5 years ago tonight …

30 06 2016

The scene at Bukit Timah Railway Station as the Sultan of Johor drives the last trains through Singapore out of the station towards Woodlands and Johor.



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.


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.

Seeking out the Taj Mahal in the city built on tin

18 01 2011

Fresh from an excursion to Kuala Lumpur (KL), I found myself some two hundred kilometres north of KL in a rather quiet city that features some wonderful pieces of architecture from a time when it was thrived on the harvest it made from the ground. The city, Ipoh, the administrative capital of the northern Malaysian State of Perak, lies in a beautiful setting surrounded by limestone hills in the Kinta Valley of Perak, an area rich in tin, and it was from the tin mines around the area that provided much of the wealth that city was built on. In KL, motivated by a desire to learn more about the development of the Malayan Railway fed by nostalgia fueled by the knowledge that the shift of the KTM station to Woodlands by the time the second half of 2011 arrives (which would be that after more than a century of running through Singapore, the Malayan Railway would cease to operate across the island), I sought out two of Arthur Benison Hubback’s railway inspired masterpieces, the Railway Administration Building, and the grand old Railway Station, both built during the turn of the 20th Century and feature the Moorish inspired designs that give old KL a distinct flavour. I found myself doing the same in Ipoh, where another two of Hubback’s great architectural works, the Railway Station and the Town Hall proudly stood.

Arriving early at the Ipoh tree in the main square, two of Hubback's masterpieces that Ipoh is blessed with in the area around the Square were shrouded in morning's mist.

But, the mist soon lifted to reveal the magnificent dome dominated structure of Ipoh's grand railway station.

Although plans for a grand station in Ipoh were put forward in the first decade of the 20th Century and work was supposed to commence in the early part of the next decade and completed by 1914, it was only in 1914 that construction on a station “worthy of the town” started (in 1914). That coincided with the Great War of 1914 to 1918 and due to a shortage of funds and material due to the War, it was only fully completed in 1917 with the completion of the Station Hotel which opened on 1 May 1917. The station building which is fondly referred to as the “Taj Mahal of Ipoh” by Ipoh residents for its magnificent dome dominated structure. Plans for it were described by the Straits Times in 1915 as “the palatial station and hotel, somewhat after the plan of the one in Kuala Lumpur”, and by the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser in 1914 as “in many ways an improvement on the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station structure, which had so far remained supreme as one of the finest railway stations in the East”. Built in concrete and steel, due to what was described as a “lack of any good building stone in the Federated Malay States” on the site of a hospital, the Neo-Classical styled station was to provide a “front door worthy of Ipoh’s status as the second city in the F.M.S.” and form part of a “fine entry” into the town along with the Town Hall and Town Square facing the station.

The Neo-Classical styled A. B. Hubback designed station building features a main dome as well as minor domes and was said to be a station building that were among the most magnificent buildings East of the Suez. The building is also referred to as the

The station building stands across the main square from another of A. B. Hubback's works, the Town Hall. Both buildings together with the square were meant as buildings that would be fitting of Ipoh's status of the FMS' second city and to provide a "fine entry" into the city.

A corridor at the front of the magnificent building.

Wondering around the imposing façade of the whitewashed station in the shadows of the towering cloud shrouded tops of the limestones hills in the background that early New Year’s eve morning, I couldn’t help but be held in awe of the 183 metre arched loggia that dominates the front of the station’s ground level as I stood below it, giving me a sense of how grand the station would have been in the setting of the early 20th Century Ipoh. Although resembling its sister station in KL in many ways, the station in Ipoh is much more refreshing in many ways with a lighter and a happier feel to it, being smaller than the one in KL. It certainly is worth a visit to and is one where (for the time being at least), you will discover the quaint old Station Hotel that now occupies most of the upper floors of the building that once had also held accommodation (a total of seventeen bedrooms) for the station’s own officials, a throw back to the days of old when it would have been thought fashionable for the well heeled traveller to put up at a station’s hotel. Ipoh had in fact been one of three FMSR stations that had been afforded this luxury, with the one at KL and at Tanjong Pagar being the other two, and is the only station currently in Malaysia (and Singapore) that still has a hotel functioning at the station.

The platform side of the station building.

The station and the main platform ... a modern styled awning has been erected over what is now the electrified tracks of the KL to Ipoh line.

An alternative view of the awning over the platforms.

A peek at the ticket counter through a window on the platform.

Part of the 183 metre long loggia at the front of the station.

The part of the station leading up to the hotel entrance.

The entrance to what is currently the last of the three station hotels to remain in operation in Malaysia and Singapore.

Stepping into an old world elevator, the shaft of which staircase wound around, reminiscent of the old world (and somewhat dingy) hotels (and sometimes youth hostels) that I usually found myself putting up in travelling on a budget in Europe during my days as a student, was a sign of what was to come. In it, I was transported up to the lobby at the top and into a world that somehow seemed frozen from a time when perhaps railway travel would have been thought to be not just fashionable, but romantic. The ceramic tiled floor that I stepped out on certainly exuded that old world feel, as did the wooden counter of the hotel’s reception and the armchairs that sat opposite the counter. The lobby led to a wide and expansive balcony to which some of the rooms opened to that offered a splendid view of the city’s main square, the front of the station building itself and the magnificent Town Hall. In one corner of the long balcony, guests were having breakfast in a wonderful old style setting and at the other end, more old style armchairs and coffee tables were arranged as if to convince the visitor of the old world charm of the hotel.

The old world elevator that transports you into a world that time has left behind.

The ceramic floor tiles, the reception counter and the old armchairs that greeted me at the elevator landing certainly belonged to a forgotten time when perhaps the romance of train travel was very much alive.

The balcony on the top level of the station hotel ... also serves as a wonderful place to have breakfast at.

More views of the top level.

The hotel did seem a little run down, seeing much grander days when its clientele would have boasted of the who’s who of the British administration, when it could perhaps have rivaled the likes of Raffles Hotel in Singapore and the E&O Hotel in Georgetown, but nonetheless still has the charm to pull a few romantics (like me) in – and on another day, I might have been tempted to check in there and then but I had a date with the new year in KL. Stepping down into the mezzanine level, it was apparent that the world that I had visited had yet another dimension to it, and for a while, it looked as if I had stepped into a correctional facility with the cell like rooms arranged around a large corridor or lobby. But taking time to adjust to my surroundings and the soft light that streamed into the area from the skylights above, the level certainly had a charm of its own, with painted cemented floors reminding me of some of the old seaside hotels by the sea that I had stayed in previously. It certainly was a world apart, and I suspect that the rooms which were facing the two sides of the station building would be well furnished as well as open up to some nice views, particularly those that are on the reverse side of the station which face the pretty limestone hills beyond Ipoh. Looking at the layout of the rooms and the relatively low ceiling on the mezzanine, I believe that the area which I had walked down into might have formerly been the units which has served as the rooms which accommodated the servants or “boys” for whom, as described by the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, in an article dated 16 May 1914, the provision of “would be a great advantage”.

The stairway back in time.

The different world on the mezzanine level ...

A fan seen against the awning which must have been added later.

Ventilation louvres ...

Rooms that look like cells ....

An old window that opens to an air well ....

Wooden panelling ...

After a short, but satisfying visit to the station and the hotel, it was now time to discover more, and to indulge in the wonderful mouthwatering offerings that Ipoh has in store … about that I had previously posted, but before that, I had another date with a delightful old lady that had not been in the pink of health, but has obtained a new lease of life just up Jalan Panglima Bukit Gantang Wahab (Club Road) on which I should be writing another post on.

The other road named after the memory of Charles Edwin Spooner

1 01 2011

Just as Spooner Road in Singapore is a world apart from the rest of Singapore in many ways, I recently discovered that the other road that was named after Charles Edwin Spooner that still exists is a world apart in many ways from the rest of the city it is set in. This Spooner Road, or Jalan Spooner as it is now known as, together with the Spooner Road in Singapore, were two out of three Spooner Roads that were named after Spooner who was the first General Manager of the FMS Railways (FMSR) who began his career in the Public Wokrs Department in Selangor before his appointment to the FMSR in 1901 (the third on Federal Hill in Kuala Lumpur I discovered had been renamed as Jalan Cenderawasih). It was during his time at the PWD in Selangor that he oversaw and influenced some of the Moorish styled architectural masterpieces of Kuala Lumpur, swaying the style from the Neo Classical Renaissance style that was a standard of British government architecture in the colonies towards one that was influence by Islamic elements for the Malaysian capital.

Spooner Road or Jalan Spooner in Ipoh is another named after the first General Manager of the FMS Railways, C. E. Spooner, and associated with housing for railway workers, as is the Spooner Road in Singapore.

With some time to spare after a stroll through parts of old Ipoh, where I was reacquainted with the genius of Arthur Benison Hubback in the form of the wonderful Railway Station and Town Hall on New Year’s Eve, I decided to take a drive with the help of an Asus Garmin A10 GPS mobile phone that I am reviewing over to a quieter part of town where Jalan Spooner was located. Jalan Spooner is a road that has in its past been long associated with housing railway workers as the Spooner Road in Singapore is, and it was for that that I had sought to find evidence on. Taking a right turn as directed correctly by the GPS off Jalan Sungai Pari not far from the railway tracks, it was a road sign and a sign that indicated the existence of a village “Kampung Spooner” that greeted me, followed by a sense of extreme desolation. For some reason I had that feeling that I was driving into the fifth dimension which might have well been accompanied by the theme music from the TV Series “The Twilight Zone”, as the I stared through my windscreen towards a the eerily silent stretch of road that lay ahead surrounded by the greenery that lined both sides of the narrow country-like road. The road ahead seemed even more eerie when the sight of a lone woman walking down the road up ahead came into view. She looked as if she was almost floating as she made her way up the long and lonely road that lay ahead.

As is the Spooner Road in Singapore, the one in Ipoh looks as if time has left it behind.

As it is with Singapore’s Spooner Road, driving down the road also gave an impression that it was a place where time had stood still, particularly when the first few signs of civilisation down the road came into view. A few wooden houses stood on the right, with a few signs of life: a boy wearing a clinical mask playing outside his home and a barking dog up the metalled driveway of the road that led to another house. On the right there was an old wooden shophouse that was shuttered, and a motor workshop with a few motorcycles parked in front.

Housing around Jalan Spooner.

A resident of Jalan Spooner.

A shophouse at Jalan Spooner.

A motor workshop along Jalan Spooner.

It was on the right of the road that a cluster of dilapidated buildings came into view – the style of which was similar to the many railway buildings that are found on the tracts of land along the railway corridor in Singapore, particularly around some of the level crossings such as the ones in the Bukit Timah and Kranji areas – probably a testament to the period of the Malayan Railway’s development when they were built. Close inspection of a red sign that was posted in front of one row of buildings naming the “Perbandanan Aset Keretapi” (Railway Assets Corporation) giving evidence of their previous use. There it was – the evidence that I was looking for – and with that I had established the connection between the two Spooner Roads, separated not just by the creation of two very different nations out of the British administered Malayan States and the former colony of Singapore, but also by a distance of some 600 kilometres along the railway track, and unified by its association with not just the illustrious C. E. Spooner, but also with providing housing for the workers of the Malayan Railway.

The former railway workers' quarters at Jalan Spooner - now in dilapidated state.

A sign providing evidence of the ownership of the land on which the dilapidated buildings stand, naming the Railway Assets Corporation (Perbadanan Aset Keretapi) as the land title holder and warning that trespassers would be prosecuted.

More dilapidated buildings that once housed Railway workers.

Another view of Jalan Spooner.