Architectural masterpieces of KL: The Railway Station

13 01 2011

Of the four grand pieces of Moorish influenced architecture that the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur is blessed with, the old Railway Station is the one with which I have had the most interaction with, with it having been the destination and starting point of the many train journeys I made on the Malayan Railway. It was a place that brings many memories back of these journeys, and particularly of the first I had taken from the station on the return leg of that first journey I had made from Tanjong Pagar which I remembered for the wrong reasons.

The Moorish styled Railway Station in Kuala Lumpur is one of a quartet of buildings that Kuala Lumpur has long been associated with.

The station, another one of Arthur Benison Hubback’s magnificent works of architecture, complements another, the Railway Administration Building, just across what is now Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin (Victory Avenue prior to independence), which I introduced in an earlier post, with its whitewashed façade spotting the distinctive arches and domes that give the building a grandeur fitting of an old world railway terminal. Together with the Railway Administration Building and Masjid Jamek (both of which were set in motion on the Hubback’s drawing board), as well as the grandest of them, the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, the Railway station makes a quartet of Moorish influenced buildings that for a long time was what the city that grew out of a muddy confluence of rivers, had been identified with. These days, unfortunately, Kuala Lumpur seems to be identified with the monstrous pieces of modern architecture that rob these four buildings of the attention that they deserve.

From one of Hubback's masterpieces looking across Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin to another. A view of the Railway Station from the Railway Administration Building.

The Railway Station in Kuala Lumpur was built during the period when a certain Mr. Charles Edwin Spooner (after whom Spooner Road in Singapore and Ipoh is named after), oversaw the expansion of the Malayan Railway, known as, with the formation of the Federated Malay States (FMS) in 1896, the Federated Malay States Railway (FMSR), which included the link through the state of Johore which connected Kuala Lumpur with Singapore (although then the absence of a Causeway meant the crossing to Singapore was carried out by boat), in his capacity as the General Manager of the FMSR. Mr. Spooner was certainly influential as the Chief Engineer of the Selangor PWD, his prior appointment before taking up the position in the FMSR, having had his say in the design of the Sultan Abdul Samad Building in Kuala Lumpur, and skewing it towards a Moorish styled design, befitting of Kuala Lumpur’s position as the capital of a protectorate, the FMS, rather than a colony. He would have certainly had an influence in the building of the station as well, but unfortunately, he passed away in 1909 before the completion of the grand old building in 1910.

The Station Building (on the right) as well as the Railway Administration Building (on the left) across Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin were built during the turn of the 20th Century and were designed by A. B. Hubback.

Besides that first ever journey that I made in the less than comfortable wagons of the Mail Train, I have had many more encounters with the station. It was in the early part of the 1990s that I made frequent trips by train, often catching the overnight sleeper, the Senandung Malam, from Singapore’s Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, on which I would be able to catch a reasonable enough rest, often waking up a the sight of strange bedmates in the form of the resident cockroaches. The approach to the station from Salak Selatan station was always something that I looked forward to with anitcipation as the train took a slow course past the Lever Brothers Building in Bangsar, and past the Brickfields area before the grey truss Sultan Sulaiman Bridge over which Jalan Sultan Sulaiman runs came into sight. The bridge would be the last sight before the station came into sight, with its distinctive domes atop minaret like structures which complemented the many arches that gives the building its Islamic flavour.

The Sultan Sulaiman Bridge provides is the last sight before the passenger catches the grand sight of the station on the north bound train.

The northbound approach to the station.

Stepping out onto the platform was always nice after the long journey where I would usually be greeted. Back then, non-passengers could get on the platform to send-off or receive passengers by buying a platform ticket for a small cost, and I was pleasantly surprised to find on my recent visit to the station that the ticket dispensers were still where they were. More often than not I would end up catching a ride from the side across from where the front of the station building was where the main public carpark was at. It was there as well that I could catch a taxi, buying a prepaid coupon from the taxi counter, wherever I did not have a ride. The occasions on which I had seen the front of the station was when I caught a lift in, either to catch the return train or to purchase tickets (I would buy my return tickets in Kuala Lumpur to avoid paying for tickets which were priced at the same amount in Singapore Dollars as they would in Malaysian Ringgit if I had bought them in Singapore). Trips to the station to purchase tickets did on many occasions end in frustration as I would very often be greeted by a sign at the ticket counter which read “Maaf, Komputer Rosak“, which meant “Sorry, Computer Breakdown (or Failure)” in Malay, which meant I would need to make another trip down to the station. It was on those occasions that I got to explore a little, walking around the driveway where security guards would be busy trying to get traffic moving as there would be many cars and taxis stopped there, from which I could get a peek at the equally magnificent Railway Administration Building across Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin.

Stepping out onto the platform was always nice after the long overnight journey.

The public could gain access to the platforms in the old days by buying a platform ticket from one of these dispensers.

Trips to the station to purchase tickets were very often frustrating affairs as I was often greeted by the sign "Maaf, Komputer Rosak" at the counter.

A disused Train Departures board at the rear side of the station building.

The rear of the station building where the large public car park is.

What used to be the taxi booking counter where coupons could be purchased for taxis taken from the station.

The driveway at the front of the station.

This time around, my visit was very much prompted by the nostalgia I have for the many journeys I had taken out of Tanjong Pagar, as well as to visit the Railway Administration Building across the road. I had also thought of seeking out the Station Hotel, which wasn’t operational during my previous visits to the station. I had heard about the revival of a so-called Heritage Station Hotel at the station only to be frustrated by the chains and padlocks that greeted me as I walked towards the entrance. The Railway Station was one of three that had a Station Hotel, the others being the other Hubback designed station in Ipoh, and the southern terminal of the FMSR at Tanjong Pagar. The one at Tanjong Pagar had long ceased operations, leaving possibly the one in Ipoh to be the last of the Station Hotels. The hotel had initially opened with six rooms in August 1911 before ten more rooms were added, and in a report in 1915, the hotel was said to “compare favourably with any (hotel) in the country”.

A sign showing that a "Hotel Heritage" had operated at the station. The station was one of three that had a Station Hotel operating in the building, the others were the stations at Ipoh and Tanjong Pagar.

The quest to visit the Station Hotel ended in disappointment as the chain and padlock greeted me instead of opened doors.

A peek through a window and through another window of the lobby of the former Station Hotel.

The station now serves as a commuter train station, with the brand new KL Sentral taking over in 2001 as the main train station in Kuala Lumpur. Housed within the station in what was the main hall is a Railway Museum which opened in 2007. This was a little disappointing on the whole, but does provide displays of memorabilia associated with the history of the railway, including old station clocks, weighing scales and even the bone of an elephant that had been hit by a train trying to protect its herd.

The station is now used as a Commuter Train station ...

... as well as a museum. Some of the exhibits include old signs, weighing scales and old station clocks along with other memorabilia.

Another exhibit from one of the predecessors to the FMSR ...

There was even a bone of an elephant who died defending his herd from an oncoming train.

More views in and around the station.

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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)