History of rail transport in Malaysia

The development of railway services in Malaysia, particularly West Malaysia, closely parallels the history of the development of the country itself from British colony to an independent state with a rapidly developing economy.

About Malaysian Railways

The first attempt to build a railway line in Malaysia dates back the second half of the Nineteenth Century. In 1869 construction began on a 32 km stretch of track between Johor Bahru and Gurung Pulai. This project was never completed. The next attempt to build a railway commenced in 1881. The line ran 12 km between the river port of Sapetang to Taiping. It took 4 years to get this project up and running with the first train service in Malaysia arrived at Taiping Railway station on the 1st June 1885. There are few notable points about the development of the first railway project to consider:

  • The line was principally built to carry goods not people.
  • The project was initiated by foreign investors and managed by a foreign government.
  • Funding for the project, which benefited private commercial interests, came from public funds.
Railway services in Malaysia started operating in 1885
Railway services in Malaysia started operating in 1885

From this small start Malaysia now has a heavy railway network of over 1,800 km of track in West Malaysia, a 134 km track in Sabah, East Malaysia, an impressive suburban light railway network connecting Kuala Lumpur with other urban and commercial centres in the Klang Valley, and a near to high speed service connecting Kuala Lumpur and its two main airports. Notably a large part of the heavy railway network, from Padang Besar Railway Station to Gemas Railway Station was electrified in 1995. Neighbouring Thailand’s railway network is larger, at 4,346 km, but notably less technology developed. The rationale behind the Malaysian railway network and the way it’s funded and managed has changed as well:

  • Rail services in Malaysia now principally carry people not goods.
  • Railway projects in Malaysia are initiated by the Malaysian government, although there are partnerships with foreign governments.
  • Public funds are directed into the rail system for the purpose of developing the economy as a whole.

Future of Malaysia Railways

The direction of travel for railway development in Malaysia is now focusing on international connectivity. The idea of making it possible to travel by train from West Malaysia across the region and towards China, Russia and Europe has been a long time in the making. The first rail connection to a neighbouring country, Thailand, was established at Padang Besar in 1918. Since then it some respects the push towards international connectivity has gone backwards. You need to now change trains at Padang Besar for travel between Malaysia and Thailand, whereas originally the same train went all the way to Hat Yai and Bangkok. The direct rail connection with Singapore has also ceased. Travellers need to change trains in Johor Bahru for the the journey to and from Singapore. The push to integrate Malaysian railway services with a wider network of Asian railways is back firmly on the agenda as part of the Pan Asian Railway Network, which aims to create a rail link between China and Singapore via three routes linking up Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia to Malaysia. The part of the network in Laos is scheduled to open in December 2021 and the pressure is now on for the Thai and Malaysian governments in particular to upgrade existing rail links between Laos and Singapore, to make the train services faster and avoid people needing to change trains several times on route.

Location of KL Sentral Station

KL Sentral Station is the main hub for rail services in Malaysia.

Google Map of KL Sentral Station

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