Railway in Singapore

Singapore Infopedia

by Tan, Bonny


The Singapore Railway Line was the southernmost segment in the West Coast Line of the Malayan railway system. It was mooted as early as the 1860s, approved by the Legislative Council in 1899 and completed in 1903 at a cost of $2 million. Management of the Singapore Railway operations, buildings and land were transferred to the Federated Malay States Railway (FMSR) in 1918 for over $4 million. The Malayan Railway Administration – predecessor of Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) Berhad – was established in 1948.1 The terminus in Singapore was the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

Early developments
In the 1800s in Singapore, the only semblance of a railway line was a five-kilometre track that connected Singapore town from Telok Ayer Street to the harbour in Tanjong Pagar. The decision to build a railway that would in the long run transport passengers and goods to peninsular Malaya was made at the turn of the century, with the birth of the Singapore-Kranji railway line.2

The railway system in Malaya was built initially to service the tin mining industry. However, it later became a boon to the rubber industry, helping to boost Malaya’s economic growth. The first railway lines opened in 1885 and traversed tin-rich Larut in Perak, transporting goods between Taiping and Port Weld over a distance of 7.5 miles (12 km).3

Plans to build a railway line through Singapore, primarily to service the New Harbour (later known as Keppel Harbour) had been mooted in as early as 1869 by Engineer W. J. du Port of the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company. The project was approved by Governor Charles Bullen Hugh Mitchell only in 1899 after then Governor Cecil Clementi Smith raised the need for it in an 1889 Legislative Council meeting.4 Construction works were then initiated, with the groundbreaking ceremony held on 16 April 1900. Chinese labour was employed principally.5

C. E. Spooner, general manager of the FMSR, was appointed the supervisor of the project. Costing a total of $1,967,495, the Singapore-Kranji Railway Line, running from Tank Road to Kranji, was completed in 1903. Opened in two phases, the first section was launched on 1 January 1903.6 It stretched from Tank Road to Bukit Timah and consisted of four stations along the line: Singapore, Newton, Cluny and Bukit Timah. According to a newspaper report the following day, “a total of 557½ passengers were carried” on the opening day. The second section, which extended the line to Woodlands, was completed three months later when the Woodlands station was opened on 10 April 1903.7 In 1903, there were a total of 426,044 passengers. By 1905, this had increased to 525,553.8

Soon after, work began on an extension of the railway line from Tank Road to the wharves in Pasir Panjang. The extension was completed and opened on 21 January 1907.9 With the extension, railway stations consisted of Woodlands, Bukit Panjang, Bukit Timah, Holland Road, Cluny, Newton, Tank Road, Borneo Wharf and Pasir Panjang.10

Prewar developments
For 15 years, the railway line operated two ferry-boats – the Singapore and the Johore – which brought rail passengers across the Johor Strait. With the completion of the Causeway in 1923, trains could finally cross the Malay Peninsula into Singapore.11 The heaviest passenger traffic was on Sundays when Johor’s gambling farm proprietors paid the return fares for the people in Singapore travelling up north to gamble. The fares were 8, 5 and 3 cents a mile for first-, second- and third-class passengers respectively.12

The Tank Road station served as the only terminus for passenger trains in Singapore until the completion of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station on 3 May 1932.13 The Tanjong Pagar station was designed by local architectural firm Swan and Maclaren based on studies of various English stations by a partner of the firm in 1927. The three sheltered train platforms were 950 ft (290 m) long, and passenger facilities included accommodation for first-, second- and third-class passengers, refreshment rooms, dining rooms, waiting rooms, mail rooms, a telegraph office, a hairdresser’s shop, dressing rooms, toilets, as well as offices and bedrooms for the station staff.14

Lodgings known as the Kelantan Flats along Kampong Bahru Road were constructed to house workers of the Malayan Railway and the Malayan Customs. These lodgings were also designed by Swan and Maclaren.15 The workers, who were mainly Tamils and Malays, and their families could use the free medical facilities.16 The Tank Road-Bukit Timah Line was dismantled sometime in the early 1930s.17

Later developments
On 4 March 1966, the 12-mile (19 km) extension line from Bukit Timah to Jurong Port Road, into the new Jurong Industrial Estate, was officially opened. This was a joint venture between Malaysia’s Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad and Singapore’s Economic Development Board, and cost S$5.9 million to build.18 However, the line did not see extensive use and was abandoned in the 1990s.19

Recent developments
In 2016, the Singapore and Malaysian governments signed an agreement to build a high-speed rail connecting the two countries. Expected to be operational by 2026, the high-speed rail would reduce travel time between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore to 90 minutes.20

The Singapore railway is typical of British colonial railway systems, built to the metre gauge (3 ft 3⅜ in). Singapore had KTM’s only hydraulic buffer stops developed by Ransomes & Rapier, a British manufacturer of railway equipment. The Singapore station was also one of three major signal cabins along the West Coast Line until 1967, when a new station was opened in Butterworth, Penang. Singapore’s Tanjong Pagar station was also only one of three stations with hotels, the other two being Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur.21

The railway track in Singapore ran along the current Cuppage Road, across Monk’s Hill Road and towards a station in Newton on Gilstead Road, close to where the Newton Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) Station now stands. The tracks then traversed Bukit Timah Road, with a stop at Cluny Station and Bukit Timah Station before passing through Bukit Timah village to Kranji and Woodlands.22 An extension for goods trains was opened in 1907. This connected Tank Road Station to the dockyard in Pasir Panjang, via the People’s Park area.23 Before leaving Singapore, there would be slowdowns at Bukit Timah and Kranji for manual exchange of key tokens.24 The tokens were exchanged between train drivers or crew at a station or intersection, and signified permission to proceed based on security and traffic conditions.25

Railway land
Acquired under the Singapore Railway Transfer Ordinance of 1918, the KTM had three plots of land totalling 63.8 ha in Singapore for use solely to operate a railway service. These excluded about 40 km of tracks from Woodlands to the Tanjong Pagar station in Keppel.26

After Singapore and Malaysia signed the landmark Points of Agreement on 27 November 1990, Malaysia gave up the six railway sites in Tanjong Pagar, Kranji, Woodlands and Bukit Timah in exchange for six land parcels in the Marina South and Ophir-Rochor areas.27

Variant names
The Singapore Railway Line was also known as the Singapore Deviation, the Singapore-Kranji Railway and the Singapore Government Railway.28

Engineer W. J. du Port of the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company proposes to build a railway through Singapore at an estimated cost of $200,000.29
1871: The Tanjong Pagar Dock Company puts forward another proposal to Governor Harry St George Ord, but the public protests against the use of public funds for private interests.

1874: Governor Andrew Clarke announces his support for the construction of a railway – the New Harbour Railway – for private use.30
1 Jun 1885: The first section of the Malayan railway, a seven-and-a-half-mile track (12 km), opens between Taiping and Port Weld, serving the main mining area in Larut.
Sep 1886: The 21-mile (34-km) track between Kuala Lumpur and Klang opens, with an extension to Port Swettenham three years later.
1889: Governor Cecil Clementi Smith proposes building a railway train system for Singapore.31
1891: Seremban is linked up with Port Dickson.32
1898: Cecil Clementi Smith announces that the government would soon be able to construct a railway in Singapore.33
1899: Funding of $1,000,000 is approved for the railway.
1900: Penang (Prai) is linked up with Seremban.
16 Apr 1900: The groundbreaking ceremony for the Singapore-Kranji Railway Line is held.
1901: The Federated Malay States Railway is established to unite the different railway systems in Malaya, and to construct a railway system in Singapore.34
1 Jan 1903: The Singapore-Kranji Railway line is completed. The section from Tank Road to Bukit Timah opens.35
10 Apr 1903: The Woodlands extension is completed. The first passenger trains begin transporting travellers to Bukit Timah Station.36
1905: Seremban is connected to Tampin.37
21 Jan 1907: The extension to Pasir Panjang is completed.38
1909: The Johor Railway is completed, delivering most of the surface mail from central and western Peninsular Malaya to Singapore. (Note: The missing link between Woodlands and Johor Bahru was bridged by a wagon ferry service, with launches for passengers).39
1 Jul 1918: Singapore is linked to Bangkok through the launch of a train service, with the mail service using this line from 1 November the same year.40
1918: The properties and estates previously under the Singapore Railway are sold to the Government of the Federated Malay States for $4,136,000, and the railway is renamed the Federated Malay States Railway.41
17 Sep 1923: The first goods train travels via the Causeway.
1 Oct 1923: The first passenger train travels via the Causeway.42
28 Jun 1924: Completion of the rail and road causeway that links Singapore to Johor, Negri Sembilan, Selangor, Perak, Province Wellesley, Kedah and Perlis, joining up with the Royal Siamese State Railway at Padang Besar.
1926: The Railroad Board supports a scheme for a new station at Tank Road and various other improvements.43
1928: The Changi Railway is constructed for Singapore’s defence. It services the new Changi battery, and cuts through Fairy Hill with a loop to the ammunition dump at Selarang.44
1932: The Tanjong Pagar Railway Station is officially opened by Governor Cecil Clementi.45
1930s: The Tank Road-Bukit Timah Line is dismantled.46
1948: Under the Malayan Railway Ordinance, railways previously managed by the Federated Malay States Railway are now managed by the Malayan Railway Administration.47
1962: The Malayan Railway Administration is renamed Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad.
1965: The 14-kilometre-long Jurong Railway is opened to serve the new Jurong Industrial Estate. The track runs from Bukit Timah Railway station through Ulu Pandan and Clementi, It closes in 1990.48
4 Mar 1966: A 12-mile-long (19 km) branch is added to the Singapore Line, spanning Jurong and Bukit Timah, and built at a cost of $5.9 million.49
1970s: The government studies the option of an all-bus public transport system and a mass rail system.
1987: MRT system is launched.
June 1991: Former Minister of National Development S. Dhanabalan makes first official statement in Parliament on the railway land agreement.50
2010: Singapore and Malaysian Prime Ministers announces plan for rapid transit link.51
2011: The 26-kilometre Singapore Railway Line closes, ending more than a century of railway transport in Singapore.52 The Tanjong Pagar railroad stretch is decommissioned in a land-swap agreement.53 The railway line to Malaysia then starts at Woodlands. The former stations at Bukit Timah and Tanjong Pagar are granted conversation status.54
30 June 2011: The last train leaves Tanjong Pagar, driven by Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar of Johor.55
1 July 2011: The 26-kilometre stretch of KTM railway land reverts to Singapore.56
16 Sep 2011: Old Bukit Timah Railway Station reopens to the public.57
Jan 2012: The last of the former KTM railway tracks is dismantled to send back to Malaysia.58
2015: Part of the Tanjong Pagar rail terminus makes way for the construction of the new underground Cantonment station on the Circle Line. The Cantonment station is slated to be ready in 2025.59
2016: Singapore and Malaysia governments sign agreement to build high-speed rail, which would connect Kuala Lumpur and Singapore with a travel time of 90 minutes.

Bonny Tan

1. Zakir Hussain “All Aboard, Last Trains Chug Across S’pore,” Straits Times, 1 July 2011, 38. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Gloria Chandy, “Tracking Railway’s Long History,” New Nation, 30 April 1979, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 2 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 121 (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS]); Arnold Wright and H. A. Cartwright, eds., Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya: Its History, People, Commerce, Industries, and Resources (Singapore: G. Brash, 1989), 177. (Call no. RSING 959.5 TWE); J. A. Stanistreet, Keretapi Tanah Melayu: The Malayan Railway (Lingfield: Oakwood Press, 1974), 5–6, 10, 16–17, 42–43, 55. (Call no. RCLOS 385.09595 STA) 
4. Gretchen Liu, Singapore: A Pictorial History 1819–2000 (Singapore: Archipelago Press, 1999), 100–101 (Call no. RSING 959.57 LIU-[HIS]); The Land Transport of Singapore: From Early Times to the Present (Singapore: Educational Publications Bureau, 1984), 39 (Call no. RSING 779.9388095957 LAN); Wright and Cartwright, Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya, 183; George Bogaars “The Effect of the Opening of the Suez Canal on the Trade and Development of Singapore,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 42, no. 1 (215) (July 1969): 208–51. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
5. “Singapore-Kranji Railway,” Straits Times, 2 January 1903, 5 (From NewspaperSG); Land Transport of Singapore, 39; Wright and Cartwright, Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya, 183–84.
6. “‘A Fine Engineering Achievement’,” Straits Times, 3 May 1932, 12 (From NewspaperSG); Liu, Pictorial History 1819–2000, 100–01; Land Transport of Singapore, 39; Wright and Cartwright, Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya, 183–84; Stanistreet, Keretapi Tanah Melayu, 5.
7. “Singapore-Johore Railway,” Straits Times, 11 April 1903, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Wright and Cartwright, Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya, 184.
9. “Railway Extension,” Straits Times, 17 January 1907, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
10. “Extension of the Railway,” Straits Times, 21 January 1907, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Land Transport of Singapore, 48.
12. Wright and Cartwright, Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya, 184.
13. Land Transport of Singapore, 40.
14. “‘A Fine Engineering Achievement’,” Straits Times, 3 May 1932, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
15. “‘Fine Engineering Achievement’”; “Opening of New F.M.S.R. Terminal Station,” Malayan Saturday Post, 7 May 1932, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Stanistreet, Keretapi Tanah Melayu, 48.
17. Lai Kai Joo, “Putting the Record Straight,” New Nation, 30 July 1971, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
18. “New Link for Local Industries,” Straits Times, 4 March 1966, 12 (From NewspaperSG); Stanistreet, Keretapi Tanah Melayu, 6.
19. Edmund Waller, “Abandoned Rail Line Can Be Used for Recreation,” Straits Times, 27 January 1995, 36 (From NewspaperSG)
20. Royston Sim, “Historic Agreement for Singapore-Kuala Lumpur High-Speed Rail Line Signed; Service Targeted to Start by Dec 31, 2026,” Straits Times, 13 December 2016. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
21. Wright and Cartwright, Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya, 184; Stanistreet, Keretapi Tanah Melayu, 5–6, 10, 16–17, 42–43, 55.
22. Land Transport of Singapore, 40.
23. Stanistreet, Keretapi Tanah Melayu, 27.
24. C. Y. Leong, “A Handy Guide to the Rail Corridor,” accessed 7 January 2017.
25. Amanda Tan, “Calls to Preserve Train Station,” Straits Times, 26 September 2010, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Herbert Fernandez, “Track Record,” New Paper, 7 February 1995, 26. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Kor Kian Beng, “Points of Agreement: A 20-Year Saga,” Straits Times, 25 May 2010, 6; Uma Shankari, “Tanjong Pagar, Bt Timah Stations to Be Conserved,” Business Times, 9 April 2011, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
28. “‘Fine Engineering Achievement’”; “Untitled,” Straits Times, 16 November 1908, 6; “Federated Malay States Railways. Johore State Railway,” Singapore Free Press, 1 January 1910, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
29. “Effect of the Opening of the Suez Canal,” 208–51.
30. Land Transport of Singapore, 38; Wright and Cartwright, Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya, 183; “New Harbour Railway,” Straits Times, 27 June 1874, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
31. Eisen Teo, “From KTM to MRT,” Straits Times, 23 October 2012, 10–11. (From NewspaperSG)
32. Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 121.
33. Land Transport of Singapore, 39.
34. Teo, “From KTM to MRT.”
35. “Singapore-Kranji Railway,” Straits Times, 2 January 1903, 5; Pictorial History 1819–2000, 100–01; Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 121; Wright and Cartwright, Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya, 177.
36. “Singapore-Johore Railway”; Wright and Cartwright, Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya, 184.
37. Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 121; Wright and Cartwright, Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya, 177.
38. Railway Extension”; “Extension of the Railway.”
39. Land Transport of Singapore, 39; Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 121; “The Causeway,” Malayan Saturday Post, 5 July 1924, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
40. Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 121.
41. Liu, Pictorial History 1819–2000, 100–01; Land Transport of Singapore, 38, 41.
42. Stanistreet, Keretapi Tanah Melayu, 5.
43. “‘Fine Engineering Achievement’”; Stanistreet, Keretapi Tanah Melayu, 5.
44. H. A. Probert, History of Changi (Singapore: Prison Industries, 1970), 16. (Call no. RCLOS 959.51 PRO)
45. Stanistreet, Keretapi Tanah Melayu, 5; “‘Fine Engineering Achievement’.”
46. Lai “Putting the Record Straight.” 
47. “Cuepacs Refutes Report of KTM Being Corporatised,” Business Times, 5 May 1989, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
48. Teo, “From KTM to MRT.”
49. “New Link for Local Industries.”
50. Fernandez, “Track Record.” 
51. Jeremy Au Yong, “Tg Pagar Train Station to Move to Woodlands,” Straits Times, 25 May 2010, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
52. Teo, “From KTM to MRT.”
53. Corrie Tan, “On the Trail of a Mythic Monkey,” Straits Times, 28 August 2012, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
54. Teo, “From KTM to MRT.”
55. Ng Jing Xian, “Bilateral Rail Link,” Straits Times, 9 April 2013, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
56. Grace Chua, “Parts of KTM Railway to Be Retained,” Straits Times, 23 July 2011, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
57. Esther Ng, “Old Bukit Timah Railway Station to Be Opened to Public,” Today, 3 September 2011, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
58. Grace Chua, “Final Pieces of KTM Track Removed,” Straits Times, 1 January 2012, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
59. Melody Zaccheus, “Part of Tanjong Pagar Terminus to Make Way for MRT Station,” Straits Times, 30 October 2015, 8. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
Accounts of the Malayan Railway Administration (Kuala Lumpur: Government Press, 1956–1962). (Call no. RCLOS 385.1595 MAGAMR)

Amarjit Kaur, Bridge and Barrier: Transport and Communications in Colonial Malaya, 1870–1957 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1985), 38, 45. (Call no. RSING 380.309595 KAU)

Amarjit Kaur, Railways, Roads and Communications Their Contribution to Asymmetrical Economic Development in Malaya 1870s–1940s (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms Internationa, 1978). (Call no. RCLOS 388.04909595 AMA)

Federated Malay States Railways, Fifty Years of Railways in Malaya, 1885–1935 (Kuala Lumpur: F.M.S., Kyle, Palmer & Co., 1935). (Call no. RRARE q385.09595 FED; Microfilm NL25928)

Haji Shamsuddin, Malayan Railway, 1885–1985, Locomotive Centennial (Malaysia: Hidayah, 1985). (Call no. RSING 625.2609595 SHA)

The information in this article is valid as at 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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