Reviving the romance of rail travel

KUALA LUMPUR: I climbed on board the train carriage for a trip up north to Penang, and was surprised to see almost two-thirds of the seats filled. The Keretapi Tanah Melayu service isn't usually that popular.

But then, my trip was during the Chinese New Year holiday week.

At other times, the train engines often lug half-full carriages or even empty ones as it covers the 1,600km from Padang Besar at the Perlis-Thai border down to Singapore, and across to Kelantan on the East Coast.

Trains are no longer popular, with the advent of cheaper flights and even cheaper buses across Peninsular Malaysia's network of highways. I hadn't taken the train since I was a child but decided to resume last year.

With a high-speed rail now being mooted to rush people from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore in just 90 minutes by 2020, it might just reawaken interest in Malaysia's extensive rail network that was first laid down by the British in the 19th century.

The first line from Taiping to Port Weld (now renamed Kuala Sepetang) was opened in 1885.

Over the years, Malaysia had tried many ways to revive the nostalgic era of train travel. It wooed Singaporeans to take part in homestay programmes in small towns and villages along the tracks. It offered cheap fares and holiday packages. But the response was lukewarm.

As trains fell out of favour, the investment into its upkeep began to fall. The carriages became shabby and tired, and delays more frequent.

The railway company, KTM Berhad, has been a takeover target for years after bleeding red ink since 1992. Cargo is now its biggest revenue earner.

This is a pity because the train is still the best way to visit the towns and villages that hide unseen in Malaysia's countryside, like Sungai Nal, Kemubu and Temangan.

Ms Susan Tam, a lecturer who travelled with her writer husband to Kelantan by train last week, said the service there seems to be mainly used by the locals as a shuttle service to get from village to village. School children use it as a bus.

But while she enjoyed the trip, she would not use the train for work trips because of the risk of unexpected delays. On her trip last week, the engine caught fire and caused a half-hour delay, on top of being delayed two hours at the start.

"The carriage was in decent shape but rundown," she said.

The carriages could do with a sprucing up as the seats and carpets were well-worn and faded, but it was clean and comfortable with lots of leg room. My train had sleeper carriages for those who prefer to snooze, as well as a small booth selling food and drinks.

Its best feature, though, were the big windows that open to views of small villages, slumbering towns, tiny train stations, lakes and forests that flew by in an ever-changing scene.

My own trip from KL to Butterworth took eight hours, with a half-hour delay as the train waited patiently on the tracks for another train in the opposite direction to pass. They share the track although a double track is now being built to span the length of the peninsula.

From Butterworth on the mainland, I took a 20-minute ferry ride to Penang island. A car journey would have taken four to five hours, and a flight about an hour.

But the slow travel by train lets you see the heart of Malaysia that you might otherwise never have known existed.

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