Tanjong Pagar Railway Station started its life in the fourth decade of the 20th Century as what was to have been the southern point of an ambitious vision to link the Europe’s vast rail network with a network that would span the continent of Asia, and eventually connect with the rest of the Far East by rail, with the network extending potentially to the Indian and Pacific Oceans via sea routes, with Singapore serving as the gateway. The station’s main building was mostly completed at the end of 1931, its first act seeing not a rush of passengers through its main hall, but visitors to a Manufacturers’ Exhibition which opened on 2nd January 1932 – the very first to be held in Singapore. Coming as the world was suffering from the effects of the Great Depression, the exhibition served to bring to light Singapore’s hitherto unheard of manufacturing potential, providing local manufacturers with a platform to showcase their products and capabilities and at the same time to promote Singapore’s growing importance as a economic centre in the British Far East with the newly built grand station as its centrepiece. The aim of the exhibition as stated in the official guide was “to present as many aspects as possible of actual and potential manufacture in Singapore” and included amongst the exhibitors, some companies that were to become household names in Singapore such as Robinsons, John Littles, Malaya Publishing House which was to later become known as MPH, Diethelm and the Straits Trading Company. Opened by the then Governor of Singapore, Sir Cecil Clementi, the exhibition also provided many members of the public with their first view of the internals of the main building of the brand new station.
The main building of the station was first used as a venue for the first Singapore Manufacturers' Exhibition which opened on 2nd January 1932 (image source: Willis' Singapore Guide, 1936).
The actual opening of the station wasn’t until some months later on the 2nd of May 1932. To commemorate the opening, a passenger train, the first that was to pull into Tanjong Pagar, which, as reported by the Straits Times on 3rd May 1932, “comprised of an engine and three saloons to travel over the new deviation”, left Bukit Panjang Station at 4.30 pm with a load of guest that included the Governor, the Sultan of Perak and Mr J Strachan, the General Manager of the FMSR, and arrived “punctually at 5.15”. In his speech at the opening, Sir Clementi provided an insight into the vision which provided the motivation for building of a station of the stature of Tanjong Pagar, saying: “we stand here at the southernmost tip of the continent of Asia; and, since the Johore Strait is now spanned by a causeway which was opened for traffic on June 28, 1924, we may even say that we stand at the southernmost top of the mainland of Asia. This point is, therefore, a real terminus as well as a natural junction between land-borne and sea-borne traffic; and it is very right that the terminal station of the Malayan railway system should be built at Singapore, the gateway between the Pacific and Indian Oceans and immediately opposite the Tanjong Pagar docks, where every facility will be afforded for interchange between railway and ocean shipping”. The Governor also added that he had “not the slightest doubt that, for centuries, this Singapore terminal station will stand here as one of the most nodal points in the whole world’s scheme of communications.” While this, eight decades later has not quite come true for the station (we are also still talking about a Trans-Asian rail network, it probably has come true of Singapore as a wider communications node – the Governor could not have envisaged the phenomenal growth of air transportation at that time.
The location of the station, across from the docks at Tanjong Pagar, was deliberately selected so that the southern terminal of the what would have been an intercontinental overland railway network could be integrated with ocean shipping and extend the reach over the Pacific and Indian Oceans (image source: Willis' Singapore Guide, 1936).
The station, the work of Swan and McLaren, even in its current state having had much better days, is a wonderful work of architecture to marvel at. Described by an article in the 7th May 1932 edition of the Malayan Saturday Post on the occasion of the opening of the station as having a “palatial appearance”, the station is now overshadowed by the towering blocks that have come up at its vicinity, as well as by the elevated road, buildings and containers stacked high that obscures most of it from the the docks it was meant to feed. What must be the features of the grand building that stand out most are the entrance arches flanked by the triumphal figures, the work of sculptor Angelo Vannetti from the Raoul Bigazzi Studios Florence, that seem to stand guard over all that passes under the arches into the grand vaulted hallway described as “lofty and cool” in the same article. The main hall of the station extends three storeys (some 21.6 metres) above the visitor to provide for a sufficient pocket of air to allow the hall to be kept cool in the oppressive tropical heat. It is this lobby that impresses the most, with not just the vaulted ceiling, but also the six sets of mosaic panels that resemble batik paintings that immediately catch the attention of the visitor. It is the timeless beauty of the main hall, that, in any future developments being planned for what is Singapore’s newest National monument, should be made accessible to the public as it is today, and not as many other public buildings that have been conserved over the years, accessible to an exclusive few.
The main vaulted hall of the station in its early days. An impressive integration of architecture and public art. The lamps and the clock seen in this picture - has long since disappeared, but the hall remains, even in the state the station building is in today, a particularly impressive piece of architectural work. Caption reads 'Booking Hall, Singapore Station' (image source: Willis' Singapore Guide, 1936).
There is a lot more clutter in the hall today ... the lamps and the clock we see in the hall in the station's early days are also missing.
The Willis’ Singapore Guide (1936), provides an insight into Tanjong Pagar and the operation of the FMS Railway around the time of the station’s opening. It describes the FMSR as running from Singapore for 580 miles to Padang Besar where it meets the Royal State Railways of Siam and incorporates 121¼ miles of the Johore State Railway which was leased by the FMSR. As is the case today, the East Coast Line branched off at Gemas to the port of Tumpat some 465 miles from Singapore, where a short branch line connects with the Siamese Railways at Sungei Golok. We are also told that a branch line connects with what was then Port Swettenham (now Port Klang), with branches also serving other ports at Malacca, Port Dickson, Teluk Anson and Port Weld. A total of 1321 miles of metre gauge tracks were laid providing some 1067 miles of track mileage. A daily service of trains from Singapore to Penang was maintained with a day and night express service daily which took some 22 hours to reach Penang and some 9 hours (doesn’t seem much different from the journey these days) to reach Kuala Lumpur from Singapore.
The journey in the 1930s to Kuala Lumpur took some 9 hours.
The express train services in 1936 (source: Willis' Singapore Guide, 1936)
On the evidence of the guide, which I suppose would be referring to service in first class, the service provided does seem a lot more comfortable than what we’ve become accustomed to these days, as described by the guide, with Restaurant Cars which served “an excellent breakfast, luncheon or dinner”, “at a reasonable price”. Sleeping Saloons with two berth cabins were provided on the night trains (as they are now) and a “commodious Buffet Parlour Car is attached to the night express trains between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur”. Breakfast, tiffin and tea baskets were also available at the principal stations which could be ordered en route with the “Guard of the trains or any Station Master” able to “telegraph free of charge”.
Once the last train pulls out of Tanjong Pagar Station, it would bring to an end a little over 79 years of operation of a station that was to see centuries as one of the 'most nodal points in the whole world's scheme of communications'.
The information above has been put together from various newspaper articles and as well as the Willis’ Singapore Guide 1936, to provide a glimpse into the early days of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. More information on the station and its architecture can be found on a previous post: “A final look at Tanjong Pagar Station“. I also have a collection of experiences and memories of the railway in Singapore and of my journeys through the grand old station and if you care to read about them, do drop by my page “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“. Also, if you are keen to find out and support the Nature Society’s (Singapore) proposal to retain the green areas that have been preserved by the existence of the railway through Singapore and maintain it as a Green Corridor, do drop by the Green Corridor’s website and show your support by liking the Green Corridor’s Facebook page … I do also have a series of posts on the Green Corridor if that is of interest – please visit them at “Support the Green Corridor“.