28 November 2008

Malaysian-Singaporean Interlude: The Senandung Malam Ekspres to Singapore

For me the best way to travel from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore (but not the other way around. Why? you'll know when you have finished reading this post) is by rail on the overnight sleeper train “Senandung Malam” (“Song of the Night”). I think that this is the most comfortable and cost effective alternative. In addition, it is much more environmentally friendly than flying.

In the days of the North Star Night Express, forerunner of the Senandung Malam (described in Paul Theroux’s “The Great Railway Bazaar”), such a journey would start at the magnificent Mughal style old Kuala Lumpur Station. The station, as well as the Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad (KTMB) headquarters opposite it, was designed by AB Hubback, a colonial Public Works employee who had served earlier in India.

Drawing of a steam train at the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station. This drawing was made by a Kuala Lumpur street painter based in front of the National Mosque.

But today this marvelous building is only used for commuter and suburban traffic (plus a heritage hotel and office of the Keretapi Tanah Melayu Fans Club). Since 2001, all mainline activities have moved to the modern KL Sentral Station .

Boarding the Senandung Malam at KL Sentral

Second Class Sleeper lower and upper berth

The Second Class Sleeper aisle

First Class Sleeper corridor

First Class Sleeper compartment

In both First Class and Second Class Sleepers passenger are provided with berths, complete with crisp white linens and blankets. The difference is that in First Class the berths are in compartments of twos, each compartment having their own toilet facilities, giving passengers more privacy. Still, if I'm traveling alone I would prefer the Second Class Sleeper, because, besides being cheaper than First Class Sleeper, it actually gives you more privacy. Once the curtains are drawn you have your berth completely for yourself. In a First Class Sleeper, you still would have to share the compartment with somebody else (except if you have booked the compartment for yourself, for which, of course, you would have to pay even more). Third Class on the Senandung Malam consist of reclining seats, not unlike the Kelas Eksekutif of Indonesia's PTKA trains. It is an irony that there are no sleeper cars in Indonesia anymore, though when it was introduced in the 1930's the Staatsspoorwegen (SS) Nacht-Expres (Night Express) was the first train to provide such a service in the southern hemisphere. The standard of service of the Nacht-Expres is said to rival that of Germany's "Mitropa."

Crossing the Causeway. If I'm not mistaken, the pipes in the foreground carry precious Malaysian fresh water for Singapore. Water supply and the status of the railways are sensitive issuses in the relationship between Malaysia and Singapore

At dawn, after on-board passport checks by the Malaysian immigration, the train crosses the Causeway connecting Malaysia and Singapore. A few minutes later the train will stop at Woodlands checkpoint for the Singaporean immigration formalities.

Woodlands Checkpoint

The only unpleasant part of the otherwise pleasant trip is the formalities at Woodlands Checkpoint. Here all passengers have to get off the train carrying all their luggage (nothing should be left behind), pass through immigration and board the train again. The train than continues its journey to its final destination, Singapore Station at the southern tip of the island. Oddly, if you are leaving Singapore you don't have to carry your luggage, just your travel documents.

Singapore Station yard with some rolling stocks of the KTMB

The status of Singapore Station has caused tension between Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore thinks that this valuable piece of land should be developed for more economically profitable use. Malaysia, on the other hand sees the station as Malaysian territory. A few years ago there was a large sign proclaiming “Welcome to Malaysia” in front of the station. The Singaporeans considered this insulting and demanded that it be removed, which eventually the Malaysians reluctantly did.
Because of this “railway dispute,” to travel by train from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur will cost more than two times the cost of travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, also by train. The reason is that the price of tickets bought in Singapore must be paid for in Singapore Dollars, but at the Malaysian Ringgit amount. So for a Senandung Malam lower berth 2nd Class Sleeper ticket which costs 43 Ringgits on the KL-Singapore train, one would have to pay 43 Singapore Dollars for the Singapore - KL train. To avoid paying in Singapore Dollars some people have taken the local transport to Johor Bahru just across of the causeway from Singapore Island and start their journey from there.

From this case, as well as the Woodlands case, I suspect that Singapore is trying to make the train travel as unpleasant as possible, so that eventually KTMB will have to close the line due to lack of passengers. Then, Singapore can take over and develop the station and its grounds.

A Second Class Sleeper carriage at the Singapore Station platform. The small windows are for the upper berths

Central Hall, Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, Singapore

Façade, Tanjong Pagar Station, Singapore

The Tanjong Pagar or Keppel Railway Station was officially opened in 1932 after three years of construction by the Federated Malay States Railways (FMSR). The design was influenced by Eliel Saarinen's Helsinki Station, Finland. The façade has four heroic figures representing Commerce, Agriculture, Industry and Shipping. Above each of the figures can be seen the letters F, M, S, and R respectively.

PS: Following an agreement between Malaysia and Singapore, on July 1, 2011 Tanjong Pagar Station was closed. All trains traveling between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur will now start and terminate their journeys at Woodlands.



Anonymous said...

Very informative and enjoyable article.

Anonymous said...

Starting 1 July 2011 Tanjong Pagar Station is closed, marking the end of an era.

Anonymous said...

This is indeed the end of an era.