My romantic & idyllic train travels then & now

by Trailerman Sam

KTM trains then and now

Yippee! Free KTM Commuter Train services on Jan 24 and 25 as well as free Rapid Bus services in the Klang Valley and Penang. Also the 24-hour KTM Commuter Train service for four days and three nights from Jan 23 to 26. They are certainly God-sent!

The Madani government has just sweetened the hearts of almost two million devotees and attendees using public transport during this year’s mammoth Thaipusam celebrations. Vetrivel Muruganukku Arohara, a thanksgiving prayer to Lord Murugan, the bearer of the victorious spear in granting refuge from all the unpleasantness in life, for this as well!

My reading glasses were fogged in disbelief when I read this piece of news in the wee hours of a cold morning some days back with the complement of loud chirping sounds of crickets over my first mug of espresso to start a brand new day. This could be well chiseled in Today In History. Praise to Transport Minister Anthony Loke and hats off to KTM.

Much emphasis has been taken into account for the wellbeing of the estimated 1.6 million or so devotees for Thaipusam this year. It will surely ease up traffic to a certain extent and reduce congestion along major roads, especially those leading to the Batu Caves temple in Kuala Lumpur.

KTM’s train services have come a long way in Malaysia. I recalled taking one of the last smoking iron horse steam engine train from Kuala Lipis to Prai when my dad, then a clerk with KTM, got a transfer.

Kuala Lipis was then the state capital of Pahang in 1899 and remained so until 1955 when Kuantan, the present state capital, took over the honours. Kuala Lipis and its surrounding areas, in the old days, were also noted for their mining and agricultural activities.

When the Prai Station was opened in 1900, it had train platforms, ticket counters and a driveway connected to the Prye (yes, it was spelt that way back then!) Harbour Railway Pier, the former terminus for trains stopping in Penang, and where passengers alighted to take the ferries to the Weld Quay Railway Pier on Penang island and vice versa. This was before the opening of Butterworth Railway Station in 1967.

I remember very well the stories narrated by my dad, long before Independence on Aug 31, 1957, where trains had 1st, 2nd and 3rd class compartments. First class were only for the Orang Putih (white men and their families). Locals were not allowed no matter how filthy rich they might be!

Taking the local mail train, as how it was described during the early 1970s, was more than fun even though a trip from Butterworth to Kuala Lumpur could take anything up to 12 hours. The train would stop at every station, no matter how big or small.

Each station was famous for its food vendors, who were allowed to board the stationary trains and yell out loud what they had in their food baskets. Kaaaa-riiii pap or curry puffs, consisting of curry with chicken and potatoes in a deep-fried or baked pastry shell, were hot-sellers.

Of course, there was a canteen at the end of the caterpillar line of the winding coaches run by the Hainanese Chinese community, famous for its aromatic hot coffee, toasted bread and half boiled eggs, noodles, chicken rice (the list goes on and on). You don’t get such mouth-watering varieties on the modern trains in Malaysia these days.

During the long school holidays, the coaches were extra long as it was the most sought-after means of travelling long distance. If you were to wake up to answer nature’s call, chances of you getting back your original seat would be zero. Every square foot of space would be taken up, including the floor, and even the overhead railings where sarongs would be tied as hammocks for babies to sleep on.

Army personnel, doctors, lawyers, simple village folks, fair maidens were among the many passengers, often waiting to stir up a good conversation which will make the half day journey a well-remembered one. If you were to see a big family travelling together, chances are that they would offer to share their food neatly stacked in tiffin carriers with you.

I had the privilege of travelling free in a second class leather seat coach twice in each calendar year since my dad was a senior clerk with KTM, being entitled to two free travel passes each year. Simplicity without sophisticated gadgets made the train trips of yesteryear interesting. The breeze and scenery from outside the rain as it passed rubber plantations, paddy fields and lush jungles simply blew my mind away as I rode on the diesel-powered locomotives.

Travelling on such a long train journey was always an adventurous way to unearth many remarkable sights of our country. I admit that these sorts of excursions could at times be romantic or idyllic.

Now KTM offers improved electrified trains like the ETS undertaking inter-city trips on the west coast of Peninsula Malaysia. The momentum among the public to opt for this mode of transportation is increasing rapidly.

Take my word, as the number of trains have risen to meet the demand from commuters, I have gotten used to driving my car to the nearest KTM station, park it at the designated parking area for a fee of RM3.17 for a whole day, and jump on a train.

For just RM6.20 for a return journey to Alor Setar for senior citizens, I don’t mind standing or with some luck, seated, throughout the zippy 40-minute trip. It’s that fast these days compared to the times of when Prai was then known as Prye and Seberang Perai was called Province Wellesley!

Trailerman Sam writes from Lunas, Kedah where he observes what’s happening in the country and beyond. The views expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of The Weekly-Echo.