Trundling through the jungle

I recently spent time in Kuala Lumpur (KL) and had the opportunity to visit Singapore. All too easily we hop on to the budget airlines websites, which is exactly what I did for this trip. However, the one thing that puts me off flying in and out of KL on low cost carriers is the time, effort and the cheap, clapped out coaches to and from KL’s dedicated low-cost terminal, LCCT. I knew there was a train service from KL to Singapore – it was around long before flying of course. So I did a bit of research and found that on balance, taking into account cost, total journey time, comfort and effort, going by train appeared to be a no brainer. So decided to put it to the test and compare.

Buying tickets

For this service, you can’t just pitch up before travel. You can check service times and buy tickets from the operator, KTM either online here up to three days before or at Sentral KL station up to four hours before travel.

SentraL KL intercity booking office is open from 0700 to 2200.  In the evening it is very busy I found - waited 40 mins to buy my ticket.

SentraL KL intercity booking office is open from 0700 to 2200. In the evening it is very busy I found – waited 40 mins to buy my ticket.

If you want an overnight sleeper berth, book as far advance as possible as these were all fully booked when I wanted to travel. They are also popular with backpackers as it is cheap and very practical accommodation.

There are three services a day from KL to Woodlands CIQ (Customs, Immigration, Quarantine) Train Checkpoint, which is just over the causeway on Singapore island. They leave KL at 0830, 1415 and 2330. Returning, the service times are almost the same – 0830, 1400 and 2330 from Woodlands CIQ. More information can also be found on the rail travel website Seat 61. You can also find out about taking the train all the way to Bangkok – a two day journey… and not for the faint hearted, unless you go on the Eastern Orient Express.

Sentral Station Kuala Lumpar

One of the finest old colonial buildings in KL is the former main railway station. It is still a functioning railway station, but not for intercity services. Sadly it is no longer in great condition although worth a look around. I took this picture during my first visit to KL in 2005:

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The new mainline station in KL is Sentral Kuala Lumpur, and this is where the train journey now starts…

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Inside is a very modern, bustling station that serves an extensive commuter service, the LRT (metro) and intercity services…

Sentral KL station pretty much has everything you need.  The money exchange counters however were not open in time before the 0830 service left.

Sentral KL station pretty much has everything you need. The money exchange counters however were not open in time before the 0830 Singapore service departed.

The journey south

The Singapore bound trains leave from Gate B, on the same level where tickets are purchased. I found it easily and headed for my seat, excited to start this eight-hour scenic trip. Then I found my “window” seat…

Crap Seat

As one friend commented on Facebook, there was a touch of Monty Python about this seat – the dead parrot sketch came to mind. However, the coach was half empty so I moved once the train got going.

We passed countless palm oil plantations....

We passed countless palm oil plantations….

For the first hour or so, every station we passed had been modernised. The line and infrastructure had clearly been through a major upgrade too as we passed concrete embankments and bridges. Track sleepers were also concrete. In between stations I was looking out at mile upon mile of palm nut plantations, with banana, coconut and papaya trees plus other assorted vegetation lining the edge of the track.image

This landscape was occassionally broken by the small plantation towns, villages and halts we either passed through or stopped at briefly. This short clip taken as we approached a small town is typical of what I saw along the 8 hour, 400 km journey. Be warned, it’s a bit boring and not high-definition…

All stations and points junctions were manned by smartly turned out guards waving their red or green flags…

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The upgraded part of the line seemed to stop at Gemas station, as thereafter it was single track and even smaller and more charming little plantation town stations and halts.

This is typical of the stations after Gemas.  Segamat must be halfway, as the blue sign has, in smaller print indicated the direction for Singapore and Kuala Lumpur respectively

This is typical of the stations after Gemas. Segamat must be halfway, as the blue sign has, in smaller print indicated the direction for Singapore and Kuala Lumpur respectively

We were about an hour from Singapore when the train had an extended stop at Kulai station for around 45 minutes. From my seat I could see an old set of scales in a station building, so I dared to alight, investigate the scales and have a wander round.

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I didn’t know stations still had parcel offices in this day and age of international next day carriers, but judging by the number of times I saw the scales in use, the service is clearly in demand.

The front entrance to these stations didn’t look too exciting, although Kuali station appeared to be a bit of a gathering place for the locals…

We were stuck at this station for 45 minutes waiting for a commuter train that never actually passed. So I had a wander and took this picture of the station entrance....

We were stuck at Kulai station for 45 minutes and told we waiting for a commuter train that never actually passed. As I later observed, they were working on the line just south of Kulai.

All the stations along this route appeared to be gathering places, as well as lifelines to the otherwise remote agricultural communities in peninsula Malaysia. At every station there small groups of people either coming or going. You really did see a glimpse into rural Malay life.

Another bonus to taking the train was seeing some of the tropical wildlife. I was thrilled to see two separate sets of wild monkeys high in the trees, a three-foot reptile that looked like some kind of iguana, plus loads and loads of birds, including a bird of prey successfully swooping to catch a small rodent.

The train was due to arrive at Woodside CIQ at 1630, but our arrival was 1710. Immigration formalities were pretty effortless. Malaysian immigration officials boarded the train at Johor Baru and checked our passports. On arrival at Woodside CIQ, there was an immigration hall and arrival cards to complete, identical to the airport arrival routine. Within ten minutes I was on my way. Easy! The only drawback is that it is still another 20 – 30 minutes from there to down town Singapore, accessible via taxi or bus then MRT. As my brother scommented, its like going to London and being dropped off at Watford, but it’s no further away than Changi airport.

Footnote: Until 2011, trains went all the way to the beautiful art deco KTM station known as Tangjon Pagar on Kepple Road in Singapore This might seem odd now, but Singapore was part of Malaysia until 1965 when it became independent. The station and land are still owned by KTM. You can read more about it on wikipedia.

The journey north

As the sleeper service going back north was fully booked, I opted for the afternoon service. There isn’t really too much more to report, other than I had a better seat in a newer and much cleaner coach. The downside was it was very cold, to the point I had to say something, then drink hot tea every hour!

My northbound seat - much nicer!

My northbound seat – much nicer!

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As you may be aware from previous blog posts, I have a bit of a fascination with border crossings. My only other border crossing by train was the channel tunnel years ago. Anyway, here is a video of the journey from Woodside CIQ in Singapore to Johor Baru in Malaysia, so you can see how short it is. Slightly less boring…

The only other memorable parts of the journey were the thunderstorms later in the afternoon. Another clip to snooze though – but I did capture the cracks of lightning and thunder, and you can see from the station guttering it really was a tropical downpour …

I was very glad to get to KL – I was freezing and it was a long journey as three hours of it was after sunset. We did however arrive five minutes early!

The comparisons

Cost

Rail: KTM 1st class return RM 168 plus taxis approx RM 120. Total RM 288 (approx £57 or US$92)

Air: Air Asia return (similar times) RM 424 (approx £84 or US$135) plus taxis approx RM 120, plus airport bus RM 20. Total RM 564 (approx £112 or US$180). FYI cheapest Air Asia return depart KL 0605, returning KL 2250) RM 381 (approx £75 or US$210)

Duration

Train: 8 hours – it really trundles, with top speeds between 60 – 70 km per hour. Plus taxi to and from station either end – 2 x 20 minutes, plus 30 minutes at station for boarding. Total 9 hours 10 minutes

Flying: 1 hour 5 minutes, plus taxi to KL Sentral 20 mins, plus bus to KL LCCT terminal 60 minutes, plus 2 hours check in. Total: 4 hours 25 minutes

Comfort

There is no doubt the seats on the train were very comfortable and much nicer that a cramped Air Asia seat. We also got a free cake and bottle of water on the train! The only downside is that the return journey was uncomfortably cold.

Effort

I had forgotten how effortless travelling by train is. There isn’t so much hiking around of bags. You simply go from home to station to train to destination. It was also nice to be at the station only 30 minutes before travel. With flying, you generally need to be at the gate 30 minutes before. And finally, the biggest advantage is not having to go though all the security screening when boarding a train. Not a magnetometer in sight, until we got to Singapore arrivals hall.

Finally, if you want to know more about this line, have a look on wikipedia here. It was built and opened in stages, from between 1903 and 1923, when the goods and passenger services started running.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my trundle in the jungle. If you can afford to take your time, I would definitely recommend this journey but only one way, or take the sleeper for the return! Its half the price, and twice as long as flying, but you do get to relax more and see something of Malaysia.

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