Scenes from Keretapi Tanah Melayu

Not many people would regard the train as their first choice of public transport from Singapore to Malaysia, except perhaps for some of those going to the states of Johore and Malacca. For me I take it out of convenience since it stops by my home town.

Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad (KTMB) has run the Malaysian railway for many decades. In the 17 odd years that I can remember, it had only ever increased the fare once, and at only a hike of RM 1 (US$0.30) all through those years. The inter-city train in Malaysia is probably the cheapest in the world, even cheaper than that of Vietnam and China, given comparable distances. That said, the condition of the trains have remained pretty much the same as well. Sure, some carriages have been overhauled with new seats; the same can’t be said of the toilets though. It’s also not the fastest or timeliest mode of transport: the odd occasion when it’s on time actually throws one off one’s expected schedule. It is also very susceptible to floods especially in the low-lying areas. The single-track system also means low frequency, and sometimes long wait at stations for on-coming trains to pass. The PA system on my most recent ride seems to have broken down, not that it’s very much more effective (or audible) when it’s working. But the train conductor constantly walks around to announce the next station.

No, the inter-city KTM train is not the ideal mode of transport. But it presents a very unaffected and rustic way of travelling into Malaysia. The Singapore-KL route offers views of large swathes of plantation and undulating hills as the train rumbles on. Occasionally the train pulls up to a quaint little station from a bygone era. While stations at larger towns have been rebuilt and expanded  to cater for impending railway development, I believe the quaint charm of small town stations will still stay around for some time, given that Malaysian authorities’ track record in redevelopment of the inter-city railway system is … *erhem* unproven. The route up to the east coast takes one through the “heartland” of Peninsula Malaysia, offering a different  perspective from the urbanised parts of the  west coast.  Also, no such thing as jacking up of prices during festive season: railway ticket prices remain constant unlike the bus companies and airlines. Sure floods happened, but for some reason, KTMB manages to arrange for alternative transport even if that means interminable hours of delay and sitting on the floor of a bus in between other passengers’ luggages, jars of festive cookies and potted plants (happened to me once just before the lunar new year).

The list of reasons why you should try the KTM train goes on and on. But not least because it takes you into a whole other system of how things are run. And how suddenly having no expectations whatsoever is very liberating.

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The train rumbles down the causeway on a rainy day, crossing the Straits of Tebrau into Johore.

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Twilight. Somewhere near Alor Gajah.

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More vegetation along the way. Somewhere near Tampin.

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Sunset over banana plantation

*KTM trains run from Singapore/Johor Baru to Kuala Lumpur between 2 and 4 times a day. A second class ticket costs less than a taxi ride from Singapore’s Central Business District to Woodlands. Tickets can be purchased online at www.ktmb.com.my. Sure, sometimes the website is down. Just like how sometimes the train breaks down. But the website will usually come back up again. Just like how, in spite of all the delays, you will still manage to reach your destination.

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