I had the chance to speak to the people who run our Peninsula-wide railway services recently. Ironically, I had to fly to be there, though for context, the event was in Langkawi, and there’s no railway line to the island. But still…
My experience with trains came rather late in life. The nearest that Penang islanders come to a “keretapi” or train, is the Penang Hill funicular, which is hardly a “kereta” and certainly has no “api”.
It was only when I attended boarding school in Ipoh that trains entered my life. The three school term holidays every year meant a midnight ride from Ipoh’s grand Moorish-style station to Butterworth, and a return trip in a few weeks.
When we got to Butterworth around the break of dawn, we crossed the straits to Penang on the old ferries, with the rays of the rising sun glinting across the water amid the cacophony of a new day starting. How much more evocative can it get than that!
But the Ipoh station these days doesn’t look that grand any more. The old, iconic Penang ferries are gone, too. I guess when you’re feeling nostalgic, it’s not a good idea to look back.
Anyway, train rides became a common occurrence for the young me. Term holidays apart, we would also ride the train during short school holidays to far-way places such as the city lights of Kuala Lumpur.
Given that we were always skint, such travels meant buying the 10 sen platform ticket that allowed access only to the platform but not to ride the train. Of course we did both.
During the ride we kept watch for the ticket collector checking passenger’s tickets. He would start from the front coach, and we would slowly retreat to the last coach, at which point there would be nowhere else to go.
What to do? Well, boys did what boys did. We climbed outside, closed the door behind us and hung on to the handrails for dear life until the coast was clear for us to climb back in.
If there are stupider things for adolescent boys to do, I don’t know of any. Still, it got us to Kuala Lumpur and back to Ipoh, many times and in one piece too, which was probably more than we deserved.
Being invited to speak to the railway guys was therefore my long-delayed payment for my unauthorised rides, and I was most honoured to do so.
I’ve ridden many trains since school days, legally of course, including the high-speed ones in Europe and Japan. They’re comfortable, fast and punctual, but nothing beats the old slow clickety-clack train running on unwelded tracks in some remote areas.
One such ride was in Cambodia with the family, from Phnom Penh southwards to the coastal city of Sihanoukville, once known as Kompong Som: a slow, pleasant ride across padi fields and beautiful villages of rural Cambodia.
Another even more memorable one was with my two eldest children, riding the train from Johannesburg to Cape Town in South Africa. That ride took 27 memorable hours!
Many local people came on board and left along the way. The night got quite cold and rowdy and noisy. We kept seeing the railway police march up and down the carriages, at times with somebody in handcuffs.
It feels dangerous remembering it now, but it was exciting and thrilling then. But there indeed are still many places in the world where such train rides are the norm.
I have ridden the Indian trains, too, which was another experience altogether, with passengers in the coaches packed like sardines; it was stressful just thinking about how to get through the packed bodies and out of the train when I reached my destination.
Sadly in Malaysia today, trains are no longer a part of many people’s lives, only appearing in political controversies about high-speed rails across crooked bridges or debt-laden foreign-funded cargo lines bridging our coasts.
Not many people ride what the trade calls heavy rail, as opposed to the light rail services in cities. Total daily ridership averages merely a little over 100,000 across the Peninsula, mostly commuters.
But while there isn’t much romance associated with railways in Malaysia, rail services are thriving globally. European and east Asian nations continue to invest heavily, especially in electric ones such as the exotic maglev trains that literally glide over the rails at huge speeds and great comfort.
While modern trains are expensive, it’s the infrastructure – the rails, bridges, tunnels, signalling equipment and land acquisition etc – which cost real money. This means all rail projects have to be publicly funded, with not much chance of breaking even. It indeed does become a national service, albeit a much-needed one.
Trains are more sustainable than other forms of transport as they can carry loads of people and cargo efficiently. Since they’re all going electric, any advances in generating clean electricity will immediately benefit them and the environment too.
But rail, heavy or light, is a complicated hot potato in Malaysia. The new rail services being built or planned or touted won’t be run by our venerable train operator KTMB, but rather through other arrangements, which may or may not benefit the country.
KTMB merely operates the current train network. It doesn’t own any of the rolling stock or fixed assets, and requires massive subsidies from the taxpayers every year. It’s in limbo between being the government department it once was and a commercial enterprise that it needs to be.
It’s mired in bureaucracy regarding who owns it or pays for it or tells it what to do. You couldn’t have invented a more complex way of running our national rail service.
Hopefully some smart and visionary folks up there (I’m looking at you, ministers of finance and transport…) can sort this out and provide the funds and staff and promote the railway services to get trains back into people’s minds the way it used to be.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.