The Jungle Train
Most people who travel by train in West Malaysia (formerly Malaya) do so on the west coast line which runs from Singapore in the south, across the causeway and into Malaysia at Johore Bahru, via Kuala Lumpur and Butterworth (for Penang), to Padang Besar in the north, and on via Thai Railways to Bangkok. This line was opened in stages between 1885 and 1910 with a ferry connection to Singapore until 1923. The east and west halves of Malaya are separated by a high mountain range and virtually the whole country was covered by lush tropical jungle. The west side was developed in the nineteenth century with the opening of numerous tin mines and the clearing of large areas of jungle for rubber and oil palm plantations. It was decided to build another line from this main line up the east side of Malaya to Tumpat on the east coast, near Kota Bahru and connect it to the Thai railway system. The junction was to be at Gemas, midway between Kuala Lumpur and Johore Bahru, to avoid the highest mountains and construction started in 1907. The route was changed several times during construction and due to the extremely difficult conditions through mountainous virgin jungle it was to be 24 years before the line was finally completed. Much of it was then torn up by the Japanese during WWII for use on the Burma railway and the line was not reopened until the 1950s.
Three express passenger trains ply the route each night in each direction, two to and from Kuala Lumpur and the other to and from Singapore but they traverse almost the entire route in darkness, making only a few stops. The only way to see the countryside is to travel on the daylight mail trains but these are slow, making around 80 stops during the 327 miles and taking about 14 hours or more.
I expressed my wish to one day travel the entire line in daylight to group of Malaysian and Singaporean colleagues who were also railway fans and they decided to try and organize a group trip which would involve visits to various railway installations along the way and overnight stays in local hotels. After much discussion a date was set for mid January 2005 and even this had to be changed slightly at the last minute due to the various public holidays associated with the differing cultures out there. The trip was to start on the 16th January from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore/Johore with the two groups meeting up at Gemas in the early hours of 17th to take the 0745 mail train, number 92, as far as Kuala Lipis.
I flew out to Kuala Lumpur on the 14th, arriving on the evening of the 15th and met up with the Klang Valley members at Kuala Lumpur Sentral station on the evening of the 16th. We were booked on the 2230 Senangdung Malam express to Singapore as far as Gemas, arriving there at 0226. The local railway staff showed great interest in our trip wherever we went and group photographs were taken at Kuala Lumpur with the station staff and train crew before we set off. On arrival at Gemas we were offered the use of the stations VIP room for rest. There was a surprising amount of activity at Gemas during the small hours with the passage of several passenger trains, freight trains and the readying of stock for the mornings local trains including our train to Kuala Lipis. After depositing our gear in the VIP room most of us went to the east end of the station where one of the new class 26 Blue Tiger locomotives, 26119 TG. TUALANG, was waiting with a southbound container train. After photographing this I then photographed the railway's last steam locomotive which is still stabled in the siding it went to following its last run in 1997. It had been overhauled in 1995 so in theory it could still be used but it has not turned a wheel for 7 years following the failure of the service it had been prepared for. With the impending demise of Sentul works it is highly unlikely to ever run again as the new works at Batu Gajah will not be geared for overhauling steam locomotives.
Around dawn we all slowly rose from our short naps and there was just time for a few daylight photographs between dawn and our trains departure at 0745. Our locomotive, 6614, a YDM4 leased from India, backed onto our three coaches, one second class, one buffet car and a third class saloon which we were travelling in. We set off precisely on time and as we turned onto the branch a Blue Tiger, 26106, and 23115 were waiting on the mainline with a freightliner for the south. A little further on a class 22 was standing by the shed - some sources suggest that it has been selected for preservation. It was reported to be 22131 LIMAU KASTURI. As we travelled north each station and halt appeared to become smaller, becoming little more than a primitive shelter beside the track. At each stop one or two passengers got on or off - at Kemayan four young Malay girls boarded the train with tickets for Triang and after their tickets had been checked we kept them as souvenirs. After about 1½ hours we stopped at Mengkarak and reversed into a loop - we were to be crossed by a Gua Musang to Singapore stopping train which was hauled by another YDM, 6375.
Between Mentakab and Kuala Krau I moved to the front of the train to record the performance and take some photographs. From the front coach it can be seen that the driver's view from the YDM cab might be somewhat restricted by the locomotives long nose. Speed was generally kept to about 68 kph, the limit being 70 on most of this line. By the time I returned to the coach at the rear it was quite full with local passengers and I was sitting on an arm in the centre gangway facing the back as we passed a yard near Jerantut and saw 22118 NILAM PURI waiting to leave with a southbound ballast train. Only a handful of these 1970s built English Electric locos are still active, many having been scrapped during the last few years. A number of them were allocated to Emrail for the double-tracking project between Rawang and Ipoh and it is these that are now finding their way back to the rest of the system although several are now at Sentul out of use.
We left mail train 92 at Kuala Lipis at around 1.30 pm and after transferring to the VIP room there we were given a talk and demonstration of how the single line signaling system operated. Later we were shown round the yard - the shed held only engineering trolleys and the turntable was no longer in use or even usable. Later we returned to the station to catch the 1900 mail train, number 58, to Gua Musang. This arrived around 1845 behind 25108 P. PANGKOR and left on time, this leg being covered mostly in darkness and taking around 2 hours. This was a pity as it is one of the more scenic sections with massive limestone outcrops covered in jungle and our start from Gua Musang in the morning was also scheduled to be in the dark. On arrival at Gua Musang we found 24116 TUN KUDU stabled in the loop. We set off to find rooms in the town and then went out to a local outdoor restaurant for food and drinks.
Next morning most of us got up quite early and headed back to the station in the darkness. Three coaches were in the loop but the only locomotive around, 24121 TUN PERAK was still stabled in a dark siding and at our departure time of 7 o'clock nothing had moved but the platform was very crowded. Around 15 minutes later a train approached from the south - it turned out to be the late running Express Timuran, due at 0618, behind 25102. Around this time it was getting light enough to try and take some photographs and a number of us were near 24121 when the crew turned up. After the express had departed we thought it would be our turn but then it transpired that 24121 would not start due to a hydraulic problem. At least this gave us a chance to photograph it against the backdrop of the local limestone cliffs. Around 8 o'clock it was finally coaxed into life and shortly afterwards we set off, only to come to an abrupt halt just after the first bend - 24121 had failed again under power, it could only idle. After another half an hour we got going again - this time backwards as we reversed slowly back into the loop where 24121 was detached, parked in a siding adjacent to the depot and switched off. We would have to wait for another locomotive.
Mail train 93 from Tumpat was due in at 0900 but it did not arrive until 0940, presumably delayed by having to wait for the late running northbound express at one of the passing loops. It was hauled by 6614 and formed of just two coaches. It was scheduled to return as mail train 94, the 1225 to Tumpat, instead it parked the two coaches in the loop behind ours, ran round, and departed with our train just before 10 am, leaving the two coaches for the 1225 with no locomotive. At Kemubu we were shunted into the loop to be passed by 6635 on a southbound passenger train at 1120, probably the late running mail train 91 which should have been there at 1000. 25 minutes later we arrived at Dabong where a southbound light engine, 6657, passed us in the loop. After leaving Dabong we passed through 8 tunnels and numerous bridges in 15 miles and the run of just over 30 miles to Krai took about 1 hour 20 minutes, arrival there being just after 1 pm, about 2½ hours late, so we had made good about half an hour on the run from Gua Musang.
Due to our late arrival a planned visit to the KTMB HQ had to be cancelled, our onward train being due at 1530. We still had time for an explanation of the local signaling system followed by visits to the yard, the former steam shed, now housing engineering stock, and finally a demonstration of the level crossing operation before returning to the station to find that, not surprisingly, mail train 94 was two hours late. The two coaches turned up behind 6657 and we set off at 1718, having already decided to terminate the days run at Wakaf Bahru instead of Tumpat due to the expected late arrival and consequent lack of transport to our hotel in Kota Bahru. At Temangan we crossed the 2½ hours late mail train 83 hauled by 25102 and on arrival at Tanah Merah just before 1800 we saw the missing third coach from our train receiving attention to a bogie, so that was what had delayed its southbound run that morning. We were again looped here to allow a southbound special to Kuala Lumpur, hauled by 6546, to pass - due to the forthcoming holiday a number of extra trains were running. In the yard were some ballast wagons but there was no sign of a class 21 which was reported to have been standing with them some days earlier - later the depot staff at Tumpat suggested that it had been condemned some time previously.
As we approached Pasir Mas we could see the line from Rantau Panjang and Thailand curving in from the north but we would be unable to traverse this line as there were no scheduled trains and no trolleys available. Once again we were looped here to allow 25108 to pass with the southbound Express Wau to Kuala Lumpur. The sun was getting low now and by the time we arrived at Wakaf Bahru it was getting dark. The only locomotive there was a Plymouth 0-4-0 diesel shunter numbered 1942 while in the yard some Thai Railways wagons were being loaded/unloaded. There were no buses here but we got taxis into Kota Bahru where we found a backpackers hotel in the town centre.
The next day we had a free morning in the town and visited the local enclosed market where we sampled some local fruit. In the afternoon we took a bus to nearby Tumpat but by the time it had driven back and forth along every track and visited every Kampong it seemed to have taken about 2 hours to reach our destination. While waiting for permission to visit the depot we walked round the station and found some interesting artifacts, a set of wheels laid out in 2-2-2 formation. Examination of the driving wheels showed them to be 4' 6" diameter and they were stamped with the numbers: "RT 4573 FMSR 102 TONS STEEL 1908 6319". On checking my records Kitson 4573 of 1908 had this size driving wheels and an axle load of around 10 tons (did I miss a decimal point). It was an H class pacific, FMSR 92, works test date 3rd July 1908 and it survived until 1934. I found no match for the number 6319. Had we found part of this locomotive - we may never know.
In the yard were several rakes of coaching stock and 6702 was attached to one. It was now time to visit the depot - just inside the entrance was another set of wheels in 2-2-2 layout below a tall tower and tree, this time the drivers had double curved spokes and fittings for outside frames but there was no time for further examination as we were invited inside the shed. Here we found 24126 SANG SURA and 24104 MAT SALLEH undergoing routine maintenance. We then moved on to a second shed which housed a Cowan's Sheldon steam crane. Moving on outside we passed 6635 in the yard, which also contained several very old coaches, and went to the turntable for a demonstration of its use, albeit without a locomotive. It is still used for turning YDM4s and class 25, which only have single cabs.
Our guide informed us that there used to be a branch line which deviated beyond the level crossing and some remnants could still be seen. We arrived at the level-crossing in time to witness several operations in a 5 minute period as 6702 departed with the 1700 Special to Kuala Lumpur, followed by the 2 class 24s coming off shed to collect their respective rakes for the later trains. At this point I was invited to join a trip by car to the old branch to a pier a mile or so to the north. Apparently this had been destroyed by the Japanese during the war but concrete bridge abutments and pier legs were still standing and the route could still be traced in many places.
We returned to find 24126 waiting in the platform with our train so there was insufficient time to visit the junction as we had to gather our belongings and board the train, which set off precisely on time at 1800. At Wakaf Bahru we passed 6543 on a northbound passenger, perhaps a late running mail train 94 which should have already arrived at Tumpat. We continued southwards in the gathering darkness until about 2015 when we came to sudden halt in the middle of nowhere - we had a red signal (a semaphore). Here we stayed until 2035 when we got a green as the arm lowered and we slowly pulled forward into a loop, it was either Bukit Abu or Kuala Gris. There was a full passenger train in the other loop but no locomotive and many passengers were standing around outside. After a long wait here we finally set off again and a short time later pulled into Dabong where there was another full passenger train with 6346 (or 6546) at the north end and 6702 at the south end, surrounded by orange-jacketed staff. Presumably 6702 had failed north of Dabong and the other YDM had been detached from its own train and sent to push it into the loop at Dabong. After another long wait here we finally set off again and I returned to my seat and fell asleep.
I awoke at Jerantut and noted that 22118 was no longer there and at Kuala Krau we crossed with 24121 at around 0220. We arrived at Gemas around 0515 where 24126 ran round for the journey north up the west coast line as far as Kuala Lumpur. It was dawn when we reached Seremban and we arrived at Kuala Lumpur just before 0830, pulling in opposite 24102 MAT KILAU which was waiting to leave with the Express Sinaran Pagi for Singapore. We went up to the concourse where we took some final group photographs and then said our goodbyes.
It had been an excellent trip and was well organized. All the railway staff we met were extremely helpful. The only problem I had was the last-minute change of starting date from 19th to 16th which meant I had no time to recover from my "jet-lag" before starting the trip and I had trouble staying awake in the afternoons. Would I go again - definitely, but not for a couple of years unfortunately
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