From The Straits Times archives: Tanjong Pagar handover

The last train from Malaysia pulled into Tanjong Pagar station on June 30, 2011. Come 2016, the building will reopen as a food court. We look back at the handover of the Tanjong Pagar Railway station three years ago through ST Senior Writer Wong Kim Hoh's personal account of his ride on this historic last journey, and his memories of the station.

This article was first published in The Straits Times on July 1, 2011

I drove the historic last train from Butterworth into the Tanjong Pagar station last night.

Well, I didn't actually steer and manoeuvre the Ekspres Rakyat but I was in the same compartment right behind the three senior Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) train drivers who did.

Mr P. Anantharajah, 48, Mr Jamaluddin, 50, and Mr Ridzwan, 52, had kindly allowed my photographer colleague Desmond Foo and me to squeeze into the tiny cabin as they guided the locomotive from Woodlands into the iconic Keppel Road landmark which officially ceased operations last night.

Mr Jamaluddin, who coincidentally celebrated his 50th birthday, was singing lustily as he sounded the whistle to herald the train's arrival into Singapore.

We pulled in at 9.30pm, to a blinding avalanche of flashlights and a sea of people who had come to bid the station farewell.

I made my way through the heaving crowd and paused in the main hall, thinking of the first time I made its acquaintance.

Almost to the day 30 years ago, I stood on the platform of the old railway station in Kuala Lumpur waving goodbye to at least a dozen relatives and family members.

Pockets stuffed with red packets, I was about to get on the night train to Singapore to begin a new chapter in my life, as an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore.

I had an upper berth with a fan but sleep eluded me much of the night. My mind wandered, my thoughts lurching along with the swaying train.

Whenever it stopped, I would part the curtains, ascribing stories to the nameless faces getting on or off the different coaches in the still of the night.

Just as dawn broke, I found myself in Tanjong Pagar station, weighed down by a big Dunlop sports bag crammed with all my worldly possessions.

The murals on the walls, the strangers in my midst and the cacophony of early morning traffic - everything was as intriguing as it was intimidating. Even the air smelt different.

But over the years as I made Singapore home, I became familiar with the station. I would go there to pick people up, send visitors off or when I wanted a leisurely journey where I could enjoy the incessant grind of wheels against tracks.

Yesterday, I joined hundreds of commuters who wanted a historic ride before Tanjong Pagar closed for good.

One of them was Miss Melissa Lam, 19, wearing a pair of Ugg boots and carrying Ollie, her frog soft toy.

She had taken a budget flight from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur the day before just so she could board the train at the city's Sentral station.

"I guess I wanted to be a part of history," said the mass communications graduate from Ngee Ann Polytechnic who just landed herself a job as photo sub-editor earlier this week.

"None of my friends wanted to do it with me, so I got the ticket myself." She bought her ticket online for RM37 (S$15) last week.

"Nobody wants to talk to you on a plane but on a train, you have all the time in the world to make friends. And people who travel by train are friendlier, they're just more relaxed, I guess."

In another carriage, Mr Liang Kai Xiang, 24, and three of his friends were playing cards. The Singaporeans had boarded the train from Butterworth after spending the last couple of weeks island hopping in Krabi and Phuket in Thailand.

Mr Liang, who is taking time off work as a glacier guide in Queenstown, New Zealand, found out about the closure of the Tanjong Pagar station last month.

The four friends then decided a historic train ride would cap their holiday nicely.

"It's not hot and stuffy on the train. You can walk around, enjoy the sights. There is more leg space, and it's not dangerous like buses which get into accidents all the time," said his friend, Mr Huang En Ci, 23, a sociology undergraduate at the National University of Singapore.

Stepping out to stretch her legs as the train stopped briefly at Gemas was Mrs Mary Ang, 58.

"This is what I love about train travel," said the housewife, who decided to take the opportunity to visit relatives in Kuala Lumpur so that she and her husband could take this last train back.

"You can hop off, people watch, get a sense of the different towns. Look at that coffee shop, how retro," she added, pointing to a coffee shop with whirring fans and walls painted a buttercup yellow.

She and her husband, a retired clerk, lamented the closing of the station.

"It's a station smack in the middle of the city, you know. It's so convenient for us. Woodlands is so far away," said Mrs Ang, who lives in Bukit Merah.
Train supervisor Mohd Sharif, 51, has noticed more Singaporeans on trains in the past month.

"There were a lot of Singaporeans during the June holidays. Many parents took their families on short trips to Kluang and Johor Baru so that their children will know what train travel is all about," said Mr Sharif, who has been a KTM employee for more than 30 years.

In a carriage just before the driver's compartment, Mr P. Anantharajan, 48, was trying to log on to his laptop.

The KTM locomotive inspector (LI) who is based in Butterworth has just handed over driving duties to a colleague.

"A few of us LIs from all over Malaysia are here for the occasion," said the jovial man, who has driven trains for the past 30 years.

"I'm a third-generation train driver. My grandfather and father were also train drivers," said the father of two young children.

He admits he is a little sad at Tanjong Pagar station's closure, not least because the immigration officials and the railway staff have all become very good friends.

"But many things have changed since I started working as an assistant train driver 30 years ago," he said.

"Things can't stay forever. I guess some things just have to end."

I gave the station a long last look and bade it a silent adieu last night.

Somehow, I know that my train journeys back to Malaysia would never be quite the same again.

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