I was on that last train to pull into Tanjong Pagar, one that brought my fellow passengers and me on a final journey, a final homecoming to a station that would on the stroke of midnight the following day cease to be a station. It was a journey that I had been very deliberate on my part, one that I made to bid farewell to a railway and a station that through many journeys I have made, developed a fondness for.
The final journey was one of a hundred miles, one that started not so much with one step, but with one tweet that set off a wave of interest in the journey. It started in the sleepy town of Segamat, a hundred miles north of Singapore, where many of the passengers on the same journey had congregated at to board the 1759 Ekspres Sinaran Timur which was scheduled to pull into Tanjong Pagar at 2200 – the very last train to pull into Tanjong Pagar. I was surprised by the punctuality of the train when it arrived – something that my many journeys on the railway had not come to expect. That was a positive sign – as a delay of two hours (which wasn’t uncommon) would probably have meant we would not be pulling into Tanjong Pagar.
The journey started quite uninterestingly, with only the news a fellow passenger received over the telephone that the 1300 northbound from Singapore was way behind schedule creating a buzz. This meant that the load it carried of other would be passengers on the train back in couldn’t get on at Segamat as they had planned to. It was at Kluang that they managed to get off the 1300 and join the train we were on and it was at this point when it got much more lively – party horns blaring and food and drinks being exchanged as passengers mingled around within the narrow confines of the passageway.
It was at Kempas Bahru where I guess most of the excitement began. There was word that a cameraman from one of the media teams with us has fallen off the train (we found out that he managed to get back on and wasn’t hurt). Then a call from a Channel NewsAsia reporter and another from a producer from the same station that they had heard that the train was to terminate at JB Sentral resulted in some initial anxiety. The reporter Satish Chenny had intended to board at JB Sentral with a cameraman to cover the final leg through Singapore. I thought to myself, that what was said was probably just said to deter would be passengers crowding at JB Sentral from trying to board the train and mentioned this to Satish. True enough, Satish could be seen gratefully coming onboard after the immigration officers at JB had cleared the train.
That little bit of excitement did not really prepare me, and perhaps many of the others on board, for what was to follow, but no before the glare of the camera lights were shone right up my face as I tried to savour the final journey through Singapore as we cleared Singapore immigration and customs at Woodlands from the open door of the carriage. It was at Kranji level crossing that we got the first sign of what was to be amazing scenes along the way – crowds of people gathered at the crossings and at visible stretches of corridor along the way to cheer and send the last train off, as the train chugged on a last southbound journey through the darkness of the night lighted by the green stream of light of a laser shone by a fellow passenger with the sound of the chugging locomotive broken by the sounding of the horn by the train driver at short intervals.
As the train pulled into Bukit Timah Station at the midway point of the journey, a truly amazing scene greeted the passengers on that last train in – a large cheering mass of people had crowded on the platform at which the train came to a halt, making a short stop to await the passing of the last northbound passenger train. As I stood from the opened door scanning the scene before me in bewilderment, a voice called out to me. There right below where I was on the train as it came to a halt stood a dear friend whom I had met through chasing trains over the final months! We both stood there speechless for a moment and as the surprise of the coincidental encounter wore off, exchanged greetings.
Many had got on and off as the train waited. Some shook hands with Encik Gani, the station master and others had their photographs taken onboard and on the platform. It was a party-like atmosphere all around us. Soon it was time to make the final fifteen minutes of the journey for the final homecoming, and as we pulled out into the darkness of the Clementi woodland for that final leg, I was struck by the realisation that this would be my last train journey through Singapore and the last one that I will make into that magnificent station that holds so many memories for me … Arriving at the platform, I made my way slowly down to the platform and passed under the clock which read 10:37. That was to be the last of many walks I had made coming off an arriving train, one that I did not for this last time hurry at doing. I was asked by a NHK television crew to say a few final words on the platform as my companions walked ahead of me. In spite of the crowd that had gathered around as I made my way out, it then felt that I was all alone, all alone to face the rush of emotion that accompanied the sadness of the final walk. I continued to make my way in a daze, passing the crowd that had gathered around the Sultan of Johor who stood with tears in his eyes as he spoke to reporters and the crowd. He was to drive the last train out. I paused only to take a quick photograph of the Sultan through the crowd and continued into the main hall. I took one last painful look around, that wasn’t how Tanjong Pagar Railway Station had ever seemed to me, but perhaps one that I would want to remember it as, a station that its final hours had finally got the attention it deserved. It was a day that was certainly one to remember. And although it is one that I will remember with a tinge of sadness, it will be one that comes with the fondness of memories that I have of the trains and of the magnificent station that were to be no more.