Monday, January 09, 2012

1960s Singapore – The Railway (by Tim Light)

In my smoky Yorkshire village of Saltaire there was a main line railway. It was part of the Midland Railway’s route to Scotland, and small boys like me would pass the hours watching trains. The intensity of traffic and variety of trains made it a very absorbing pastime. In the 1950s most trains were still steam hauled.

Arriving in Singapore in 1961, I hadn’t expected to discover any trains, but living in Woodlands, we soon discovered that Singapore did indeed have a railway, with some most impressive trains. I first saw the line when crossing the causeway to JB. My father pointed out the much narrower track gauge, compared with the UK. Coming back across the causeway we drove parallel to the most impressive train I had ever seen. The locomotive was a sleek, modern diesel loco, painted in shiny green and lettered Malayan Railways. It was pulling … well I didn’t count them … but it looked like about 20 sleek modern-looking carriages, all painted in brown and cream. It was a most impressive sight, and one that was repeated frequently during our stay.

Not all trains were as impressive. What we had seen was the main daytime express from Kula Lumpur. There were other, less glamorous trains, many of which were carrying freight. These were usually headed by a large black steam locomotive. The most immediately noticeable feature of the steam locos was the very large yellow number painted on the tender. Very handy for trainspotters. Back home you were lucky to be able to decipher the engine numbers because they were much smaller and covered with grime.

More about the engines later.

In 1961, Singapore had just one main railway line, linking Tanjong Pagar with the Johore Bahru, and a few sidings to industrial locations and the docks. From the causeway, the line paralleled Woodlands Road and Bukit Timah Road as far as Bukit Timah, where it headed south towards Holland Park and Buona Vista. It was on the Woodlands to Bukit Timah section that we saw most of our trains. By 1962 we were living at Hong Kong Park, off Dunearn Road, with a daily return trip to the Royal Naval School at Sembawang, so we were alongside the railway for much of the journey. I was constantly on the lookout for trains, and the biggest treat was always the KL Express. I noticed that, despite its sleekness, it didn’t go all that fast, and our school bus could keep pace with it between stops. I later learned that the Malayan Railway (KTM) had a top speed of 45 MPH, and that this limit still persists in many places today.

My brother was even keener on trains than I was, and he persuaded my father to take us to the station at Tanjong Pagar. There was nothing there except a diesel shunting locomotive, pottering around. And a quick look at the timetable showed that there would be a long time before the next train, so we left having seen only an empty station. The station itself was impressive enough, but my brother and I wanted to see trains.

Trips up-country had the added flavour of a bit of train-spotting from the back of the car. We took an annual holiday in the Cameron Highlands or Penang, and large parts of the route were in sight of the KTM main line. Along with fleeting glimpses of moving trains, we would see bigger concentrations of rolling stock at some of the towns like Gemas, Segamat and Seremban. We stayed overnight at KL, which in the 1960s was a full day’s drive from Singapore. At KL we always stopped at the Majestic Hotel, which was just over the road from the very fine KL station. Only once did we convince my father to take us to the stations and … guess what … not a train in sight. And nothing due. This was in the days before KTM Komuter, and trains around KL were very infrequent. We had the immense frustration of driving past the main engine shed at KL, full of locomotives, and no sympathy from my father who had hundreds of miles to drive and didn’t want to stop.

As we grew older, we were allowed a little more freedom, and one day, just for fun, we took a ride from Tanjong Pagar to Bukit Timah. Before catching the train we “bunked” the engine shed. That’s an expression used by British trainspotters who would sneak around an engine shed without permission. Well we had a good look around, and nobody seemed to care. There were a handful of engines, some steam and some diesel. Back at the station things started to misfire. We went to the ticket office and asked for tickets to Bukit Timah. “Pay on the train.” We were told. So we jumped on board one of the old wooden carriages. This was not the sleek KL express. The train was an afternoon “mixed”, heading to Gemas. A “mixed” train carries both passengers and goods. This train probably stopped at every station between Singapore and Gemas, and shunted wagons “on demand”. There were three rickety old carriages with completely open windows … much better than air conditioning. At the back were a few goods wagons; maybe three or four. One of the steam locomotives had left the shed and backed on to the train. The guard blew his whistle and soon we were trundling past the goods yards and engine shed, past modern flats and kampongs, jungle and coconut groves. Just as we were enjoying the ride, the guard came in and demanded to see our tickets. We told him that we had been told to pay on the train, but he didn’t believe us. He was convinced that we were fare-dodging, and nothing was going to convince him otherwise. Before we knew it we had arrived at Bukit Timah, and he decided to let us off with a warning. Anyway … the “mixed” was being held in the station at Bukit Timah to allow a southbound train to cross. When it arrived it was the express from KL, behind the shiny modern diesel. The express went through at about 20 MPH, and the token was exchanged to allow it to proceed to Tanjung Pagar. The Woodlands-Bukit Timah token was then handed to the driver of the mixed, allowing him to proceed to Woodlands. We watched the “mixed” chug slowly over the girder bridge and away into the distance.

During my time in Singapore I knew very little about the railway and its engines. I just enjoyed watching them. Since then I have read whatever books and articles I could get my hands on. In terms of motive power, there was very little variety in the 1960s, especially south of the causeway. In the years after the war KTM had successfully standardised on a handful of modern types. There were essentially two types of diesel and one type of steam locomotive to be seen in Singapore. These were:

Class 20 Diesels. These were the sleek, modern express passenger engines that were used on the KL expresses. They were built in 1957 by the English Electric company, and were front-line power on KTM for about 15-20 years. As more modern diesels came along in the 1970s they were relegated to freight and other more humble duties. In the 1960s they were plain green with a highly varnished finish. In the 1970s the livery was changed to maroon with a yellow “go-faster” stripe, and in the 1980s they were defaced by some indescribable colour schemes. One example survives in a museum in KL.

Class 20 @ Bukit Timah, late 1950s

Class 20 @ Causeway c 1960

Class 15 Diesels. These were the standard yard shunters, also built by English Electric, in 1948. Singapore had a few for shunting the station, freight yards and sidings. They were painted bright orange, much the same colour that KTMB still use for their shunting engines. One class 15 survives as part of the KTMB museum collection.

Class 15 @ Singapore c 1962

Class 56 steam locos. This was a highly successful design, produced by the North British Locomotive Company in 1938 for the Federated Malay States Railway. The design had a number of very modern features, including poppet valve gear and roller bearings. It was so successful that three further batches were ordered after the war, allowing hundreds of older FMSR locos to be scrapped. These were the front line locos from 1938 until the diesels arrived in 1957. After that they soldiered on until the mid-1970s on secondary duties, but still able to substitute for a Class 20 if needed. By the 1960s these engines were fired by oil, rather than coal, and heavy black smoke was one of their trademarks. My impression of the 56’s was of an imposing engine that always looked dignified whatever it was doing. 

Class 56 @ Singapore shed c 1963

Class 56 @ Singapore shed c 1963

Other types of engine visited Singapore occasionally, but I never saw them on the island.

In 2001, whilst staying with friends in KL, I made a return trip to Singapore, travelling down on the overnight train from KL Sentral. I could hardly believe that this train took ten and a half hours to reach its destination. No faster than 70 years earlier. I was unimpressed by the accommodation – a second class coach, air-conditioned. The main irritation was the TV set which was on all night. But I was also disappointed that I couldn’t open the window and feel the breeze, like I had done all those years ago. I was too excited to sleep, and I was kept entertained by an Indian medicine man, who was on his way to Singapore to sell his cure-all medicine. He could cure me of everything from cancer to impotence, snake bites and Malaria. He had some very interesting testimonials from celebrities who had had their impotence cured by his medicine. At Gemas I was thrilled to see one of the old steam locos parked on the platform, and another in a siding. The formalities at Woodlands were farcical. We had to detrain, go through customs and passport control as if it was an airport, whilst sniffer dogs patrolled the train. Then after a long delay we were allowed to get back on board for the last few miles to Tanjong Pagar. The whole process took 50 minutes. Back in 1961 there were no formalities whatsoever. I know that Singapore and Malaysia are different countries, but surely good neighbours can come to a better arrangement. Anyway, it’s all over now. Woodlands is the terminus, and passengers have to make other arrangements to get to their final destinations.


Me on a train in Singapore 1968

For more information on Malayan Railways/KTM, and railways and trams of Singapore, I recommend Malcolm Wilton-Jones’ very good web site:


Icemoon said...

Thanks for the article. I always thought Class 20 looks like a Chuggington, haha.

Lam Chun See said...

Sorry. Earlier, I got the photos mixed up.

Brian and Tess said...

Very interesting and thanks for an excellent blog. I was (as past blogs from me have shown) a plane rather than a train spotter (and Spore in the 60s was an excellent place for this hobby). I wonder - is this spotting bug something we English suffer from? Is there any evidence of this sort of interest afflicting you Sporeans?

Lam Chun See said...

Yes. There are many such train-spotters in Spore. And every bit as zealous as Tim. I only found out from the various documentaries that were shown on tv recently; after the closing of the KTM line. And some of them are very young. Teenagers.

shankar said...

Born in 1948 in Singapore and constantly traveling to KL by train to visit family members was some of the best of times. I remember the steam engine where i was constantly remaindered by my dad to not to stick my head out. Black soot... Will be visiting Singapore and Malaysia this summer.

Tim said...

Shankar - it would be good to hear your experiences of travelling by train in Malaya.

There is a railfans organisation that organises trips and visits:

Unfortunately there is no organised railway preservation, and there are very few really historic relics, and nothing operational.

There are still quite a few old carriages and wagons rusting in sidings up and down the country, but nobody has the interest or resources to save them.

I wondered if Singapore might assemble an old train in the station, just as a central feature of the site, assuming it is not demolished.

ANDY: Pop Music Not Pills. © said...

Refreshing trips trains! Took a train to Kuala Lumpur once and saw some rainforest.

Been on trains in Manitoba, Canada and saw the prairies and bisons.

In the UK it was a different view. Lots and lots of beautiful English countryside that you don't want to miss.

"Train, train, comin' round, round the bend..."

Lam Chun See said...

When my firstborn was a baby, she cried every night and I had to sing her to sleep. My two favourite songs were; 緑岛小夜曲 and Morningtown Ride.

Train whistle blowing, Makes a sleepy noise. Underneath the blankets, for all the girls and boys,. Haha.

Tim said...

Last train ... to San Fernando. Last train ... to San Fernando. If you miss this one, you'll never get another one. Iddy Biddy Bum Bum. To San Fernando.

Joseph Wong said...

Is the Oriental Express (that atas train to Bangkok) still operating? They used to run it but haven't heard about it for years.

Tim said...

The Oriental Express is a Chinese takeaway in Bradford .....

Only joking!

According to the web site it still runs, but presumably it starts at Woodlands or JB these days?

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Itchy said...

Hi, just like to say that I found your blog very good in terms of information. Do you happen to have any more pictures showing the causeway, taken around 1960, other than the Class 20 ? I would like to use that photo in a video, and was wondering about how to credit you.

Tim said...

Hi Itchy Fingers

I have quite a few causeway pictures taken at various times. Have a look at this web page:

Anonymous said...

Hi Tim,

Sorry for taking so long. Its hard to get into that website. Is there any other websites?

Malcolm said...

Hi, Tims site has closed down but mine is still available at it has loads of information on railways in that part of the world including a full history of Singapore and I have started on a history of Railways in Malaysia but still have more to add. Lots of stuff from the 1960s and 1970s when I lived there.

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