Trains Journeys in Malaysia

  1. Bookings, Types of Trains/Class and Services
  2. 1st journey – Ipoh to Segamat
  3. 2nd leg – Ipoh to Sg Petani
  4. 3rd leg – Alor Setar to Butterworth
  5. Malaysia’s Jungle Train
    1. Student trains on the Jungle Train Line

My love for riding trains developed during my childhood days, around 6 years old.  My siblings and I lived in Ipoh city with mum and dad worked in the plantations near Kuala Kurau (105 km).  We only see him on weekends. However, during school holidays, we travel to see him in the plantation.

Friday, I am all excited anticipating the impending journey. The majestic Ipoh Railway Station, with its stunning Moorish domes and English architecture, is walking distance from home. It is always crowded. Printed razor blade size platform tickets, are required before boarding. There are a multitude of activities amidst steam gushing out from the engine; engineers in oil stained overalls – checking and oiling the iron shafts; station workers hurrying along the platform – unloading and loading assortment of goods; occasional loud clanging of wagons being hooked up; passengers scurrying, with baggage and children in hand, sorting out their carriages and seats.

I loved the seemingly chaotic scene intoxicated with the scent of hot oil and diesel. In the final scenes, looking out from the open window, train conductors waved red and green flags indicating readiness for departure. The station master handed over the track key, an oval shaped ring with a key, to the locomotive engineer before taking his place at the platform. Whistles are blown frantically indicating departure is eminent. The final clearance is given by the station master. Engine horns are sounded several times. A big jolt rumbled through the carriages, numbering over 15, as the brakes are released. Then, the engines roared. Followed by churning of the iron wheels. Slowly but surely our journey began.

Like many other children,  I hardly sat on the seat. Instead, put my head out the window with the air brushing through the hair and face. The train passed through towns – stopping regularly, rustic villages, rubber plantations, bridged rivers and dense jungles. The distinct clickty-clack sound of the wheels as they rolled over the gaps on the iron tracks; the gentle sway of the carriages; the haunting sound while passing through tunnels and iron bridges; the dizzying sight of the track while pissing in the toilet and the challenges in crossing from coach to coach over the rather exposed and continuously moving platforms. At each stop, vendors hurried onto the platform and boarded the coaches to sell food and drinks. Buying and selling is brisk and sometimes on the go, with vendors running as the train departed. I loved those moments. All these experiences had etched my love for train travel.

On my return to Ipoh this April 2022, after two years of covid restrictions and quarantine isolation in Malaysia and NZ, I decided to re-live my past experiences of train journeys. There was an urgency as old diesel engines had been replaced with modern electric trains. Plans to electrify all the lines in the country is under rapid construction. The West Coast Railway Line from Singapore via Gemas to Thailand border at Padang Besar is complete. An offshoot track from Bukit Mertajam terminated at Butterworth . Concrete replaced  rustic hardwood railway sleepers. Even, the old stations had been replaced or abandoned. Fortunately some, although not in use anymore, are still around. The majestic Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur Stations are both old school iconic heritage buildings. They are irreplaceable. Fortunately, the East Coast Railway Line –  from Gemas to Tumpat –  sometimes referred as ‘The Jungle Train’, still retained some of its nostalgic past –  diesel engine trains with sleeper carriages snaking alongside mountains and a rapidly diminishing jungle. Unfortunately, with modern coaches, windows are sealed for air conditioning. A price to pay for comfort.

Bookings, Types of Trains/Class and Services

All bookings can be done online or stations. Railways in Malaysia is managed by Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM). For a alternate train information, please go to full inter city schedule.

There are several types of trains –  (1) ETS,  electrified double tracked intercity passenger service on the West Coast Railway Line (WCRL) operating from Gemas to Butterworth (7 hours)/Padang Besar (about 8.5 hours). Southbound from Gemas, ETS is under construction. However, a train shuttle service is available from Gemas to Johor Bahru/Kempas Baru and onward to Singapore. ETS is the fastest train service in Malaysia. Ticket prices are based on class of trains – Platinum, Gold or Silver (the classes are classified from the number of stops). Executive/Business seats cost more compared to Standard.

(2) KTM Intercity service is hauled by diesel engines with services on the East Coast Railway Line (ECRL). The 16.5 hours service is from Johor Bahru Sentral to Tumpat (in both directions) on the Express Rakyat Timuran (ERT 26/27). Sometimes referred to as the Jungle Train. The  route passed through the virgin jungles at several places along the main Titiwangsa Range. This has the only sleeper amenity. This service is on a single track. Only at strategic stations, can northbound and southbound trains pass. Therefore, this service is not for those in a hurry. To fully appreciate the Jungle Train, find the best connections for daytime journey.

(3) Another service to complement ECRL is the DMU, a diesel powered shuttle service currently operating between Gemas to Kuala Lipis and another Kuala Lipis to Tumpat. They use the same single track on the ECRL.

1st journey – Ipoh to Segamat

Starting my journey in Ipoh Railway Station, I did several journeys northbound and southbound during my stay. Ipoh Station has a majestic architecture – a English colonial building with Moorish domes built in 1917. The second floor housed the now defunct Majestic Hotel. The first segment was to Segamat on the ETS.

Ipoh is where I was born and educated. I highly recommend everyone to explore my hometown – old town that tin built, colonial buildings, delicious street food and old coffee shops, limestone cave temples and easy pace of life.

Not far from Ipoh is old single platform wooden Batu Gajah Station. During my childhood, Mum would bring us here by train to visit our grandfather whom worked in Malayan Tin Dredging Company. Staff were given accommodation. The housing area were surrounded with mining pools. I remembered a bakery nearby. Today, the heydays of tin mining is over. The housing quarters are now privately owned housing. I was pleasantly surprised that the bakery is still operated by the same family! Furthermore, the old station is now a eatery. The building and colours had been retained. Batu Gajah was a colonial (English) administrative town. Remnants of the old colonial buildings are still being continuously used by the local government.

The intriguing Kellie’s Castle is nearby. Today, ex-mining pools are filled with wild water hyacinth and lotus. Along the train journey,  sporadic patches of rubber small-holdings had been replaced by large tracts of Oil Palm plantations. However, it was wonderful to see traditional village houses as the train whizzed past.

Next stop is Kampar Station, another town that tin built. In my youth, we arrived at Kampar to continue onward west towards Teluk Intan and to Lumut/Pangkor Island. This was before the new highway was built. I remembered the famous chicken curry within a baked bread. Today, cooks gave a new mouth watering name- “golden pillow”.

We passed Tapah Road Station. This used to be the gateway to the cool highlands – Cameron Highlands. The area is intensively cultivated with tea, vegetables and horticulture (fruits and ornamental). However, with greed to cultivate more, surrounding hills and mountains have been cut and developed. Today, it is not as cool as the days I was there. It’s a shame. Still, something different from the lowlands. Some colonial buildings still remain. Another entry point into Cameron Highland is from Simpang Pulai, near Ipoh. The more exciting road journey would be from Gua Musang, across the main Titiwangsa Range, via Lojing Highlands. More about this later.

Past Tapah Road, the desolate ex-mining lands are replaced with large tracks of Palm Oil cultivation and small pockets of forests. The main North-South Titiwangsa Range (form the spine of Peninsula Malaysia) becomes visible. Once past Rawang, the scenery changed to mostly urban and small scale cultivated fields.  This continued till the stunning and stylish Kuala Lumpur Station – now relegated to a ‘stop-over’. Before KL Sentral Station, this was the central station. It has lost some shine. Although dated, it still has a wonderful old world charm.

Kuala Lumpur Sentral Station (KL Sentral)  is the major transit or connection hub going south. This is the heartbeat of all intercity and city commuter (LRT/MRT)  trains. Every time I return to Malaysia and KL Sentral, my ritual is to dine at Le Cucur – to acclimatise my taste buds in local cuisine – Laksa, Curry Mee and an assortment of sweet treats. Not this time though as my journey continued south to Gemas.

From KL to Gemas, the journey passed through more oil palm plantations. Across Negeri Sembilan, Minangkabau houses with corrugated iron roof dot the landscape. Tanpin Station is the stop to continue a road journey to Melaka. At around 1450, past a large depot, our train arrived at the Gemas Station. This was my second time here. The first was many years ago with the 1151km West Coast diesel train that plied between Padang Besar (Malaysia-Thailand border) to Woodlands, Singapore. Personally, that period was the golden years of train travel in Malaysia. These days, with sealed windows and doors, we are sanitised from the exterior environment! I missed that experience.

Gemas Station is the only meeting point between the East Coast and West Coast trains. Hence, its significance. Therefore, purchasing tickets between Ipoh and Johor Bahru on the booking website is currently not possible. The booking should be :- Ipoh – Gemas and another from Gemas – Segamat/Johor Bahru. This will soon change when all the southbound lines are fully electrified for ETS. The electrification upgrade on the West Coast line is under rapid construction.

The southbound diesel engine train Express 45 to Segamat was waiting on the adjacent platform. Frantic exchange of north and south bound passengers was brief. With whistles, waving of green flag and toot from the blow horn, we pulled out at 1523. The ETS that I arrived departed Gemas to Butterworth at 1520. Printed tickets gets clipped like the old days. It was sobering to see pockets of forest, villages and river crossings. However, the ever expanding palm plantations had claimed most of the land.

My final destination on this journey- Segamat Station was a simple temporary structure. I met up with my long time mates – Chen and Mee Lian. We planned an exciting adventure program (on a separate post – hiking Gunung Datuk and Kolam Puteri, and camping in nature- Endau Rompin National Park). We drove past a massive construction – the new train station. Apart from KL Sentral, this place is huge. Why such an enormous station here baffled me and local residents Chen and Mee Lian too. Time for catch up over white coffee and kaya-butter toast at a kopi-tiam.

My journey to Segamat coincided with a national holiday – Hari Raya (Muslim celebration after Ramadan month of fasting). In town, residents were busy with shopping.  Temporary road side stalls sold the popular ‘lemang – glutinous rice wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in bamboo. Kerosene lamps on bamboo poles lit up streets and homes. Festivities are alive in Malaysia. All this amidst COVID. Even the train station became an ‘attraction’ for smartly dressed locals and visitors with families. I discovered this on my departure. In town, I managed to witness an abandoned old  railway bridge with the old tracks on hardwood railway sleepers still intact, over a muddy Segamat River. The new and modern electric lines run parallel to it.

On my return journey to Ipoh, I wandered around Gemas town, just across the new station. It still retained its atmospheric old town vibe. I discovered the Gemas Train Museum, the town’s old station. It is in shambles. Gates were locked but I managed to get access through a side fence. Old Gemas Station remained in a dilapidated state with piles of empty alcohol bottles and rubbish. Probably occupied by drug addicts and the homeless. In the arrival lobby, dogs slept on cool cement floor. On the old rusty tracks, deteriorated goods wagons stood in silence, a reminder of a bygone era.

2nd leg – Ipoh to Sg Petani

The northbound West Coast Line terminated in Padang Besar. However, my final destination was to Alor Setar, a place I first worked (for 3.5 years) after graduation – Muda Agriculture Development Authority. Strangely since I left, I had not revisited it again. Can’t explain! Anyway, this time I decided to catch up with some of the few remaining friends/former colleagues.  However, at my friend Syed’s request, stopped over at his home in Sg Petani. My journey started in my hometown – Ipoh. Going north of Ipoh by ETS is the most convenient public transport – both to Penang and Thai border. Once out of Ipoh town, limestone hills become prominent. In fact, Ipoh is surrounded by limestone hills. Small rubber holdings and palm cultivations are prevalent between Tasek and Sg Siput. Housing schemes had also extended here. A cement production plant in Tasek is unmissable. The journey is mostly through semi-rural towns and cropping areas. We reached Kuala Kangsar Station.

Kuala Kangsar, on the banks of Perak River is a significant town – in fact a Royal Town where the Sultanate of Perak has residence. You’ll know when gates and road side structures are painted in gold (colour). Some of the interesting sights are the Ubudiah mosque, Royal Museum and the historic Victoria Bridge (built in 1892 -1900). Other interesting sight is cruising on Perak River and sampling local food and culture. This is also the stop for those heading toward the East Coast to Kota Bahru via the Royal Belum Forest/Temenggor Dam/Pulau Banding. Be warned, public transportation is scares. The main mountain range is now closer as we leave Kuala Kangsar and the train begins to climb towards Padang Rengas. The air is significantly cooler and the train tracks are sandwiched between rubber, palm plantations and forest. A tunnel cuts through the mountains to significantly reduce time and cost. Small holding inter-spread with secondary forest. Then descends towards Taiping Station.

Taiping, one of my favourite places is a must stop. It has plenty to offer – a major colonial town with plenty of colonial building and architecture, old markets and food courts, museums and rest houses. There is even a hill station – Maxwell Hill (accommodations were closed at the time of visit). However, the best thing to do is walking up the steep hill early in the morning as the locals do. The lake garden surrounded by ancient rain trees, war memorial cemetery and zoo should keep anyone busy for a few days. A common sight is elderly people sipping and chatting in quaint coffee shops. Taiping is taunted as “town for retirees”.

From Taiping, you can visit Kuala Sepetang by road transport. It is on the coast popular with seafood restaurants and river excursions – watching Kites, Fireflies and fishing villages. Don’t miss the boardwalk through the mangrove forest and visit a charcoal factory.

As the journey progressed north, it passed many small villages and large tracts of palm plantations. However, the train slows down significantly as it crosses a picturesque Bukit Merah Lake and rolled into Parit Buntar Station. This town took me down memory lane (childhood days). It hasn’t changed much. This is where I used to disembark and catch a taxi into Kuala Kurau towards my dad’s workplace. Those were fond memories.

At Bukit Mertajam Station, trains heading north towards Padang Besar (Thailand border) including Sungei Petani separate from those heading towards Butterworth. No exchange of trains is required.  However, coming from Padang Basar, exchange is required at Bukit Mertajam. This may change. The scenery changed from plantations to paddy fields interspersed with village houses on stilts and small townships. Irrigation canals and pump stations can be see regularly. Mountains are relegated to the horizons. The land is flat making this one of the  rice basket of Malaysia. Eventually, my train drifted into Sungei Petani Station. I cannot recognise this town at all. So many developments had taken place in the last 30 years. Finally to catch up with Syed and other friends.

Sungei Petani was a sleepy town with the main road passing through it. The railway line ran parallel to it. Small scale industries and small rubber holding used to flank the main roads. Development had set in.   One of the interesting sight to visit is the Bujang Valley Archeological site (early Hindu Civilization) near Tikam Batu. If you are interested to the less travelled road to Thailand, there is access from here towards Baling and onward to the border.

The following day, we used road transport all the way to Alor Setar. An interesting place to stop is Gurun, with access to Gunung Jerai, a mountain resort and recreational forest. This is probably the only mountain in this rather flat landscape.

Alor Setar Station is now a modern concrete building to accommodate the ETC trains. However, the heritage wooden train station still remained but converted into a eatery. Some of the historic rain trees remained. As expected, the town had grown with several tall buildings including Menara  Alor Setar, the old museums including Balai Norbat, Royal Hall, Art Gallery, Dataran Medan Bandar and Zahir Mosque. A drive to Kuala Kedah is an interesting escape out of town. I wondered if the Teluk Chengai Laksa (my old office headquarters) was still available? My favourite during my life here back in the early 80’s. One of my happy times is during Ramadan fasting month where a myriad of food and local delicacies are on sale in front of the UMNO building, opposite Pekan Rabu. My time spent here was too short to re-visit past experiences.

3rd leg – Alor Setar to Butterworth

From Alor Setar Station, the northbound ETS (and Komuter) trains terminated at Padang Besar Station on the Thai Border. I did not travel this route. Going from my past experiences, it a frontier town. Both locals and Thais can be seen trading all sorts of goods in both directions. To continue onward into Thailand – Hat Yai and Bangkok, one must cross the border and continue in a Thai train. In the past, I had taken the wonderful express train from Butterworth to Bangkok. Sadly, it is no longer in service perhaps due to covid restrictions. The nostalgic but expensive Orient Express from Singapore to Bangkok is also currently suspended.

From Alor Setar, I took the ETS to Butterworth Station (via Bukit Mertajam) and onward to Penang (Swettenham Pier), another one of my favourite places, by ferry. I made an error in booking as there is a Komuter train from Padang Besar to Butterworth. Staying in Georgetown is ideal to explore this island. Public transport is efficient. Historic buildings, old clan houses on the jetty, revived old town oozing with charm, historic homes converted into budget and boutique accommodations, cultural overload and glorious street food. Oh yes, and the beaches. Penang has it all.

Malaysia’s Jungle Train

Please read my nostalgic journey on the conventional train journey on Malaysia’s Jungle Train – the East Coast Railway Line (ECRL) in the next post.

Student trains on the Jungle Train Line

While travelling on the ECRL, I heard about a student shuttle that departs Tumpat/Tanah Merah and arrive at Dabong to begin school. After school,  another shuttle goes northwards to Tumpat. Similarly, although lesser, student south of Dabong have a similar arrangement. It may be a long day for these students but may be the best option available. Road transport takes longer and parents may not have time to drive. It is a very novel way for these dedicated students to get an education.  Many student board the trains at several Railway Halts (just a shed) that lines the ECRL. Something to applaud the railway operators.

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