Making railway history

Facade of Tanjong Pagar railway station, Singapore
Thursday, June 30, 2011, was a historic day for rail transport in Malaysia as the Senandung Sutera chugged out of Tanjong Pagar railway station in Singapore at 10pm.

At first I was sad when Keretapi Tanah Melayu Bhd (KTMB) announced that tickets were sold out.  

But, my sorrow turned to joy when friends at Tourism Malaysia, Johor office and Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA), gave me a special ticket for a premier deluxe berth on this last north-bound passenger train to KL Sentral. 

After a flurry of phone calls and text messages, Nizam Abdul Wahid, Deputy Director of Tourism Malaysia – Johor Office, successfully arranged for this ticket through the goodwill of IRDA, and I picked it up from my friend, Nora, at the TM office before heading off to JB Sentral. 

This ticket gave me the opportunity and privilege to experience railway history and I deeply appreciate this generous gesture.

KTMB had invited the media to go to Singapore by an evening train for the celebrations at Tanjong Pagar station and I was among several media friends who boarded the 5.25pm train from JB Sentral.  It was free-seating in the coach and a lady and her grandson sat next to me. 

Kovan Aw with his grandma Tan Poh Tee
As I struck up a conversation, he helped to translate for his grandma, Tan Poh Tee, 56.  Kovan Aw, 9, from Upper Bukit Timah, said his mother and 2-year old sister were seated elsewhere in the coach, on their return journey to Singapore. 

When I asked why he was not in school, he told me that he went to school as usual that morning but his mother had permission to take him out from school to get on the train from Tanjong Pagar to Johor Baru!

Norliah Ahmad with Peggy
"It is all over," said Norliah Ahmad, 58, sadly as the train trundled into Tanjong Pagar station.  Norliah and her daughter, Habibah, who live in Bukit Batok, visit Johor Baru regularly for shopping and entertainment.  

They were on one of their regular trips and after a hearty lunch, the father decided to go ahead home while mother and daughter enjoyed a movie in Johor Baru City Square.  After the movie and shopping, they decided to return by train and were delighted to discover that they were going to witness railway history.

If many passengers were endlessly snapping photos on board, the photo frenzy was at its peak at Tanjong Pagar station – on the platforms, outside the fences and in and around the station.  Anyone who had a camera feature on their mobile phone was making full use of it.  The throng was overwhelming after office hours and a little later, the crowd swelled further with families who came for one last look. 

I thought Station Manager, Shamsul Bahari, must be having hand cramps because he was kept busy signing souvenir items as well as train tickets.  It was like a busy marketplace in the station as sales promoters aggressively peddled souvenirs at several stalls.  Poignant scenes of station staff clocking out for the last time were screened in a documentary and its soundtrack of somber flute and violin music moved many to tears.  From where I was sitting, I saw a lady trying to wipe her tears surreptitiously but she finally had no choice and had to reach for a tissue paper.

This lady couldn't help weeping!
Surrounded by an endless shuffle of people, I soaked in the atmosphere and above the noise, I overhead a girl walking by with a group of youngsters say, “Wo ti yi chi lai,” (Translation: “I’m here for the first time”). 

I struck me that it was ironical that she finally came to see the station literally at the eleventh hour, just as it was about to cease operations.  I guess it’s typical of people to not value anything or anyone until it’s too late or when they are gone.

Retirees Teo Teow Koon and his wife, Teo Siew Wah, both 63, said this was their third visit to the station in a month.  Teo, a photography buff, said they came in early June to take photos and after buying their tickets online, they boarded the train at Tanjong Pagar on June 13 to the furthest destination possible on Peninsular Malaysia by rail, Penang for a three-day, two-night holiday. They were here again for the final farewell.

Teo Teow Koon and his wife, Siew Wah
came to the station three times in June
Siew Wah has a nostalgic attachment to this station because, during World War 2, her mother would come and wait for the train which transported goods, including agricultural produce, from Johor.  She recalled how her mother would buy tapioca from the dealers at the station and resell it to support their family of five children. Her mother passed away in 2003 at the age of 94.

I was unaware of the last call to board my train until I spotted Nizam frantically waving to me and I rushed to join the queue to get my passport stamped at the Immigration booth.  A KTMB official was on the platform, presenting Certificates to passengers to mark our historical journey and I gladly accepted mine. 

Then it felt like déjà vu as walked the length of the train in search of my coach because I had a similar experience on a train platform in Chennai, India, a few years ago.  The walk seemed endless so I stopped to ask a staff in KTMB uniform and he said, “Depan” pointing me ahead and I was glad to see a “valet” waiting to help me board coach J2.

Later in my comfortable cabin onboard Senandung Sutera I met Annie, a Malaysian working in Singapore who travels to Kuala Lumpur each weekend to see her 80-year- mother. 

She had not been on a KTMB train since the 1970s and when she heard about the last train out of Tanjong Pagar, she begged her boss to let her go. "Please let me take this sentimental journey!" she said. And, he graciously agreed.

As we shared this special experience onboard the last north-bound train, we reminisced about life, love and family.  Our journey and conversation from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands station was punctuated with loud cheers as passengers waved to pockets of people who lined the tracks to take photos and witness this historical last train.

Tanjong Pagar station has served thousands of passengers in the last 79 years and those who used KTMB as a regular commute must now find alternative transport from Woodlands into the city.  The romance of railways has a special place in my heart and it was a bitter-sweet experience to be a part of history that once linked the people of Johor with Singapore.  As I cherish memories at the close of one chapter, I can’t wait for the next chapter of transport development in Johor and look forward to enjoying a reliable Rapid Transit System between the two countries.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 5 July 2011

Another view of Tanjong Pagar railway station on 30 June 2011
Gorgeous arches in the front porch of former railway station

Noral'ain Md Salleh presenting train ticket to me
at Tourism Malaysia, Johor office

Station Manager, Shamsul Bahari, signing souvenirs

Certificate from KTMB to mark
historical last journey from
Tanjong Pagar railway station


1 comment:

  1. Natt Haniff8/23/2011

    Thanks for sharing, Peggy. I love how you capture every nuance and emotion :)