Decades ago, a bus journey from Butterworth to Padang Serai (where my aunty lived) would take us through a little town called Tasik Gelugor (‘半路店’ in Chinese, meaning ‘halfway shop’).
There was a gated railway level crossing at the fringe of this town. For a young boy, the Great Expectation was, hopefully, the bus would arrive in time to witness a train passing. (And many times it happened!) Wow, what a delight to watch the long string of heavy coaches and metal wagons go rumbling by, preceded by several long puffs of the airhorns from the locomotive! Choo-oo! Choo-oo!
There was a railway worker stationed at the crossing, to manually move the gates into positions to barricade the road traffic whenever a train was due to cross. Size did matter – and always had the right of way.
Sounds like a Success 101 tagline, right?
Well, my train of thoughts today was hauled back into the past, with my journeys on the old Keretapi Tanah Melayu. Since young I noticed that at stations, the railway line split into several branch tracks, and so I wondered, “How does the train get on the right one?”
The inquisitive Early Nerdy me led to an interesting discovery that at each station, there was a set of large levers with several colours and a worker yanked at one or more of them, to shift sections of rails for alignment to the intended path of the train. (Lesson: configuring a one-track mind for multiple passage ways)
These days, computerized automation has largely supplanted these manually-activated mechanisms. Nevertheless, some of these vintage lever sets can still be seen at several old KTM stations.
1964 was milestone year of great significance for rail travel in Malaysia, as KTM finally made that great leap forward over the River Prai. The opening of the Swing Bridge allowed the railway tracks to move onward to Butterworth.
Prior to that, goods and passengers had to be transported via a special “train ferry” between Penang Island and Prai Town.
The swing bridge could be swivelled around to allow ships to pass through.
I had a frightening experience once, circa 1972, when with a friend, tried cycling along the railway track on it. We heard the train whistle, and in my panic, had my bike pedal caught in the steel rail. Adrenaline gushed in, and I was able to extract myself in time – albeit with a gashed toe — and live to tell you the story.
The bridge was replaced by a twin-track one in 2013.
Look, it’s a train, no, it’s a bus….aiya, no lah, it’s a Railbus, haha
In 1987, KTM started operating a fleet of 10 Hungarian-made “railbuses”. Among the routes were :-
- Ipoh/Kuala Lumpur/Ipoh
- Port Klang/KL/Sentul
I remember travelling once in the early 1990s from SGP to Kulai for a work assignment (my company had a factory in Bandar Tenggara).
There were many complaints though….no aircon, trains were wobbly,etc. After a few years these were withdrawn from service.
Has anyone else travelled on one of these railbuses ?
In the early days, a KTM train jouney on the Butterworth-KL sector took something like 9 gruelling hours with the slow mail train making umpteen stops along the way.
For kids, every trip was an adventure. The most eagerly anticipated events were the encounters with the 4 tunnels of Bukit Berapit. Two long and two short ones. (The British were clever not to have made it Three Long and Two Short, 三長兩短). If I remember correctly, the second tunnel south of Taiping was the longest of the four.
With the opening of the new twin-tunnel in conjunction with double tracking and electrification, these tunnels (and tracks) would probably fade into history or else be reclaimed by the jungle. There are some proposals to preserve them…will there be new light at the ends of these tunnels ?