for October this year. More information on this can be found at the Rail Corridor RFP information site.

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A journey to the west

17 07 2015

Thought of as an essential transport link in the plan to transform the wild and undeveloped west into the industrial heart of Singapore, the Jurong railway line, which was launched in 1966, was one component of the grand scheme that never quite took off. Built with the intention to carry finished goods out of the huge manufacturing hub to the then domestic market in the Peninsula and to move raw materials to the new factories, the railway’s usefulness was to be surpassed by the efficient road transport network that was also in the works.

A remnant of the western reaches of the line in an area now taken over by nature.

A remnant of the western reaches of the line in an area now taken over by nature.

An overlay of the western reaches of the industrial railway shown on a 1980 1:25,000 road map of Singapore over a Google Map by cartographer Mr Mok Ly Yng.

The first train that ran, on a 9 mile (14.5 kilometre) journey from Bukit Timah to Shipyard Road on 11 November 1965, was greeted with much anticipation. Some $5.5 million had been invested on the railway. A total of 12 miles (19 kilometres) of tracks were being laid for the project. Passing over eight bridges and through three tunnels, the railway was expected to handle up to 2 to 3 million tons of cargo a year (see Straits Times report dated 12 November 1965, Jurong Railway makes first public run). It does seem that the railway, even in its first decade, fell short in terms of the anticipated amount of cargo it handled. A Report in the New Nation’s 2 June 1975 edition mentions that only 128,000 tons of cargo had been carried by the railway in 1974. The railway’s last whistle blew unnoticed, possibly some time in the early 1990s, barely a quarter of a century after its inauguration. The land, leased from the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC), was returned and lay relatively untouched and the railway left abandoned and largely forgotten.

The first train coming to a halt at the western reach of the line next to the Mobil refinery (still under construction) at Shipyard Road (photo: National Archives online).

A scattering of broken concrete now marks the spot.

Now, some two decades after its abandonment, we are seeing what’s left of the railway fade further away. Large portions of the land on which it ran has in more recent times been turned over to more productive use. With the pace of this quickening of late, it may not be long before we see what is left of it lost to the now rapidly changing landscape of the industrial west. This was in fact very much in evidence during a recent walk I took with a few friends along the line’s western reaches. The once continuous corridor we had hope to walk along, is now interrupted by recent development activity, many of which take the shape of the multi-level ramp-up logistics facilities that increasingly seem to flavour the west.

What seems to dominate the industrial landscape of the west - the new ramp-up logistics facilities that now rise up above the zinc factory roofs.

What seems to dominate the industrial landscape of the west – the new ramp-up logistics facilities that now rise up above the zinc factory roofs.

The more visible reminders of the railway, at least in the area west of Teban Gardens, are probably found in its final kilometre close to where it came to a halt at Shipyard Road. A scattering of broken concrete, possibly the broken foundations of the railway buffers, marks what would have been the journey’s end. Following the line eastwards towards Tanjong Kling Road from that point will be rewarded with the former corridor’s western reaches’ largest sections of tracks and a concentration of railway signs. The section just east of refinery Road, would have been where several cement factories, which the railway was known to serve, were located.

Tracing the western reaches ....

Tracing the western reaches ….

Nature having its way over what's left of the tracks.

Nature having its way over what’s left of the tracks.

The western end of what is left of the tracks.

The western end of what is left of the tracks.

Nature taking over.

Nature taking over.

A section of the tracks.

A section of the tracks.

More signs of nature taking over.

More signs of nature taking over.

The now widened Tanjong Kling Road, where a level crossing was located at, marks the end of the section in which the rusting tracks can be found west of Teban, that is until Jurong Port Road. The curious sounding Tanjong Kling, a cape down the road of the same name, formerly Jalan Besi Baja, is where one finds a significant landmark in the industrialisation of Jurong, the National Iron and Steel Mills. The factory, was Jurong Industrial Estate’s first to start production on 2 August 1963. It has since been bought over by Tata Steel.

Tracks close to where the crossing at Tanjong Kling Road would have been.

Tracks close to where the crossing at Tanjong Kling Road would have been.

A level crossing sign.

A level crossing sign before Tanjong Kling Road.

There are several suggestions as to how the tanjong got its name. A rather intriguing suggestion is one that links it to one of the many fascinating tales of the Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals, the story of Badang. A 14th century champion of the king of Singapura whose strength was legendary, his reputation had reached the shores of the Kling kingdom (the term “Kling”, while regarded today as a derogatory reference to Indians, was commonly used term in the Malay language thought to have been derived from Kalinga, a southern Indian kingdom). This prompted the Rajah of Kling to send his strongman to Singapura to challenge Badang. The challenge, which some have it as having taken place at Tanjong Kling (hence its name), was won with ease by Badang. The champion of Singapura was not only able to lift a huge stone that the Kling strongman could only lift to the height of his knees, but also toss it, as the tale would have it, to the mouth of what is thought to be the Singapore River. There is a suspicion that this stone, was the same stone – the Singapore Stone, that once stood at the mouth of the Singapore River.

The first break in the continuity of the former corridor where a ramp-up logistics facility is being built just across the former crossing at Tanjong Kling Road.

A break in the continuity of the former corridor where a ramp-up logistics facility is being built just across the former crossing at Tanjong Kling Road.

Badang, if he were to take up the same challenge up today, might have required just a little more effort to send the stone in the same direction. Man-made obstacles of a different stone now surround the area around Tanjong Kling, one of which, a tall ramp-up logistics facility, now straddles the path the trains once took – just across Tanjong Kling Road. The newly built structure, cut our intended path off towards the western most of Singapore’s railway bridges.  A concrete girder bridge across Sungei Lanchar, its somewhat modern appearance tells us that it is a more recent replacement, possibly made necessary by  canal widening, for what would have been one of the line’s original bridges.

The western most railway bridge - a modern concrete bridge.

The western most railway bridge – a modern concrete bridge over Sungei Lanchar.

On the bridge over the Jurong River.

On the bridge over Sungei Lanchar.

Our attempt to follow the path of the railway was further hampered by recent extensions of factory spaces into the former corridor and a detour was required to take us to the location of the westernmost rail tunnel under Jalan Buroh. The tunnel, now a series of tunnels, lies under the huge roundabout and under the shadow of the bridge linking Jurong Pier Road to Jurong Island. This was to be the last we were to see of the former railway before we came to another former crossing that carried the trains across Jurong Port Road. We were to discover that all traces of the two southbound spur lines on either side of Jurong Port Road we had hope to walk along, still around until fairly recent times, have also all but disappeared.

In search of the tunnel under the Jurong Pier Circus.

In search of the tunnel under the Jurong Pier Circus.

A view of the tunnel, now obscured by vegetation.

A view of the tunnel, now obscured by vegetation.

The tunnel under Jalan Buroh seen in 1965 (National Archives online).

Another logistics facility standing where the line ran along Jurong Pier Road.

Another logistics facility standing where the line ran along Jurong Pier Road.

A southward view from Jalan Buroh towards what was the corridor along which the spur line west of Jurong Port Road ran.

A southward view from Jalan Buroh towards what was the corridor along which the spur line west of Jurong Port Road ran.

Where the  same spur line ran northwards.

Where the same spur line ran northwards.

The southward view to where the spur line east of Jurong Port Road ran.

The southward view to where the spur line east of Jurong Port Road ran.

A new road, evident from the plastic protection still on the road sign, running northward along what was the spur line east of Jurong Port Road.

A new road, evident from the plastic protection still on the road sign, running northward along what was the spur line east of Jurong Port Road.

Unable to follow our intended path, we settled for a walk up Jurong Port Road. This was rewarded with a rather interesting find in a factory building with its name in Chinese made using characters attributed to the hand of a renowned calligrapher, the late Pan Shou. The far end of the road from the factory, just south of what would have been Jalan Ahmad Ibrahim (now the Ayer Rajah Expressway or AYE), we find evidence of the former level crossing in a pair of metal rails embedded into the road. Close by are also several remnants of the tracks running east into what now seems to be a space for parking of heavy vehicles.

The detour we had to take along Jurong Port Road threw up an  interesting find - a factory building with its characters in Chinese made by the strokes of a renowned calligrapher Pan Shou.

The detour we had to take along Jurong Port Road threw up an interesting find – a factory building with its characters in Chinese made by the strokes of a renowned calligrapher Pan Shou.

Tracks of the former level crossing are in evidence at Jurong Port Road.

Tracks of the former level crossing are in evidence at Jurong Port Road.

Tracks seen in what seems to be used as a lorry parking space just south of the former Jurong Bus Interchange.

Tracks seen in what seems to be used as a lorry parking space just south of the former Jurong Bus Interchange.

The end of the lorry park, which lies south of the site of another one time Jurong landmark, the former Jurong Bus Interchange, is where another girder bridge, is to be found. Possibly one of the original steel bridges, the railway tracks one the bridge is still largely intact. Further east, traces of the line disappear until the area just past the pedestrian overhead bridge across the AYE from Taman Jurong. Here, some sleepers can be seen, embedded into a seemingly well trodden path.

The bridge close to the former Jurong Bus Interchange.

The steel girder bridge close to the former Jurong Bus Interchange.

A view on top of the bridge.

A view on top of the bridge.

The area once occupied by the former interchange.

The area once occupied by the former interchange.

Evidence of the tracks off the AYE.

Evidence of the tracks off the AYE across from Taman Jurong.

Further east, we come to the part of Singapore that will serve the railway of the future as its end point. The journey of the future, to the west of Singapore from Kuala Lumpur, would involve an amount of time that would probably be a little more that the time it might have taken the industrial trains of old to make the journey down from Singapore’s north – not counting the time it would take to clear border formalities. Just across the AYE from the future terminus, the industrial trains, running along the former Jalan Ahmad Ibrahim, would have passed over Sungei Jurong. A long span concrete girder bridge, another that is probably more recent, tells us of this, as does the remnants of another steel girder bridge – the last piece of the railway we were to discover before the end of what turned out to be a 10 kilometre walk.

The concrete bridge - across the Jurong River.

The concrete bridge – across the Jurong River.

On the evidence of what we saw during the long but not so winding walk was how the landscape of the industrial west is rapidly changing. Ramp-up logistics hubs are now growing out of spaces that would once have been given to low-rise production facilities and large parts of the former rail corridor. This signals a shift towards a fast-growing industrial sector that now accounts for some 9% of Singapore’s GDP.  What was also evident is that it will not be long before all traces of the railway in the industrial west is lost and with that the promise with which the first train ran in the first few months of our independence, will completely be forgotten.


See also: Photographs of the remnants of the same stretch of line taken by Mr Leong Kwok Peng of the Nature Society in 2011.





The fire station at the 8th mile

9 06 2015

One of those things almost every young boy dreams of becoming is a fireman. I had myself harboured ambitions of becoming one at different points during my childhood; the inspiration coming from picture books and what I must have caught on the television and perhaps from the constant reminder I had in the form of the rather eye-catching Alexandra Fire Station, which was close to where I lived in Queenstown.

The former Bukit Timah Fire Station, a landmark in my many road journeys.

The fire station at the 8MS, Bukit Timah Fire Station, a landmark in my many road journeys and a fire station of old marked by a distinctive hose-drying tower.

Sadly, that station is long gone. The monster of a building that replaced it, besides housing a fire station, also has a police centre operating from it. Without the distinctive hose-drying tower and red doors, the new building, unlike the stations of old, is no longer one to fuel the aspirations of childhood, and certainly not one in which I am able to reconnect with days that I often wish to return to.

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That connection to my youthful days can fortunately be found in several other fire stations of old. Of these, the pretty red and white Central Fire Station, Singapore’s oldest and now a National Monument is still in operation. That, in the days of my childhood, loomed large at the far end of a street now lost, Hock Lam Street, along which I often found comfort in a bowl of its famous beef ball soup.

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Two others that I regularly set my eyes upon, while still around, are no longer operational. One is the red brick former Serangoon or Kolam Ayer Fire Station, along Upper Serangoon Road. Now reassembled, having been moved due to the construction of a road where it had stood, the station was one that was close to my second home in Toa Payoh.

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The other was Bukit Timah Fire Station. Sited at the 8th milestone Bukit Timah, it was close to the giant Green Spot bottle that stood tall at the Amoy Canning Factory (see: a photograph of the Green Spot bottle  on James Tann’s wonderful Princess Elizabeth Estate blog) and was at the foot of Singapore’s highest hill. The station stood out as a landmark in the many road journeys of my childhood. The pair (the station and the giant replica bottle) seemed then to mark the edge of the urban world and on the long drives to the desolate north and the wild west, the sight of them would represent the start of the adventure on the outward journey, and would signal the return to civilisation on the journey home.

The former station, just after its closure (online at http://m5.i.pbase.com/u41/lhlim/upload/22296575.DSCF0029_02.jpg).

The former Bukit Timah Fire Station has a mention in the National Heritage Board’s Bukit Timah Heritage Trail booklet. This tells us that it was in 1956, the fourth fire station to be built; a fact that I assume is in relation to the stations that were built for the Singapore Fire Brigade, coming after Central Fire Station and the sub-stations at Geylang and Alexandra. Kolam Ayer (Serangoon), built for the volunteer Auxiliary Fire Service in 1954 would have already been standing at the time. That only came under the Singapore Fire Bridage in 1961, following the disbandment of the volunteer force. Another station that would have existed, was the Naval Base Fire Brigade’s Sembawang Fire Station. Built in the 1930s, the station’s building is now conserved.

Signs of very different times.

Signs of very different times.

Bukit Timah sub-station’s appearance, is perhaps one of the strongest clues to its vintage, its clean and understated elegance is typical of the 1950s Modernist style. One of the few adornments on its uncluttered façade, is a coat of arms. That of the Colony of Singapore, it is also is a telltale sign of when the station would have been commissioning – the coat of arms was in use during the days of the Crown Colony from 1948 to 1959.

The coat of arms of the Crown Colony.

The coat of arms of the Crown Colony.

The station is designed in the 1950s Modernist style.

The station is designed in the 1950s Modernist style.

The station’s grounds, also speak of the past. Besides a sign slowing us down to 20 miles per hour, there are many other signs of the times, the most noticeable of which would be the now recoloured low-rise apartment blocks. The blocks provide evidence of days when the various services provided for the accommodation needs of servicemen and their families as well as point to a period in our history when Singapore, even if administered by the colonial masters as a separate entity, was a part of the greater Malaya. It would have been common then to find men in service hailing not just from the Crown Colony but also from parts of the Federation. The seven three-storey blocks, each with six comfortably proportioned apartments, are in the company of a single storey house at the back, which would have been the residence of the station master.

The former firemen's quarters, seen in 2010.

The former firemen’s quarters, seen in 2010.

Some of the apartment blocks today.

Some of the apartment blocks today.

A view through a wall to the former station master's residence.

A view through a wall to the former station master’s residence.

Having been in operation for close to half a century, the station was to close its red doors for good in 2005 when a larger and modern replacement at Bukit Batok Road was built. Missing from the new station was the hose-drying tower that once seemed to be the defining feature of a fire station. The introduction of machines to handle tasks such as the drying of hoses meant that stations built from 1987, starting with the one in Woodlands, would take on a new appearance.

The ladder up the hose-drying tower.

The ladder up the hose-drying tower – something firemen are no longer required to climb.

The entrance to the hose-drying tower.

The entrance to the hose-drying tower.

One of several former stations still standing, only the buildings belonging to Bukit Timah have found interim uses. These were initially leased out by the State for three years in April 2008 to serve as a venue for corporate events, adventure camps, arts, education and sports.

A world recoloured.

A world recoloured.

Letter boxes where hoses were once hung.

Letter boxes where hoses were once hung.

Since then, the premises has seen a second master tenant leasing the property on a 2+2 year term, with whom it was relaunched as a lifestyle and education hub in 2012. Besides the take-up of units in the former quarters by businesses running enrichment activities aimed at the young, there is also a food and beverage outlet that now operates out of the station’s former garage.

The former station's red doors, seen in 2010.

The former station’s red doors, seen in 2010.

A F&B outlet now operates from the former garage.

A F&B outlet now operates from the former garage.

As of today, the buildings do not have conservation status. There is hope however for their future retention, even if the current edition of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Master Plan seems to suggest otherwise. A Request for Proposal (RFP) for a Concept Master Plan for the Rail Corridor initiated by the URA identifies the former station as one of four activity hubs for which shortlisted teams are required to submit a concept design in which the buildings are retained and “repurposed for uses that complement its function as a gateway into the Rail Corridor(see A new journey through Tanjong Pagar begins).

Now a enrichment hub, will it be a future gateway to the Rail Corridor?

Now a enrichment hub, will it be a future gateway to the Rail Corridor?

It would certainly be a cause for celebration should this happen. The station, as one of the last to survive from an era during which the area developed as a industrial corridor and as a prominent landmark, serves not just as a link to the area’s development and history, but also as a reminder of a Singapore we might otherwise be quick to forget.

The hose-drying tower and one of the blocks of the former quarters.

The hose-drying tower and one of the blocks of the former quarters.

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So, what’s next for the Rail Corridor?

21 05 2015

Almost four years have passed since the rumble of the last train, we hear new noises finally being made over the Rail Corridor. Also known as the Green Corridor, calls were made by nature and heritage groups and enthusiasts for its preservation in the lead up to the move of the terminal from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands. The hopes were that the space, long spared from development due to the railway, be kept untouched, uninterrupted and green; a space that will allow us in Singapore not just to remember the links we long have had with our northern neighbours, but also as a connector of green spaces down the length of the island.

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It wasn’t long after the railway’s last journey, that we in Singapore embarked on a new and uncharted journey through the 23 kilometre long corridor with the Minister for National Development, Mr Khaw Boon Wan, providing an assurance, in July 2011, that the corridor would be preserved as a green corridor. This was reinforced by the Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, in his National Day Rally speech of the same year.

There was much discussion that followed as to how this could be realised. An ideas competition held at the end of 2011 as a primer for a design competition, all with the 2013 Master Plan in mind. A dispute on development charges on the former railway land between Malaysia, which owned the land prior to the terminal’s move, and Singapore, however, meant that a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a master plan and concept proposals for the Rail Corridor could only be held this year. The pre-qualification for the RFP, which attracted a massive response with 64 teams making submissions, was recently concluded with the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) shortlisting five teams yesterday for participation in the next stage.

The five teams, who all have strong lead landscape architects – not surprising given the emphasis on the landscape element in the Rail Corridor, will be given until 21 August 2015 to make submissions for Stage 2A. This stage involves the development of an overall Concept Master Plan and Concept Proposals that will include two special interest areas: the urban-green-blue integrated concepts at Choa Chu Kang and a concept design for the adaptive reuse of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

Having had a glance at the pre-qualification submissions made of the selected teams, what does seem encouraging is that there has been a lot of thought put in not just in retaining as much of the Rail Corridor’s natural environment, but also in enhancing it. The natural environment is to me one of the features of the Rail Corridor that makes it what it is and I am all for keeping it as natural as possible, with as little intervention (I do recognise that some intervention would be necessary) as is possible. While it is important that it does become a space available to the wider community, what would be nice to see is that some of its unique spaces retained as they are and that as a whole the corridor remains a place one can always find an escape in.

After the submissions are made on Stage 2A, one team will then be selected, an announcement for which can be expected in October 2015. There will also be exhibition held from October to November 2015 that will put on display the submissions of all participating teams. During the period of the exhibition, members of the public will be provided with an opportunity to give their feedback. Along with feedback from stakeholders and the respective agencies, this will be taken into account in the next stage, 2B, which will involve a 8 week revision of concept designs (January to March 2016). The team will then move on to Stage 2C, a 12 week long preliminary design effort that will be undertaken for a 4 kilometre signature stretch of the Rail Corridor. More information on the RFP is available at the URA’s Rail Corridor RFP site.

Further information:








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