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Saturday, 04 April 2009
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Abu Bakar gets railway back on track

Zainoh Jawahir

IT is politically correct to assume the first railway in Malaya was in Johor in 1869 as the first Federated Malay States railway between Taiping and Port Weld was built in 1885.

A train that was once used in Muar.
A train that was once used in Muar.
The Golden Blowpipe, the express train of the East Coast Line, at Gua Musang.
The Golden Blowpipe, the express train of the East Coast Line, at Gua Musang.

The railway was known as the Wooden Railway or Keretapi Kayu Johor, as the rails were made from timber. It was also known as Kereta Asap.

The railway was the brainchild of Maharaja Abu Bakar. He had toured England with an eye on the needs of his country and was impressed with the railway system there.

He was always one step ahead of the colonial government and wanted to prove the ability of Johor in preserving its economic and political independence.

He embarked on a series of domestic reforms and innovations to modernise his kingdom. A train service would provide transport and accelerate the opening of Johor.

Upon his return from England, Abu Bakar planned for a light railway connecting Johor Baru to Gunung Pulai. The concept was similar to the wooden railway of Clifton, New York.

Abu Bakar made James Meldrum the superintendent of the Johor Steam Sawmill as his partner to ensure the availability of timber. The steam sawmill was the biggest in Asia then, and sawn timber was one of the main exports of Johor.

Abu Bakar had planned to open up the Gunung Pulai area for the cultivation of gambier and pepper. At the same time, there was indication from the Europeans in Singapore of setting up a retreat and sanatorium in a cool environment. The highlands of Gunung Pulai at 610m seemed a likely venue.

Construction of the railway began on July 21, 1869. The rails were laid for 1.6km starting from the area later called Kampong Kereta Asap on the western side of the hill at Istana Besar.

It had a 0.9144m gauge like the railways in India, although the Singapore Daily Times of June 28, 1873, reported it to be a 1m gauge.

A 12-tonne Farlie Double-Boogie locomotive suitable for the undulating terrain was imported.

The round sleepers were of local timber. A total of 1,760 sleepers were needed for every 1.6km of rail. The rails were from hardwood including local teakwood each 3m long and connected with a wedge. They were laid on the ground, as Johor was short on granite for ballasting.

Chinese contract labour was used for the earthworks. Javanese workers did the heavy duties including the laying of sleepers and rails. Skilled Malay workers were employed as woodcutters and making the rails and sleepers.

The total distance constructed was 16km. It was completed in 1874, but by 1877, the project was halted due to technical and environmental shortfalls.

The route along the present Jalan Sekudai had to pass through a swamp. The ground on which the rails were laid was not treated for termites.

On a trial run, the locomotive was derailed and fell into a hole in the ground as termites had damaged the timber rails. The locomotive was salvaged and sold to Selangor for use of the Selangor Railway. It was renamed the Lady Clarke after the wife of the Governor of the Straits Settlement Sir Andrew Clarke.

Although the venture did not meet with success, the idea of the railway paved the way for a modern system of transport.

A metal road to Sekudai and beyond was built. The kangkar (Chinese settlement) at Sungei Sekudai then was under Kapitan Cina Seah Tee Heng, a member of the State Council. Pepper and gambier cultivation thrived in the kangkar and the road was a boon for transport to market.

Meanwhile, the highlands of Gunung Pulai were suitable as a catchment area. The road proved advantageous and an asset in the construction of a reservoir, which was named after Sultan Ismail. The reservoir supplied water to Johor Baru and Singapore in 1924.

The workshop was converted into a crusher for granite used for road construction. Kampong Kereta Asap developed around the workshop and in the sea parallel to the track. The houses were built on stilts. The inhabitants were granted land by Sultan Ibrahim in 1897 and resettled in Tarom and Kampong Bahru.

And Abu Bakar was not discouraged.

In 1887, he negotiated with investors for a train service from Tanah Merah in Sekudai to a point at the northern corner of the Pulai range to form of the main line to Malacca, but the project did not materialise.

A year later, he awarded a concession to English investors for a railway from Johor Baru to Muar. The concession was withdrawn at the insistence of the Colonial Office.

Abu Bakar then turned his attention to Muar. The rest as they said is history.

Datuk Abdul Rahim Ramli will write a piece on Muar State Railway next






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