Thursday, June 1, 2023
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All aboard

Mahizzan Fadzil

ANN/THE STAR – With a deep rumble and a lurch forward, the Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) diesel-powered locomotive slowly departed from the Kempas railway station in Johor Baru, sending a thrill of excitement through me.

I was about to embark on an extraordinary journey through Malaysia’s densest rainforests, an epic 16-hour train ride over 700 kilometres (km) to Tumpat.

The “Jungle Train”, as it is called, is Malaysia’s only remaining rail journey using a traditional diesel locomotive head that pulls sleeping berths, buffet cars and seated coaches.

As I settled into my seat on coach 12A, I couldn’t help but feel like I was embarking on the adventure of a lifetime.

The train has three types of passenger coaches – sleeping berths, traditional economy class (2×2 seats) and a single business class.

The buffet and dining car sandwiched between the sleeping and seated coaches offers a perfect outside view while having a meal.

The limestone hills along the jungle train route provide a stunning pictorial of the rail journey. PHOTOS: THE STAR
A train crosses the Kelantan river with Kemubu bridge

As the train chugged along, I noticed the roughness and irregularities on the wheel and rail surfaces – the source of noise and vibration.

The rail joints and squats on the rail caused a familiar “clickety-clack” sound as the train wheels rolled over them.

This sound is an essential part of traditional train travel and synonymous with the rhythmic motion of a locomotive.

The journey started at 8.44pm on a Friday and was scheduled to arrive at Tumpat at 12.54pm the next day, taking 16 hours and 10 minutes.

This ride, akin to a mini-Orient Express trip, passes through towns like Kulai, Kluang, Segamat and Gemas.

I embarked on this train journey with a specific mission – to document and record the longest train ride in Peninsular Malaysia and one of the last traditional locomotives before being replaced entirely by modern Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs), similar to the Electric Train Service (ETS) coaches that run along the west coast.

As the train approached Kuala Krau midway through the journey, I decided to sneak into the buffet car when everyone else was still sound asleep.

I could see the occasional glimpse of the clear, dark sky punctured by the holes in the canopy as the train snaked its way through the forest while I finished my warm coffee.

The absence of cellphone coverage denoted that we were now in the jungle.

Crossing the Pahang border into Kelantan, the first town scheduled to greet us after sunrise was Gua Musang.

The fascinating part of crossing the border was seeing the jungle train connect small towns like Gua Musang to Tumpat, providing a lifeline to remote areas and supporting local economic activities.

Schoolchildren rely on this train service to reach their schools near Kuala Gris and Dabong.

There are also two significant steel girder bridges to note after leaving Gua Musang. One is near Kemubu village and the other is the 600m-long Guillemard steel bridge before Tanah Merah.

However, in 2014, the Kemubu Bridge, which is 10 minutes away from Dabong, collapsed during a flood, disrupting rail services for over six months.

As we left Kuala Krai and headed towards Tanah Merah, the next landmark was the Guillemard Bridge.

It is the longest surviving operational bridge serving KTM and part of the East Coast railway line which connects Kelantan to the rest of the country.

The Guillemard Bridge was designed and constructed by Dalrymple-Hay & Co. Completed in 1925, it was named after Lt-Col Arthur Joseph Guillemard, a British colonial administrator who served as the Resident of Kelantan in the early 20th Century.

Capturing the tunnels between Dabong and Kuala Gris was another part of the rail adventure, with several tunnels (around seven, if I remember correctly) along the route to Kuala Krai.

As the jungle train arrived at Tanah Merah at noon, I marvelled at the incredible journey I had experienced.

Kota Baru was next before the train finished the ride at Tumpat.

Although it was a long and tiring journey, it was worth it.

This rail adventure was an eye-opener, offering a glimpse into the diversity of this incredible country.

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