Railways – The Iron Spine of Malaya

loading Shortly after the Taiping-Port Weld train began operating, it fatally hit an elephant crossing the track. The poor animal can be seen here, on the right corner of the photograph. Photo: Personal collection.

The formation of the very first railway system in the Malay Peninsula in the late nineteenth century revolutionised the way economic commodities were transported. It was so significant that it elevated Malaya’s economic importance among British colonies in the Far East.

Before the construction of the railway line, tin ore was transported using ox-carts. In the mid-nineteenth century, however, an endemic foot-and-mouth disease swept through Taiping, claiming the lives of thousands of cattle and crippling the transportation system.

During this period, cart owners drastically raised their fares due to the shortage of cattle. This sudden surge in transportation cost frustrated the British colonial administration so much that it resulted in the idea of building a systematic railway track.

An early railway map drafted by the Federated Malay States Railways. The success of the railway system in Perak sparked off a flurry of track construction throughout the country. Photo: Personal collection.

It was in Taiping that the British decided to build the country’s very first railway track connecting it with Port Weld – modern-day Kuala Sepetang – in order to speed up the transportation of tin ore extracted from the numerous tin mines in the nearby town of Larut.1

The old Taiping railway station was opened and officiated by the then British resident of Perak, Sir Hugh Low, on June 1, 1885.

History recounts two interesting incidents that happened then: it was said that during the opening ceremony, many prominent British colonial officers, including Low, who had gathered at the train station to greet the arrival of the inaugural train from Port Weld, were kept waiting for over an hour. The railway station master sent some officers to check what could have gone wrong, and found out that the train operator was drunk the night before, and was late for the scheduled train that morning!

Another incident which happened shortly after services began was when an elephant was said to have crossed the track and was fatally hit by an oncoming train; the skull of the elephant is preserved at the Perak Museum as a reminder of that incident.2

With the completion of the railway, the British could easily shuttle tin from Taiping to Port Weld before shipping it out via steamship vessels to Britain and beyond.

The success of the railway system in Perak sparked off a flurry of track construction throughout the country, starting with the construction of the rail track and formation of the Muar State Railway company in Johor, followed by Selangor, Sungei Ujong (Negeri Sembilan), and the Straits Settlements of Singapore and Province Wellesley, which were all completed within a few years after the construction of the Taiping-Port Weld line. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were at least six railway companies throughout British Malaya.

Birth of the Federated Malay States Railways

Initially, the various state-established railway companies were managed independently. When the Federated Malay States (FMS) were established in 1895, its far-sighted first Resident general, Sir Frank Swettenham, proposed to have all of the existing railways connected with each other by extending it from Province Wellesley all the way down to the southernmost territory of the Federated Malay States, Port Dickson in Negeri Sembilan, to unify the railway network under a single administration.3

The original photo of the old Sungai Muda railway bridge. Photo: Personal collection.

Understanding the potential of such a vast rail network providing access to more undeveloped agricultural land, in turn diversifying sources of revenue apart from tin, and improving administrative efficiency by connecting the FMS with the Straits Settlements, the British Colonial Office in London swiftly approved Swettenham’s ambitious plan.4

Construction of the railroad extensions began immediately upon approval, one year after the formation of the FMS. Work concluded in 1903 with the completion of the Prai-Port Dickson railway line.

In the meanwhile, the Federated Malay States Railways (FMSR) was established in 1901 to merge and manage the existing railway companies and rail tracks under its banner. The amalgamation of railway companies, which took place over the coming years, began with the absorption of the Perak Government Railway and Selangor Railway into the administrative framework of the FMSR. The year 1905 would witness the completion of a major railroad extension from Malacca to Tampin, and later on to Gemas and southwards to Singapore.5

Facade of the old Sungai Muda railway bridge today. Photo: Enzo Sim.

However, all this came to a halt when the Japanese invaded Malaya and Singapore on December 8, 1941.6 During the Japanese Occupation, which lasted three years and seven months, the Japanese Imperial Army closed and subsequently dismantled some of the minor branch lines to be used as construction material at the infamous Thailand-Burma Railway. The rail network also suffered damages during the initial bombing runs in the beginning of the invasion.7

When the British returned to Malaya after Japanese surrender in 1945, the FMSR continued to operate as an entity for three years under the British Military Administration and the short-lived Malayan Union before it was renamed the Malayan Railway Administration following the formation of the Federation of Malaya in 1948.

The Malayan Railway Administration was further rebranded as Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) in 1962, just a year before the formation of Malaysia, and exists today as the sole operator of the country’s modern railroad network, which spans from Singapore to Padang Besar.

Enduring Architectural Legacies

Today, what is left from the golden era of rail transport can be found in the form of the classical railway stations that dot the country. Among the most significant are the wooden Taiping Railway Station; the Indo-Saracenic-style Kuala Lumpur Station along Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin, built in 1911; the late-Edwardian Baroque-style Ipoh Railway Station, completed in 1917; the Art Deco-style Johore Bahru Railway Station, built in 1932; the FMSR Terminal Office Building in Penang, built in 1907; and the Tanjong Pagar Station, completed in 1932 in Singapore.

The old Kuala Lumpur Railway Station and the Ipoh Railway Station were built by Arthur Benison Hubback, the British Architectural Assistant to the Director of Public Works of Malaya.8 Hubback also designed the FMSR Terminal Office Building, which was famously known as “the railway station without a railway” as it was constructed to serve as a ticketing and administration office; passengers had to commute to the Prai Railway Station in Province Wellesley to board the train.9

The old Kuala Lumpur Railway Station. Photo: Anan Bootviengpunth/123RF.COM.

Hubback’s other notable works include the Moorish-style Jamek Mosque, the iconic Sultan Abdul Samad Building, Carcosa Seri Negara in KL and the Old Post Office in Ipoh. Elsewhere in Perak, the Malay College Kuala Kangsar and Ubudiah Mosque were also products of his design.10

Apart from the railway stations, steel railway bridges were built across major rivers. While some of them are still in well-kept condition, most of them have been forgotten, and have been reclaimed by nature.

Among the best preserved railway bridge is the Victoria Bridge in Karai, Perak. This was commissioned in December 1897 by the Perak Government Railway and was officially opened by Sultan Idris Shah I in March 1900.11 Victoria Bridge remained in use up till 2002, when a wider concrete girder bridge was constructed parallel to the old bridge. Although it has since been closed to rail traffic, its adjoining footbridge is still open to motorcycles and pedestrians.

Up north at Pinang Tunggal, spanning the Muda River is a steel railway bridge which still stands today despite being in a state of disrepair. It was completed in 1915, at the same time as the completion of the railway segment connecting Gurun with Pinang Tunggal.

As with Victoria Bridge, the huge iron frames, nuts and bolts used to build the bridge were of exceptional quality and were imported from Britain. It was the only railway bridge that was constructed without supporting concrete pillars embedded on the riverbed; instead, the British engineers built sturdy brick abutments on the grassy banks on both sides of the Muda River to support both ends of the bridge.12

That these bridges still survive today is evidence of how importantly the railways were considered only not too long ago.

Enzo Sim is a Mass Communications graduate who has an unwavering passion towards International Relations, history and regional affairs of South-east Asia. His passion has brought him to different South-east Asian capitals to explore the diverse cultural intricacies within the region.
1"Landasan Keretapi Yang Pertama di Tanah Melayu". Archived from the original on 23 April 2009. Retrieved 28 May 2019.
2Unpublished Locomotive list of Malayan Steam Locomotives”, compiled from Kitson, Beyer Peacock, North British Locomotive Co, Nasmyth & Wilson, Stephenson, Baldwin and Vulcan Foundry Works Lists.
3Swettenham, Frank (1941). Footprints in Malaya. London, New York, Melbourne: Hutchinson & Co. p. 33.
4Turnbull, CM (1972) The Straits Settlements, 1826–1867: Indian Presidency to Crown Colony, Athlone Press, London. P3
5Swettenham, Frank (1905). "The Straits Settlements and Beyond". The Empire and the century. London: John Murray. pp. 827–834
6Dull, Paul S (2007). “A battle history of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1941–1945”. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. p. 40. ISBN 978-1- 59114-219-5. Retrieved 28 May 2019
7Tourret, R. (1995). “Allied Military Locomotives of the Second World War”. Abingdon, Oxon: Tourret Publishing. ISBN 0-905878-06-X
8"Malayan Railway Administration Office (KTM Berhad)". Dewan Budaya. Pusat Pengajian Seni, Universiti Sains Malaysia. Archived from the original on 29 May 2019
9"Former FMS Railways Central Offices". Warisan Peliharaan. Retrieved 28 May 2019
10"Malay College (MCKK) – Malay Residential School, Kuala Kangsar, Perak". flikr. Retrieved 28 May 2019
11"The Forgotten Bridge", an illustrated explanation of the Victoria Bridge. Retrieved 28 May 2019
12Pike, Alan J. (February 2013). "FMSR". Continental Modeller. Beer, Seaton, Devon: Peco Publications and Publicity Ltd. pp. 98–101

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