TRANSIT took note of this interesting column written by NST editor Syed Nadzri, about his memories of KTM travel. The column follows the recent series by NST about the heritage of the Malaysian railways which is rapidly changing as the Electrification & Double Tracking (EDT) projects progress.
By Syed Nadzri
THE train fare from Kuala Kangsar to Bukit Mertajam in the early 1970s was RM6.05. For a few ringgit more, the passenger could change trains at the end of this route and proceed to Alor Star, and all the way up to Padang Besar.
Sometimes, there were diesel trains in service while at other times, the steam engine locomotives ruled the day.
This and many old images came flashing back as I read the special report in this paper last week about the way ahead in train travel in Peninsular Malaysia with the advent of an electrified double-tracking system.
This much-awaited Kuala Lumpur-Padang Besar service, expected to start in two years, will cut travel time by half. But, consequently, this will also bring to an end some sentimental pieces of the past, mostly linked to the small stations along the track that will become history.
I was in a boarding school in Kuala Kangsar, Perak, several years ago and since the train was the main mode of transport to get back home to Alor Star, Kedah, for the term holidays, I became very familiar with all things along the Kuala Kangsar-Bukit Mertajam and Bukit Mertajam-Alor Star routes.
There were three term breaks each year and I was in the school for seven years, so this gives some idea as to how many times I had experienced the rides. To say that I was “familiar” with the path is actually an understatement.
Those were not exactly the shinkansen-type of experience because the train engines were noisy and the rides extremely bumpy.
But did you know that in some of those journeys, we had to stand in the coaches all the way?
Yes, along the aisles with many others when there were no seats left. The seats were not numbered and since students from most other colleges and boarding schools used the rail service as well, the trains would be filled to the brim on most occasions.
It took about four hours those days from Bukit Mertajam (later the line was extended to Butterworth) to Kuala Kangsar and we were normally put on the night train, which departed at 10pm. If we couldn’t get a seat, it meant joining for four hours the “standing committee”, a spoofy term we coined to refer to the passengers who had no choice but to stand.
It was like an exodus to somewhere. The travel groups were from all sorts apart from the boarding school students from all over. There were the teacher trainees, those from police and military academies and ordinary passengers, all bearing the curse of having to travel at the same time.
And since many had already got used to the crowded situation, they tended to inject a sense of humour to remain sane along the journey.
For instance, in one of the long stops at the Taiping station in the middle of the night, one of the food hawkers on the station platform would come close to the train windows, yelling sing-song: kopi o, teh susu, kopi o, teh susu… repeatedly.
And one tired voice among the passengers would respond: “Tambi, kopi susu dan teh o ada?” much to the chagrin of the Indian boy peddling the ready-made drinks in plastic cups.
Then, there was this pedlar of curry puffs, carrying his stuff in a big tray on his head, going back and forth on the station platform, shouting in a rather funny tone “karipop pop pop. Hangat hangat” referring to the hot, fresh-from-the-pan pastries he was pushing. It was almost impossible to resist his call to buy.
Talking about food on the train, the cafes on board, termed buffet cars, served excellent food prepared by old-fashioned Hainanese cooks.
The mee hailam, thick black coffee and roti bakar would put the modern-day kopitiam to shame.
Since the trains operated on a single-track system, the stops at some stations (that had short stretches of two or three tracks) could be very long so as to wait for an oncoming train to pass.
But most missed with the advent of the electrified double-tracking system would definitely be the smaller stations and the one-booth stops called halts.
I saw a lot of those in my years of taking the train up north.
Gone will be Pondok Tanjung and Alor Pongsu near Taiping, just before the picturesque Tasik Bukit Merah where the track practically cuts across a vast lake.
Beyond Bukit Mertajam, some of the most memorable halts will disappear. These are places many have not even heard of, some alien-sounding — Penanti, Jarak, Pinang Tunggal, Sungai Toh Pawang, Junun, Kobah, Tokai and Alor Belat.
Being a regular passenger then, I could memorise the sequence of the stops. But the nostalgia grows with memories of how these stations looked like — small wooden structures painted in light yellow with brown borders. Some, like Alor Belat not far from Alor Star, were just sheds with goats taking shelter at times. But, with the track passing through a seemingly infinite spread of rice fields, the scenery, especially at sunset, was so breathtaking.
Goodbye, old charms.