The human train to the Sunset

24 01 2011

It was on a fine Saturday morning, that I decided to take a four and a half kilometre walk that was organised by the Nature Society of Singapore, along a part of the industrial history of a Singapore that was still finding its feet in the uncertain climate that had surrounded Singapore in the 1960s. It was at a point in time when Singapore was contemplating joining what was then referred to as the Federation, the Federation of Malayan States, better known as Malaya, that work on the Jurong Industrial Estate, a massive project that played a significant part of the island nation’s rapid industrialisation in its early years. There is no doubt that the transformation of a marshy and hilly ground which would have been unsuitable for development had the effort that flattened the hills and fill up the swamps over a 3.5 hectare area to not just build an industrial complex, but provide housing and amenities in the area to the workforce that cost hundreds of millions – the biggest single project that had been taken on by the forward looking self-government and the brainchild of the then Finance Minister, the late Dr. Goh Keng Swee, contributed much to what was later, a newly independent Singapore’s economic success. Along with the industrial complex that was to set Singapore on its feet, there was of course the big effort to provide infrastructure to support the massive project, which included a somewhat forgotten extension to the railway network on the island, the old Jurong Line.

The now abandoned old Jurong Line was built in the 1960s to serve the Jurong Industrial Estate which was being developed.

The line runs through a corridor which has been relatively untouched by the modernisation that has overtaken the island over the last four decades and forms part of a proposal by the Nature Society of Singapore to preserve the former railway corridors as Green Corridors.

Jurong was in my childhood, one of the ends of the earth, being in what I had envisaged as a forsaken part of the island, good only for the seafood at Tuas village, that meant the long ride along the long and winding old Jurong Road that took one past the creepy stretch where the old Bulim cemetery was located. It was also the object of many school excursions to the area which had in the 1970s, the Jurong Birdpark added to the list of attractions that meant the long ride on the chartered bus which would pass the wonderfully wide tree lined avenue named International Road and culminate in the smell that we would always look forward to with anticipation – that of the aroma of chocolate that would invariably waft out of the Van Houten factory that stood on Jalan Boon Lay. It was only later that I came to know Jurong much better, spending 16 years of my life working in a shipyard at the end of Benoi Road.

The human train over the old railway line ...

It was around when I had first started work there that I started to notice the old Jurong Line, only once spotting a train passing over a level crossing that might have been at Tanjong Kling Road, not significant enough to have caught a mind that was distracted by the early days of my career. I had of course known about the bridges – a truss bridge, similar in construction and appearance to the glorious truss bridges of the main Railway Line that gives the Bukit Timah area some of its distinctive character, that crossed the Sungei Ulu Pandan that was visible from Clementi Road on the double decker bus service number 74 that I occasionally caught home from Clementi during my days in Singapore Polytechnic, as well as a less distinct on that crossed the Pandan River. Beyond noticing the obvious signs of the Jurong Line, I never did find the urge to learn about it until maybe a recent bout of nostalgia for the railway in Singapore brought about by the news that we will see the last of the trains crossing the island come the first day of July this year prompted the urge in me to explore what is now a disused line, and so when I heard of the ramble organised by the Nature Society, I decided to get dirty and muddy in the effort to learn more of the line.

The truss bridge across the Sungei Ulu Pandan at Clementi is a very well recognised landmark.

The walk along the line started at Teban Gardens, which itself was a housing estate that owes its own development to Jurong Industrial Estate which it sits on the fringe of. The estate was constructed in the early 1970s to supplement low cost housing in the area which had been in high demand, as more people found jobs in the Industrial Estate. The first flats were completed in 1976 by the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) which had been the body responsible for the development of the Indistrial Estate and the flats in the area – along with other JTC developed housing estates in the west of Singapore, have a distinct character compared to the estates developed by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) during that time. The start of the walk in the setting of the fast rising sun, allowed the plots of vegetables and fruit trees to be revealed along that part of the corridor along that area on the approach to the abandoned tunnel that runs under Jurong Town Hall Road, a scene reminiscent of some of the rural scenes of Singapore that I had hitherto thought had been lost in the wave of development that has swept over Singapore. It was nice to return to the that Singapore for a while and take in the “fresh” country air that came with what appeared to be the ample use of fertilizer on the plots of vegetables.

Crossing what were the tracks at Teban Gardens.

A scene perhaps from the rural Singapore of old - small scale farming takes place along some tracts of land through which the corridor passes.

More scenes from what rural Singapore might have once looked like.

It was refreshing start to the walk which continued through one of the five tunnels that the line had featured when it was operational, along with eight steel bridges, three of which we walked across or walked by. Built at a cost of S$5.9 Million by the Malayan Railway with a loan from the Economic Development Board (EDB), construction on the line started in 1963 and was only completed in 1966 with total of 19.3 kilometres of tracks laid, although a public run was made as early as in November 1965. The first service commenced with its opening by Dato Ahmad bin Perang, the then General Manager of the Malayan Railway on 4 March 1966. The line, which branched off at Bukit Timah station and ran under a tunnel across Clementi Road towards the west, ended up at Shipyard Road behind the Mobil Refinery which was then being constructed, with a branch line running to the National Iron and Steel Mills (the estate’s first factory) and Jurong Port, and had apparently not been as well used as envisaged, and operation of the line finally ended in the mid 1990s without much fanfare, with the land being returned to the State and lies abandoned for the close to two decades that have passed.

The line featured five tunnels, including this one running under Jurong Town Hall Road.

Another view through the tunnel ...

The light at the end of the tunnel

The line also featured eight steel bridges, including this girder bridge across the Pandan River, along its 19.3 km of tracks from Bukit Timah Station to Shipyard Road and Jurong Port.

The abandonment was certainly pretty much in evidence throughout the walk, not just with “Danger” signs pretty much rendering the tunnel and the bridges along the route places we should have really avoided walking through or on. Trudging through the dark and dingy tunnel certainly wasn’t a walk in the park as the thick layer of mud that lined the ground meant a slow trudge towards the light at the end of the tunnel which was a small opening in the zinc sheet that was meant to prevent access into the tunnel at the other end. The first of the bridges we passed was the one across the Pandan River, which looked a little worse for wear and was boarded up to prevent access to it. After that, it was through the Faber Gardens corridor where besides the obvious signs of the abandoned tracks, some being overrun by the vegetation, there were also some nice bits of nature to take in, with even a creek that showed evidence of a swamp in the area with some swamp plants being very much in evidence. It was in the area where two members of the Shield Bug family said hello without giving off the almighty stink that they are known for. This certainly is reason enough to support the Nature Society’s proposal to turn the rail corridors into green corridors.

Signs of abandonment were pretty much in evidence all along the tracks ... this one at the east end of the tunnel ...

... and one at the Pandan River bridge ...

A train undercarriage's eye view of the bridge over the Pandan River.

An unspoilt part of Singapore - a creek by the old Jurong Line ... one of the compelling reasons to support the Nature Society's proposal to turn the areas around the tracks into a Green Corridor.

Shield bugs ... not uncommon, but rarely seen in urban Singapore these days.

Nature disturbed by the line but relatively unspoilt.

and in some instances, reclaiming their place on the old abandoned tracks.

More evidence of nature reclaiming the areas around the abandoned tracks.

It wasn’t long before we got to the Sunset Strip – the area behind Clementi Town along the Sungei Ulu Pandan that leads up to Sunset Way. That was where we walked into the Chinese temple and a few more reminders of a rural Singapore that is no more, including a water hyacinth pond (water hyacinth ponds were commonly seen as these were often used as fodder for pigs as well as in ponds treating pig waste in the old kampungs). From there, it was across first the rickety old truss bridge that the lack of maintenance on it very evident and looks as it it would be destined for the scrap yard unless my friends in the Nature Society have their way … that provided an excellent photo opportunity and despite the signs warning us not to cross and the clear evidence of a structure that bears the scars of being left in the hot and humid environment without any renewal made of coatings that would have kept the corrosive effects of the environment at bay, proved to be a safer bridge to walk across than the operational ones along the Bukit Timah corridor. It wasn’t far then for the human train to reach the sunset – Sunset Way – where another bridge – a grider bridge provides an overhead crossing over the road … where the short, but very interesting walk ended, leaving me with a much deeper impression of the old Jurong Line, and certainly of the proposal to turn the corridor into a green corridor, which I hope, won’t as the old Railways across Singapore, ride and fade into the sunset.

A temple by the former Railway land along the Sungei Ulu Pandan.

More scenes of what rural Singapore might have been like in the area around the temple.

Crossing the truss bridge across Sungei Ulu Pandan ...

Another view across the truss bridge.

The last leg of the walk towards Sunset Way.

The girder bridge over Sunset Way.

The view across the girder bridge at Sunset Way.

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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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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.


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