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.

Jurong-Line-1980

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.

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The end of the line?

7 04 2011

The disused Jurong Line has been very much in the news of late. This may in part be due to the interest in the railway brought about by the knowledge that we will soon see the last of the Malayan railway running through Singapore. There is of course some focus brought on to the Jurong Line in particular by a proposal by members of the Nature Society of Singapore (NSS) to establish a green corridor on the land which the line runs through. What has motivated the latest spate of reports in the news has very much a bearing on the latter, with a proposed road over a part of the area where the line runs through bringing some consternation to proponents of the green corridor and some anguish amongst residents of a quiet residential area, Faber Heights, which straddles a particularly green piece of land through which the line passes through, the news and the start of work on the road catching many by surprise.

The corridor through which the disused Jurong Line runs through is part of a proposal by members of the Nature Society of Singapore to establish a Green Corridor along the old railway lines.

The corridor through which the Jurong Line runs branches off at Bukit Timah Station, and stretches close to 20 km to the end of Shipyard Road near the Benoi Basin. A large part of it has probably remained in a close to natural state, relatively untouched by development since the line was constructed in the mid 1960s. The line which is essentially an extension of the main line, was intended to serve the new industrial estate then taking shape in Jurong, and the irony is that it is the line that has probably saved much of the greenery along the corridor it runs through from the fate that befell the area on which the industrial estate it was meant to serve was built on. It is along the corridor that we now find ourselves hanging on not just to the greenery it has helped preserved, but also to habitats for bird life, as well as to a way of life that once existed in the rural parts of Singapore.

Much of the railway corridor is untouched by the wave of development that has swept over Singapore over the last half a century.

Leaves and a fruit of the mulberry tree along the green corridor.

It was for this, as well as an interest in the railway for which I had originally participated in a NSS organised walk in January, during which I was greeted by many scenes resembling that of a rural Singapore that I had stored only in my memory. It is along the some of the more accessible parts of the green corridor that we can discover all this: small plots of vegetables, fruit trees and the forgotten smells of the countryside, all on what is former KTM land that has been returned to the State, which has somehow been tolerated by the authorities. The plots are spread along the area close to Teban Gardens, and also along a wedge of land between Sungei Ulu Pandan and the northern fringe of Clementi, and walking through the area, we are able to appreciate a little bit of what we could soon be losing should plans to develop some of the areas get the go ahead.

The start of another walk down the green corridor.

Walking along the tracks brings us to a green part of Singapore.

Vegetable plots along the green corridor - a welcome sight in an urban landscape.

Small scale farms can be found all along the stretch behind Teban Gardens and in the wedge of land between the northern fringe of Clementi and Sungei Ulu Pandan.

A makeshift scarecrow set amongst banana trees?

In a recent walk during which I joined some of the advocates of the Green Corridor in a familiarisation walk through part of the corridor, I could observe that work on the road has indeed started, the evidence being the hoardings put up in the area where the road is being constructed and clear signs that parts of the disused track have been removed. The proposed road at Faber Heights, intended to ease congestion in the area (and also to serve a suggested expansion in residential units in the area), does cut through what is an area of lush greenery that features what must be a natural creek or a pond, a rare find in the Singapore we have now grown accustomed to. Hearing some of the older participants on the walk reminisce about their childhood exploits in and around similar ponds and creeks into which they would often venture into barefoot in search of a harvest of longkang fish – something that the children of today would find hard to appreciate.

Signs that work has started on the proposed road in the Faber Heights are is very much in evidence.

Work includes the dismantling of the track in the approach to the Faber Heights area.

A stretch where the tracks have been completely removed.

Another look at the area where the tracks are now missing.

The pond or creek at the Faber Heights area - will it be affected?

Part of the track that is still with us ... but for how long more?

Participants on the walk photographing remnants of the track in the Faber Heights area.

It would probably be a case of having to move a mountain to stop the wave of development that has and is still very much sweeping thought the island, but there is a growing number of voices that have been added to the cause to save the area as well as to establish a green corridor. There is certainly hope that the authorities lend a year to the cause … and if there are sufficient voices that are heard, who knows, it is possible that a mountain is about to be moved.

Water Hyacinth - once a common sight - used a pig fodder in the days of old.

The smoke from offerings being burnt in a rural shrine along the green corridor.

Not green but the brown of a roll of corrugated cardboard ...

Kettles on a stove as it might have been in the rural Singapore of old.

The trunk of a fallen tree ... along the green corridor.





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.