A Walk Along the Singapore-Malaysia Railway Tracks

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Just last week, I managed to find some friends to walk with me along the SingaporeMalaysia railway tracks. Just in time, I’d say, because last week was the final week where the entire stretch of tracks was opened to the public.

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Here’s a photo of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station which I took last year

For those unfamiliar with what’s going on, here’s a quick overview of what happened: On 1 July 2011, the historical Tanjong Pagar Railway Station was closed for good. It has been replaced with the not-so-new Woodlands Railway Station that’s very very close to Johor Bahru, Malaysia. With the closure of the old railway station, the entire stretch of land from Tanjong Pagar (south of Singapore) to Woodlands (north of Singapore) will be re-developed. Malaysia will be taking back its railway tracks and the vast stretch of lush greenary will probably be gone for good once it  falls into the hands of developers. Last week was the final week that the general public could have a chance to walk on the tracks and enjoy nature. Such an opportunity will probably not present itself ever again.

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I started my journey at the Rail Mall (around Bukit Gombak) heading down south towards Tanjong Pagar. I joined friends who started their journey much earlier from somewhere further up north. The total distance from Woodlands to Tanjong Pagar is about 22km. My route was slightly shorter: about 13km.

The sky that day was very beautiful.
The sky that day was very beautiful.

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The beauty of walking along these tracks is that you get a chance to see a part of Singapore that barely looks like the stereo-typical image of this country. Whenever people think of Singapore, the first few things that come to their minds are skyscrappers, shopping malls, HDBs (public housing), and everything urban. This is the image that has been so deeply engrained into the minds of many that few actually realise that there is a beautiful side of nature in this country that is so often unexplored.

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Contrary to popular beliefs, the wonderful thing about being in Singapore is that you don’t really have to go overseas to enjoy nature. It’s here! Right in our “backyard”! And there’s just so much to be seen and enjoyed.

At least for me, the most interesting aspect of walking along these tracks is the fact that we have a very harmonious co-existence of nature and technology (by technology, I refer to everything man-made), of the rural and the urban, of the timeless and the new, of the old and the modern. These seemingly opposing forces appear to be quite antithetical to our modern way of thinking.

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Unfortunately, it is the prevalence of modern Western culture that structures the way we think, thereby leading us to believe that things must necessarily be reduced into binary opposites: X and not-X, this and not-this. It’s not a bad thing. It has been very useful for the progress and development of science and technology. However, it becomes bad when this functions as the only way of looking at things. In this case, the idea of a harmonious co-existence of nature with technology and various seemingly polar opposites appear to be impossible, or worse still, absurd. How is it that two opposing forces can exist harmoniously with each other? Well, why not?

It is because of this method of thinking that we unfortunately imagine that the only way to have a co-existence of both is to subject one to the other, to modify one to suit the other. For example, if nature is to exist in an urban environment, then floral elements are planted in a way that complements the urban setting. But the urban setting does not return the favour of complementing that floral element. If we desire greenary to exist in the middle of a city, the plants and trees must necessarily be under human control and planning: intervening as and when it is necessary to ensure that nature stays in her place, never to encroach onto human territory. Nature merely functions as a decorative tool for humankind. Both parties never meet each other on equal terms.

It is the prevalence of this, our culture’s way of thinking, that makes us believe that this is the only way to go. And yet, this train route presents an alternative – the harmonious co-existence of humankind and nature, both existing along-side each other, both complementing one another like a beautiful couple in love always giving and receiving, loving each other on equal terms. There is no subjugation, no domination. What exists is a love and respect for each other – an acknowledgement that differences do not necessarily lead to opposing tensions, but as means of complementing one another.

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An example of harmony between the natural and the man-made.
Another example of that harmonious co-existence, where both nature and technology meet each other on equal terms, complementing each other mutually.
Another example of that harmonious co-existence, where both nature and technology meet each other on equal terms, complementing each other mutually.

I really hope that at least some parts of these are preserved. It’ll be such a great loss if all was removed for the sake of development. Such a beautiful harmony of humankind with nature is hard to find these days.

Speaking of preservation, one portion of the route worth talking about is the Bukit Timah Railway Station.

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Today, mechanical systems employ hydraulics or pneumatics to move things. But here, in this station, you can a chance to see colonial-era mechanics in action! No pneumatics, no hydralics, no electronic circuits – just good old solid steel!

Let me explain the setting first before explaining how the mechanics work. Ahead of Bukit Timah Railway Station is a single-track bridge where trains go to and fro:

This bridge was constructed in 1871!
This bridge was constructed in 1871!

At the Bukit Timah Railway Station, there are several railway tracks to seperate trains going in different directions, so that there will be no collisions.

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What makes the switching of tracks possible is this little switching track (the inner piece of steel):

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Today, these things are computer-controlled. But up till 1 July 2011, the switching of tracks in Singapore has always been manually done. In the station itself, there is a switch room:

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There are six switches. In the photo below on the left, there are 6 steel bars. Each switch controls one of those steel bars. By shifting one, you shift a long stretch of steel bars that will eventually move the track-switching device.

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These black curvy-things are engineering marvels! It allows for the shifting of steel bars despite angular bends.

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What’s amazing is that the switches in the switch room can control switches about one or two kilometres away!

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But how is it possible to move such a long stretch of steel? With this! I’m not very good with physics, but I do know that somehow this reduces the amount of effort needed to move that much steel with a single switch. This simple device allows switches far away to be activated. Amazing!

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If I’m not mistaken, all these will be gone. Malaysia wants to take back all the tracks and rocks. I do hope they leave behind a stretch of this, at least this particular stretch at the Railway Station. Otherwise, a railway station without tracks will look quite out of place.

The tracks belong to Malaysia afterall. But if they do remove everything, sights like this will be no more.
The tracks belong to Malaysia afterall. But if they do remove everything, sights like this will be no more.

On a lighter note, there are many other interesting sights along the railway tracks. For instance, graffiti!

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We all want it. But what is it really? Is it a freedom to X or a freedom from Y?
We all want it. But what is it really? Is it a freedom to X or a freedom from Y?

What really surprises me is the presence of very kampong/village-like houses along the lines. In the days before wide-spread public housing, most people stayed in houses like this in Singapore. This is a rare sight!

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Along the way, there are also some very odd sights. It’s litter, but the kinds that you really do not expect to find along railway tracks:

Washing machine!
Washing machine!
CRT Television!
CRT Television!

While the old slowly fades away in the memories of many, the old will never be forgotten. This particular railway track has survived for quite long.

The intersection of the historical and the present. Old and new start off from different point, they meet, and they part, going off in separate ways.
The intersection of the historical and the present. Old and new start off from different point, they meet, and they part, going off in separate ways.

There used to be several other railway lines that went all over Singapore. They seemed to have disappeared for good, but the reality is that they have simply been replaced with more modern technology today. Many of these lines and stations have now been taken over by the existing Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) lines (the Singaporean metro system). Here are a few examples from really old postcards:

A postcard from the 1910s. Steam train passing through Orchard Road.
A postcard from the 1910s. Steam train passing through Orchard Road.

We had steam trains going through Orchard Road back in 1910, and we have electric trains doing likewise today.

A postcard from the 1910s.
A postcard from the 1910s.

While Newton station may not look like this today, the existence of Newton MRT Station is greatly indebted to its past.

History never dies completely. It may have been forgotten, but the effects of things done in the past set the pre-conditions which shape the course of time. What we have today, and what we will have in the future, are the result of all these historical things.

Even as I write this, while the entire railway line leading from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands is being dismantled, a brand new MRT line, the Downtown Line is being constructed, and it runs parallel to this railway line. There’s even a Bukit Timah Station near the old Bukit Timah Railway Station.

The old never goes away. We are a product of our culture and history. We don’t have to read too many books to realise this. The story of a nation’s train system is enough to say quite a bit about it.

Alas… I have come to the end of my exposition of the railway tracks. I do hope something is preserved. There is much that can be learnt along this journey. Perhaps in the future, I’ll try to walk along this path once again to see how much has been preserved, and how much has been re-developed.

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Till we meet again, good bye to you, O historical railway line.