Assistant Professor Lai Chee Kien retraces the various geographies and histories of Singapore’s railway lines and stations.
Woodlands Railway Terminus. Source: C.J. Kleingrothe. Courtesy of the Central Library, National University of Singapore.
On 24 May 2010, the prime ministers of Singapore and Malaysia made a joint statement regarding the resolution of the existing railway system’s future in Singapore. The functions of the Singapore terminus were to be transferred fully to its northern Woodlands station in July 2011, and the railway land will be jointly redeveloped over the next few years. The Tanjong Pagar Railway Station was gazetted as a national monument, and the Bukit Timah Station as a conserved building in April 2011. The negotiations leading to these outcomes had been long-drawn over decades, but the decision had also directed public attention to an intertwined history between the two lands, and instantly generated nostalgia for the system’s physical structures. It is perhaps timely, at this interim stage, to retrace the various geographies and histories of these lines and stations.
A KTM train crossing the bridge at Upper Bukit Timah Road, near Jalan Asas. Photo from the author’s collection.
There are three discernible phases of railway history in Singapore: (1) the establishment of the Singapore-Kranji Railway, (2) integration with the railway in Johor and with Keppel Harbour in the south, and (3) the construction of the Jurong Branch Line. The first period took place on Singapore Island, but the latter two were connected to histories of Malaya and Malaysia, respectively. The account requires our memory of the colonial city of Singapore, which was formed along the island’s southeastern shores shortly after British arrival in 1819, between two rivers. Half a century later, areas to the north of Rochor Canal and Bukit Timah Road still comprised primary or secondary forests, and were perceived to be dangerous due to their inhabitation by tigers, etc. and, in some areas, secret societies besides the pepper and gambier plantations. By the mid-19th century, vehicular roads to the east, north and northwest were constructed largely by Indian convict labour to reach the various villages and plantations.
Aerial view of the Jurong Branch Line travelling to Jurong Shipyard in the 1960s. Photo from the author’s collection.
The first period of Singapore’s railway history refers to the planning and realisation of the Singapore-Kranji Railway by the then colonial government. On 16 April 1900, then Acting Governor Alexander Swettenham “cut the first sod” at the site of the Tank Road station to commence works for the line. A year before, the Legislative Council had approved Cecil Clementi Smith’s plan to build a railway through the island. Although the station at Tank Road became the “Singapore terminus”, there were earlier plans to route the line on the other side of Government Hill (Fort Canning) and to commence service at the end of Orchard Road near Dhoby Ghaut, but it was eventually altered. It was probably the high cost of the real estate there that led to the change in the plans.
1950s: Causeway between Singapore and Malaysia. The railway track can be seen at the right. Photo from the author’s collection.
The line was completed by 1 January 1903 and train services connected Singapore Station (Tank Road Station) to Bukit Timah Station. By 10 April the same year, the service was extended to Woodlands Station. A typical journey from Singapore to Woodlands stations took approximately 80 minutes, and service was available from 7 am to 7:40 pm daily. Steam ferry service was available from Woodlands Station to Johor and vice versa. From old postcards, the Tank Road Station had a T-shaped plan and was constructed in timber, with double-pitched roofs for each section; at the roof intersection, a clock tower was raised to the heights of neighbouring shophouses. The other stations were of standard design, comprising three short double-roof pitched and rectilinear timber sections spaced apart and aligned perpendicular to the line, all three joined in between by two other double-pitched roof shelters parallel to the line, the space underneath were the waiting areas and for thoroughfare.
Jinrickshaws lined up to pick up fare outside Tank Road Station. Postcard from the collection of Lim Kheng Chye.
From the Singapore terminus, the train went through a cutting between Tank Road and Oxley Road, and then up an incline so as to cross Orchard Road on an overhead bridge near the Cold Storage premises (now Centrepoint). Further travel on another railway cutting would lead the train to Newton Road, and then to Newton Station, having crossed over Bukit Timah Canal on a girder bridge. The stations along Bukit Timah Canal in its journey consisted of Cluny Road Station, Holland Road Station and Bukit Timah Station, before turning about 120 degrees towards Bukit Panjang and Woodlands stations. In January 1907, the line was extended to Pasir Panjang via Pulau Saigon Station (and connecting the Singapore River trade), Tanjong Pagar Station, and then Pasir Panjang Station opposite Alexandra Road. However, this stretch of the railway was subsequently removed between 1912–14, partly due to complaints of excessive noise by residents who lived within the vicinity of the line. Duxton Plain Park, running from New Bridge Road to Yan Kit Road and thus designated after the removal of the tracks, is the linear landscape reminder of this phase of history.
The overhead railway crossing at Orchard Road. Postcard from the collection of Lim Kheng Chye.
Part of the early railway legacy involved the former house of Tan Yeok Nee (presently the Asian campus for the University of Chicago Booth School of Business) at the junction of the Penang and Clemenceau roads. Tan, a very successful gambier and pepper merchant, built one of the four (and the only one existing) overseas Chinese courtyard houses there from 1885, moving into the house upon completion. However, as the railway line was designed to pass behind his stately home, the land was acquired and Tan moved back to China, dying there in 1902. The house was subsequently occupied by the Station Master of the Tank Road Station, and then by a bishop, before the Salvation Army used it as its headquarters from 1939 onwards.
Aerial photo of the first railway line in Malaya from Port Weld to Taiping. Bee Ah Photo Studio, Taiping.
With the opening of the Segamat to Johor Bahru stretch on July 1909, continuous travel from Singapore to Penang using only public transport was made possible for the first time in Malayan history. Such a connection was also perceived to be readjusting the colonial economic focus from tin to rubber by providing the key infrastructure serving the plantations along that route, but at the same time with the hope of reviving the latter industry that had since fallen into decline. In terms of economic geography on the Malay Peninsula, this also represented a shift from prior reliance on rivers and port cities, to an inland one where plantation towns along the railway and road systems began to thrive. The reliance on Tamil labour for operating railways and maintaining these lines had also continued in Singapore from Malaya, and Hindu shrines are often found at intervals of roughly 16 miles, which was the distance under the care of a particular section.
Sri Muneeswaran Temple at Blair Road, which was constructed by devotees who worked at the station. Photo from the author’s collection.
The provision of two steam ferries, named “Johore” and “Singapore”, to connect the straits had other social impacts for those on the island. Folks from Singapore would crowd the trains, especially on weekends, to travel to the new Woodlands Station and onwards to Johor Bahru for excursions and day trips. For most, however, it was an opportunity to change one’s fortune at the gambling farms there. As an “Old Timer” reminisced in 1925 about his earlier visits: “The Chinese at the gambling farms always refunded the two dollars spent on train fare, if the return ticket was produced. We kept both the tickets, the white half and the yellow half.” Such offers lured many to the farms and the newspapers of the day were replete with accounts of lost heirlooms and economic consequences for men and women involved in what was considered a “social ill”.
The Singapore–Johore Steam Ferry Service. Postcard from the collection of Lim Kheng Chye.
Integration with Johor and Keppel Harbour
On 17 September 1923, the kilometre-long Causeway land bridge linking the island to the peninsula was opened for freight trains. The two-track railway line and a 26-foot vehicular roadway started catering for passenger trains on 1 October later in the year. This marked the southernmost direct connection in Malaya’s railway system under the Federated Malay States Railway (FMSR), since the management of the Singapore–Kranji Railway came under its fold in 1912. With the Causeway in operation, the ferry service was discontinued.
The Orient Express to Bangkok at the Departure Platform.
Photo from the author’s collection.
For peninsular Malaya, the creation of the Federated Malay States in 1896 and the FMSR in Malaya marked the second phase of railway development. During the preceding decade, the first two lines connecting tin mining areas to towns on the western coast of Malaya were constructed to transport tin: the Taiping–Port Weld line in 1885 and the Kuala Lumpur–Klang line in 1886. Subsequently, several train lines and systems were built, primarily to serve the colonial economy. By 1896, the FMSR joined up and consolidated all four earlier constructed lines and expanded its services across Perak, Selangor, Negri Sembilan and Province Wellesley. It was subsequently able to build in the Unfederated Malay States such as Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan and Johor, and connected with the Thai system in the north. The FMSR purchased the Singapore–Kranji Railway in 1913, and in 1918 the properties and estates previously owned by the latter were sold to the Federated Malay States government for $4,136,000.
The Orient Express to Bangkok at the Departure Platform. Photos from the author’s collection.
Meanwhile, the Singapore–Kranji Railway was beset by inconveniences caused by seasonal heavy rainfall that occasionally flooded Bukit Timah Road, from as early as October 1903. To appreciate the severity and impact of such floods, we may revisit accounts in past newspapers that reported the list of stations and even long stretches of roads that had to be closed due to the floods. The Straits Times reported on 7 February 1910: “Early yesterday morning, the water had approached very near to the level of the platform [of the Bukit Timah Station] and the surrounding roads were more than waist-deep… The train crawled very cautiously through Newton Station where the water was within measurable distance of the carriage floors and continued at the same gait until Cluny Station, the track being submerged all the way.”
The Bukit Timah Railway Bridge, a constant reminder of perennial flooding along Bukit Timah. Photo from the author’s collection.
The reportage of flash and seasonal floods affecting the system continued well into the 1910s and 1920s. One particularly bad flood in early January 1926 led to washouts of the line between Woodlands and Bukit Panjang, as well as between Bukit Timah and Newton, forcing travellers to make their way to Johor Bahru in order to catch the train service. The obstruction of the Bukit Timah Canal flow by the railway girder bridge structure at Newton during this particular flood highlighted the oft-repeated charge that it was a major cause of the floods, leading to legislative action to redirect the railway line stretch between Bukit Timah to the planned new terminus at Tanjong Pagar. The subsequent nine-mile “deviation” was drawn up, chiefly to cease travel along the flood-prone Bukit Timah Road altogether. A new Bukit Timah Station was constructed on high ground at King Albert Park, and the canal and road at Bukit Timah crossed over by a 150-foot railway bridge before connecting to the old Bukit Panjang and Woodlands Stations.
The deviation had two new stops: from Bukit Timah, trains passed Tanglin Halt and Alexandra Halt before travelling past the Kampong Bahru area towards Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, the new terminus. The new Bukit Timah Station, a linear brick building, with the waiting area sandwiched between the equipment room and Station Master’s Office, was built with facilities to handle arriving horses by train for onward transfer to the (then) new Race Course nearby. The Bukit Timah Railway Bridge adjacent to it would eventually serve as a reminder of the massive efforts to avoid the Bukit Timah Canal during the railway’s earlier history. When the Tank Road–Bukit Timah line was dismantled in favour of the new route around 1936–37, stretches of the railway track became vehicular roads, including Clemenceau Avenue, which was the former rail land between Tank Road to Newton Circus. Dunearn Road was created over former railway track areas from Newton Circus to the junction of Clementi Road.
The proposed southernmost destination of Tanjong Pagar in Singapore for the new deviation was also planned in tandem with the increasing importance of Keppel Harbour. In some ways, these harked back to the earlier 1907 track that connected the harbour, as well as the earliest (but unsuccessful) call by the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company in the mid-1860s to connect Pantai Chermin to Telok Ayer Market by rail. About a thousand acres of land was acquired for the deviation and the railway terminus, included lines, a passenger station, goods yards, train yards, signal stations and staff quarters at Tanjong Pagar. The Railway Board, working with the Municipality and other agencies, detailed the design brief of the station and eventually awarded the contract to Swan and Maclaren Architects at the end of 1926. In the following year, H.C. Atkin-Berry, the architect partner-in-charge, made visits to study several railway stations in England. Construction commenced on 7 May 1929; by August 1931 over 630 concrete piles had been driven into the site. The building had mostly been completed by 1932 and the Singapore Trade Exhibition was held there in January the same year.
Natural light and ventilation were a strong consideration in the design of the Main Hall. Photo from the author’s collection.
D.S. Petrovich, the main architect of the station building, was born in Serbia (then Yugoslavia) and had joined Swan and Maclaren in 1928 after having registered with the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1926. He designed various notable buildings during his tenure at that office, including the Malayan Motor Building at Orchard Road, the Kelly & Walsh Building at Raffles Place, and others on the island or elsewhere in Malaya. The station building itself was a major engineering feat of the day, employing the (then new) advantages of reinforced concrete in creating a 72-foot-high giant barrel vault that is also naturally ventilated and illuminated in the day, which sheltered the central arrival/departure hall. On three sides of this rough square plan were the entrance portico, a two-storey rectilinear office block facing Keppel Road, and the 950-foot-long covered platforms, respectively. The architecture of the building may be said to have followed the tenets of Art Deco, which employs elegant geometric forms or modules as design principles.
End of the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station platform. Photo taken by the author.
Around the central hall of the station were waiting rooms, a post office with telegraph facilities, restaurant, bar, hairdressing saloon, lavatories and left luggage services. The ticketing counter near the entrance as well as the book and magazine stall opposite were constructed with solid teak. The ground level was originally covered with rubber floor tiles. Suspended by four cables from the ceiling of the vaulted space just below two suspended box-lights of similar design was a four-faced bronze clock. On the upper two levels was a 34-room station hotel with the walkway facing the hall. The hotel, with single and double rooms, was one of the only three FMSR hotels, the others being in Kuala Lumpur (1910) and Ipoh (1915). These facilitated travellers who stopped over in the city before journeying further, and included transfers to passenger liners or boats docked at Keppel Harbour.
Station Hotel advertisement from the 1960s. Advertisement from the author’s collection.
The reinforced concrete of the station was finished with sand-faced plaster (also known as Shanghai plaster). The entrance portico facing the car park is formed by three arches framed by four pylons, and one arch each on its remaining two sides. Below the four crests bearing the letters “F”, “M”, “S” and “R” at the top end of the pylons are four allegorical statues in white Carrara marble sculpted by Angelo Vannetti from the studios of Raoul Bigazzi of Florence. Each statue represented the pillars of the colonial Malayan economy: agriculture, commerce, transport and industry. This theme is continued and accentuated inside the hall, with an opposite set of vertical walls tiled with six triptych murals illustrating rubber tapping, rice planting, tin mining, copra growing, shipping activities and transportation. The last two also highlight the adjacent relationship established between the station and the harbour at Tanjong Pagar. The station, along with the deviation of the rail lines, was opened on 2 May 1932 by Governor Cecil Clementi, who had travelled on the new stretch on a special train to the station before addressing an audience at the main hall.
The Jurong Branch Line
The third period of railway history began just before the merging of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo (later as Sabah) in 1963 to form a fledgling postwar economy as the then geobody of Malaysia. The promise of an interconnected economy was vested in the creation of several industrial estates, including Petaling Jaya near Kuala Lumpur and Jurong in Singapore. The planning of Jurong had commenced earlier in the 50s and 60s with survey missions from Japan and the United Nations, before the creation of the Economic Development Board to tend to such propositions. Jurong Industrial Estate was designed with three zones in mind: “heavy industries, which included shipyards and port facilities, at the reclaimed coastal areas; medium industries behind the coastal land strip; and light industries further north.”
Cover of a travel brochure from 1959 illustrating the possibilities of rail travel. Brochure from the author’s collection.
The envisioning of Jurong as the primary industrial estate of Singapore by the late Goh Keng Swee, then Finance Minister, was based on several factors: its proximity to the sea, the ease of transporting raw materials, and because the land was mainly rural and state-owned. There was resettlement of various orchards and farmlands occupying Jurong before the adjacent hills could be cut down to fill swamps for reclamation purposes. The concept of Jurong was, however, a novel one as it was going to be developed as a “garden industrial town” which carried a different theoretical and operational basis from earlier “garden city” concepts that dealt with the binary sectors of work and residence. Swampy areas on the banks of the Jurong River were marked as nature reserves such as the Pandan Nature Reserve, and large swathes of land were developed into recreational parks or places of interest: Jurong Bird Park, Chinese Garden and Japanese Garden. Residential estates were also designed and named as gardens: Taman Jurong, Teban Gardens, and Pandan Gardens, etc.
Malayan Railway ad in 1958. Advertisement from the author’s collection.
Besides roads as transportation routes from Jurong to the city, the planned Jurong Branch Railway line would also connect it to Bukit Timah Station and the previous colonial rail network for an imagined demand-and-supply market in peninsular Malaysia and as far north as southern Thailand. The Malayan Railway Berhad Company (or Keretapi Tanah Melayu) was tasked with the construction and maintenance of the 24-kilometre, $5.5-million rail project. The line opened on 4 March 1966 and stretches were maintained right up to the 1990s. As Singapore had separated politically from Malaysia in 1965 after just two years, the anticipated traffic volume to be conveyed on this line was not fulfilled. The band of land on both the Jurong and the existing lines thus came under the rubric of “Malaysian” land right up till February 2010.
Four statues made from Carrara marble stand at the entrance portico of the KTM Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. Photo taken by the author.
With the government announcements last year, the future of the lines and stations in Singapore entered a new phase that had also been evolving since World War II. Postwar, the Malayan Railway Ordinance of 1948 had seen the management of the railways transferred from the FMSR to the postwar Malayan Railway Administration, and later to Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad (KTM). Under the Malaysian Railway Act of 1991, the KTM was corporatised the following year and wholly owned by the Malaysian government. The Malaysia–Singapore Points of Agreement of 1990 had been signed by representatives of both countries to settle all issues related to the railway and its stations, but it is only two decades later that the resolution of those points in relation to both parties was finally made.
Lai Chee Kien
Department of Architecture
National University of Singapore
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