A final journey from Tanjong Pagar: destination Gemas

8 12 2010

On what could be a final train journey out of Tanjong Pagar before the big move of the terminal station to Woodlands by 1 July 2011 for my friends and me, we decided on the sleepy town of Gemas as a destination possibly for two reasons. The first was that it was probably apt that feeling nostalgic for the railway line which has run through Singapore for more than a century, the bulk of what we see today being a result of a Railway Deviation that gave us that quaint old station at Bukit Timah and the grand old station at Tanjong Pagar, we explore what is the main railway junction on the Malayan Peninsula at Gemas from where the northbound lines branch off to the east and west. Gemas has in fact always been a town that has long been associated with the railway, with its station for a long time boasting an old steam locomotive, the 56 class MR No. 564.36 “Temerloh” which we had thought was still there. The second was of course that it was probably the furthest point on the railway that a day trip afforded, being approximately four hours from Singapore, allowing us to catch the 0800 Ekspress Rakyat out, arriving around noon, and the evening 1705 Ekspress Rakyat back into Singapore, leaving us with five hours or so to explore the sleepy town and maybe visit the World War II heritage site where Australian Forces had ambushed invading Japanese forces at a bridge over the Gemencheh River.

Gemas is the main railway junction in the Malayan Peninsula where the north bound lines split into an eastern line and a western line and probably the furthest point which could fit into a daytrip.

Gemas is a sleepy town built around the Railway Junction which is made up mainly of pre-war shophouses.

Arriving at the station, a little worn and a lot hungry from the journey which took one and a half hours longer than what was scheduled I guess the first thing was to head for a bite. We did just that, stopping at a coffee shop where we had not so quick and not so tasty a bite. From that it was on to the site of the Gemencheh Bridge – what is known as the Sungai Kelamah Memorial some 11 kilometres fron the station before heading back into town where we had a little over and hour to walk around.

Arriving at Gemas Station ...

A kilometre marker (what we might once have called a milestone), indicating the centre of Gemas town close to the Railway Station.

Where we had lunch ...

Old style bamboo blinds.

Naturally, our first stop after getting back into town was the train station, where we were disappointed to discover that the Termeloh had found a new home – having moved to the Railway Museum in Kuala Lumpur earlier this year as part of the 125 anniversary of KTMB. Still it was worth paying the station a visit – with another old locomotive and some railway relics from the past adding a feel of the old world station that Gemas once was. It was nice to observe the comings and goings as well … realising that passengers would rather cross over the tracks than use the overhead bridge that provided safe access to the platforms across from the main station building. A funny moment occurred when one of us had decided to venture up into the cabin of a working locomotive – where in trying to take a few photographs, he somehow blasted the horn, sending the station master scrambling out (probably awakening him from his mid-afternoon slumber) of the station control room.

The station was the first stop after getting back ...

The working locomotive on which one of my friends had inadvertently blasted the horn waking the station master from his mid-afternoon slumber.

Views around the station.

The town itself isn’t too interesting – most of the main part of town which can be covered by a ten minute walk, comprising of pre-war shop houses and that being a Sunday, most of the shops were shuttered. Still it was worth a walk around, the attraction I guess being two old Peranakan houses which I had somehow missed which some of my friends found. Being a hot day, we decided on the next best thing with there being not much to keep us occupied – sitting in the only air-conditioned premises in town – the town’s only fast food restaurant KFC – which was just a stone’s throw away from the station.

More views around Gemas Station.

A pre-war shophouse near the station.

More of the sleepy town that Gemas is ...

A resident of Gemas ...

Back at the station, it was time to stock up on a few conical shaped packets of the famous Gemas Railway Station Nasi Lemak, but not before being distracted by a couple deck out in their finery, having wedding photographs taken. Waiting on the platform, with packets of Nasi Lemak – one Ringgit each and in each warm paper packet that was warm to touch, inside it an old style simple serving of sambal ikan bilis, a quarter of a boiled egg and a slice of cucumber – just nice for a snack rather than a meal, there was much besides the wedding couple to observe. As anticipated the train was late getting in – arriving half and hour later than scheduled. Once onboard we could settle down at last – first was to taste the much talked about coconut laden rice waiting in the brown paper packets … the only thing can probably describe it is “Shiok!” – maybe that was brought about by the monotony and tiredness of the end of a journey that came with the end of the day. Dozing off regularly to the gentle cajoling of the train in the gentle swaying motion that comes as it rode over the tracks, we soon found ourselves back across the causeway and soon in Singapore, where the familiar sights of cars stopping at Choa Chu Kang Road for the train and then the glow of the steeple of St. Joseph’s Church along Bukit Timah Road told us we were home. Once at Tanjong Pagar station (an hour late) – where in my previous journeys it would have meant a rush to get through immigration, we could now stroll towards the station hall with us clearing immigration at the CIQ complex in Woodlands. Before we made our way home – it was a customary stop for food – we had satay. The station had always for me been a place that was synonymous with food … from my early days when the lights of the many hawkers in the carpark illuminated the grey building to the days when we could sit by the station building along Spottiswoode Park Road and dine al-fresco over satay … Then, with a quick final goodbye … it was back home … with fond memories of the many train journeys from the grand old station to carry with us.

A couple having wedding photographs taken at the station ...

Running for his bride ...

Around Gemas Station while waiting for the train to arrive ...

Passengers crossing the tracks ...

Gemas Station is as sleepy as the town ...

The wedding couple making their way down the platform ...

Boarding the train back ....

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The Gemencheh Bridge

6 12 2010

One of the main attractions around the railway junction of Gemas would be the site of the Gemencheh River Bridge, a wooden bridge that was blown up by Australian Forces as they desperately attempted to stem the tide of the Japanese invasion through Malaya in the final days of the Battle of Malaya. Those were dark days as the relentless Japanese advance arrived close to Singapore’s doorstep. Gemas was perhaps where any final resistance could be offered being the entry point into what must have been the psychological final buffer to Singapore, after which only the state of Johore stood in the way. It would probably not have come as a surprise that it was at Gemas where an ambush was planned, one that could and perhaps might have had influenced a very different outcome if events had worked in the favour of the defending forces. That it did not, brought the Japanese invasion forces closer to their goal both physically and psychologically, and within two weeks of the battle, the Japanese had arrived at Singapore’s doorstep at Johor Baharu.

The Gemencheh River, near Gemas, was the site of an ambush in January 1942 that saw a heavy loss of life amongst the Japanese troops.

The ambush was mounted at 4 pm on 14 January 1942, launched by “B” Company of the 2/30th Battalion. Ignoring the advance party of Japanese scouts on bicycle, the Australian unit blew the bridge up as the main party crossed resulting in a heavy loss of life by the Japanese. Estimates range from 600 to 1000 fatalities on the Japanese side and a handful suffered by the Australians. While the initial ambush was a huge success, reports suggest that fighting continued south of the bridge for two days, in part due to a lack of artillery support due to communication lines being cut by the Japanese advance party, with the Australian forces withdrawing south through Gemas.

Possibly the bridge that was rebuilt by the Japanese as seen in 1945 - Caption on Photograph at the Austrlian War Memorial (http://awm.gov.au) site: Gemencheh, Negri Sembilan, Malaya. 1945-09-25. The bridge (middle distance) over the Gemencheh River where, on the 1942-01-14 members of the 2/30th Australian Infantry Battalion supported by No. 30 battery, 2/15th Australian Field Regiment and the 4th Australian Anti-Tank Regiment ambushed and killed some 600 Japanese soldiers (57 mile peg.) (source: Austrlian War Memorial http://awm.gov.au).

Today, a memorial can be found at the site of the ambush. Referred to as the Tugu Sungai Kelamah or Kelamah River Memorial, the memorial appears to be named after a tributary of the Gemencheh River. The site of the memorial is on the southern bank of the part of the river where the Gemencheh River Bridge had stood (coordinates 2° 35′ 43.66″ N, 102° 31′ 8.22″ E), with wooden stumps – remnants of the bridge’s columns still very much in evidence in the river itself. The site lies some 11 kilometres north-west-west from the Gemas Railway Station and within sight of a road bridge to the east along Federal Route 1 – probably the one built to replace the destroyed bridge, and can be reached by taxi from Gemas (about a 15 minute ride).

The remnants of the original wooden bridge that was blown up by the Australian Forces - wooden stumps of the supporting columns, is very much in evidence at the site.

The new bridge just east of the site - part of Federal Route 1.

Sign at the entrance of the Sungai Kelamah Memorial along Federal Route 1.

Sign at the Memorial Site - unfortunately the date is wrong and the ambush occurred on 14 January 1942 rather than in 1941 as the sign suggests.

The same sign in Bahasa Melayu.

At the site, there is a Memorial that has been erected to remember the Australian troops that fought in the battle – this fortunately has the correct dates on it as indicated on a tablet at the foot of the memorial. Pausing to take in what was around us, surrounded by the air of silence that permeated the air, it is hard to imagine the ferocious battle that was fought close to sixty years ago … it possibly makes us think of the futility of war and the unnecessary pain and suffering it inflicts. I am certainly most grateful to those who fought for our freedom in battle, some losing their limbs, some a lot more psychologically and the many that paid the ultimate sacrifice – with their lives.

A memorial probably erected by the Australians with a tablet at the bottom indicating the correct dates of the ambush and subsequent battle.

The tablet at the bottom of the Memorial.

Another view of the new bridge.

Resources on the ambush at the Gemencheh River Bridge / Battle of Malaya:

Sungei Gemencheh Ambush, Gemas Area – Malaya, 14 January 1942,`B’ COY 2/30 BN AIF, Report by Captain D.J. Duffy OC `B’ Coy (Later Lt. Col. D.J. Duffy MC, ED)

On ABC: Sequence of events in the Japanese campaign leading to the fall of Singapore

Wikipedia stub on the Gemencheh Bridge during the Battle of Malaya

Australian War Memorial WWII Site (Australian Government Site)





A final journey from Tanjong Pagar: the slow train up the length of Johore

3 12 2010

Leaving JB Sentral Station, the train on which we were on for what would probably be the last train journey out of Tanjong Pagar for my friends and me, continued on its journey north. It was a journey that in its early stages, had already been delayed by the stops and starts at Bukit Timah Station and was as one should expect on the KTM trains, that would be delayed further en route to our destination, Gemas. Nevertheless, it was still very much worth the experience, not just for the fact that it would represent a last for me out of Tanjong Pagar, but to be able to have a leisurely glance at the interesting places en route. The route takes the train through much of the length of the state of Johore, passing town after town that can be read from the list of significant positions as they fell in reverse order, in the dark final days of the Battle of Malaya in early 1942, during which the relentless push by Japanese invasion forces towards Singapore during World War II, saw much of the area overrun in a matter of two weeks. Our intended destination, Gemas, just north of the state border in Negri Sembilan, had in fact been where a significant battle took place, one that might, on another day, have turned the tide. That it did not, allowed the invading forces to reach Singapore’s doorstep some 16 days following the engagement in Gemas, with Singapore falling only a month after that engagement.

Time Table for the Ekspress Rakyat out of Singapore and back into Singapore ... the journey to Gemas takes a route through towns in Johore which read like a list of defensive positions taken up by the British forces as they retreated towards Singapore in the face of the Japanese invaders in the January of 1942.

Along the initial part of the journey from Johor Baharu, the unmistakable landscape that characterises much of the urban areas along the railway line was very much in evidence with zinc roofed huts that was once commonly seen lining many of the areas by the tracks in Singapore, lining parts of the tracks. One of the first stops along the way was Kulai, a town some 30 kilometres north of Johor Baharu which was one of the last areas to fall before the Japanese arrived at Johor Baharu on the final day of January in 1942. Kulai had previously been known to me from the road trips I made in my father’s car across the Causeway. It was one of the last towns we would arrive at on the long journeys back home before the final pit stop in Johore Baharu where we would always stop to do some final bits of shopping – particularly for school shoes at Bata (which were because of the rise in the Singapore Dollar against the Malaysian Ringgit in the early 1970s a lot cheaper in Malaysia than it was in Singapore). Later in life, I would associate Kulai with a friend, Paul, whom I met whilst attached to Sembawang Shipyard in the mid 1980s. He had come form Kulai to work at the shipyard, putting up in a tiny room in a wooden shack in the old Chong Pang Village on work days, returning to Kulai only on Saturday nights to visit his mother.

Squatters along the railway line north of JB Sentral - this was a common sight on the KTM Railway land in Singapore up to the 1990s.

Kulai - a town which featured in the march of the Japanese invading forces towards Singapore in January 1942.

Passengers alighting at Kulai Station.

A rail carriage at Kulai.

Rail carriage carrying containers.

Leaving Kulai Station.

Passenger holding a ticket up.

North of Kulai, the next major stop is at Kluang, some 90 kilometres from Singapore. Kluang also featured prominently in the push by the Japanses invading forces – being abandoned by the retreating British led forces to allow them to regroup further south in the face of the Japanese advance through Johore. Kluang was in fact where General Yamashita moved his headquarters to, from Kuala Lumpur, at the end of January 1942, as the forces under his command prepared for the final assault on Singapore. Kluang was also known to me in my childhood, not so much from the road trips, but as the town where my maternal grandmother paid a visit to on her only trip to Malaysia that she made without me that I could remember. She had spent a weekend there with a Catholic group on a pilgrimage at the end of the 1960s.

Passing a level crossing at Kluang.

Pulling into Kluang Station.

Kluang Railway Station is well known for its coffee shop which has even been recreated in places such as shopping centres in Kuala Lumpur.

The tracks at Kluang Station.

A scene along the tracks from Kluang to Paloh.

The view inside the Superior Class coach.

A young passenger ...

The next major stop, Segamat, was the last stop before arriving at Gemas. Before that, there was a stop to make at Paloh, a rather small town set amongst palm oil and rubber plantations – Sime Darby features prominently in the area. Paloh was, during much of the 1950s, caught up in the Malayan Emergency and being one of the notorious “black areas” where Communist activity was rife. Much of its notoriety came from ambushes and killings made by Communist insurgents operating in the area and it was only about ten years after the Emergency was declared that the area was re-designated as “white area”.

View opposite Paloh Station.

Arriving at Paloh.

Kilometre marker at Paloh.

KTM logo at Paloh Station.

View of the area along the way to Segamat.

View of the area along the way to Segamat.

View of the area along the way to Segamat.

1st view of Segamat.

Segamat was again another significant town during the war. It was where the Australian forces had retreated to after being forced back from Gemas. Segamat is of course well known to Singaporeans as being where some of the best durians originate from. My only previous encounters with Segamat had been once again on the many road trips made in the 1970s on the old trunk road leading up to Kuala Lumpur. Here the landscape around the station is dominated by warehouses and some old buildings associated with the railway, which we got a good view of as the train did a bit of backtracking after making its stop, southwards to the truss bridge south of the station, to move to another track and wait for a passing southbound train. This is a common feature in rail journeys through much of the southern part of the Malaysian railway as for most part, there is only a single track. This often makes the journeys longer than it should really be as trains often wait for each other to pass before being able to continue on their journey.

Pulling into Segamat Station.

View opposite the station.

Railway workers' quarters near Segamat Station.

Backtracking along the track to change tracks ...

On a truss bridge south of Segamat Station.

On a truss bridge south of Segamat Station.

Godowns near Segamat Station.

Godowns near Segamat Station and an old train carriage.

Segamat Station.

Another view of Segamat Station.

A member of the KTM staff walking along the train at Segamat Station.

Southbound train pulling into the station.

Southbound train passing a waiting northbound train. The line in the far south is a single track and trains often have to wait for one another to pass at some of the main stations such as Segamat - very often resulting in delays.

Southbound train heading towards the truss bridge.

View opposite Segamat Station.

Close up of a train's undercarriage.

A child looking out of the window of a passing train.

Leaving Segamat ... and on to our destination Gemas.

A companion is often necessary for the long and often delayed train journey.

After Gemas, it was our final push to Gemas. With a lot of stopping for passing trains that morning – it was only one and a half hours later than our scheduled arrival time of 1210, that we arrived at the station, somewhat weary from the journey, and somewhat hungry. Gemas, however was waiting to be discovered and we very quickly got off, found ourselves a place to eat, made arrangements for transport, and were ready for the next part of the adventure…

Arriving at Gemas Station.

Sign at Gemas Station ...

Gemas is the main railway junction in the Malayan Peninsula where the north bound lines split into an eastern line and a western line. The map shows the Singapore station in Tanjong Pagar, this would soon change when the terminal station moves to Woodlands.