FMS Railways – Part 2: Crossing the Straits

by Stuart Wakefield

Sir Frank Swettenham, (Malay States High Commissioner and Governor of the Straits Settlements, 1901 to 1904), proposed that the FMS Railway link Singapore to Gemas through the State of Johor. Two proposals were made to Sultan Ibrahim, either for Johor to raise the money to pay the FMS to build the line or for a loan to be made for building the line in exchange for a British ‘Auditor’ being positioned in Johor. The Sultan accepted a loan of $11 million for the construction of the line. However, whilst the terms of the loan were for settlement in 21 years, it was repaid in full after 14 years to demonstrate Johor’s economic independence.  The 121 mile long line was leased to the FMS Railway.

Before the causeway was built, the FMS Railway provided a Wagon Ferry service between Tangga Duke in Johor Baru and Kranji in Singapore. The service used two vessels that could each accommodate five trucks. Passengers disembarked at Woodlands Terminus to cross to Johor via steam launch.

8. ferryboat


9. lock
The lock at Johor Bahru. When raised, this structure permitted the passage of small boats to either side of the causeway

A bridge across the Straits had first been suggested in 1904, although this proposal was eventually discarded in favour of a causeway. In 1924, the causeway was opened after four years of construction, when Sir Laurence Guillemard, the Straits Settlements Governor, symbolically deposited two loads of rubble to close the remaining central gap, witnessed by Sultan Ibrahim and the FMS Rulers. The causeway was 60 feet wide and carried twin railway tracks plus a 26 foot roadway. The total length was 3,465 feet, and the greatest depth was 77 feet, with an average depth at low tide of 47 feet. A total of 1,641,712 cubic yards of granite was used in the construction of the causeway.


Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

The design of Tajong Pagar Station was based upon Helsinki’s Central Station. It was built to maximise passenger comfort whilst they waited to embark. The building was planned to be the southern point of an ambitious vision to link Asia with Europe’s vast rail network. It was envisaged that railway lines spanning Asia would eventually connect the Indian and Pacific Oceans, with Singapore serving as the southern gateway.

Whilst it was theoretically possible to link the many railways between Europe and Asia, both its construction and operation would have required unprecedented cooperation between conflicting interests of many states and colonies.

11. tanjong pagar

The station was equipped with waiting and refreshment rooms, dining rooms, a hairdresser’s shop and dressing rooms. There was also a telegraph office, a parcel room, plus offices and bedrooms for station staff. Restaurant Cars served excellent breakfast, luncheon and dinner at reasonable prices. Sleeping Saloons with two berth cabins were provided on the night trains, and an ample Buffet Parlour Car was attached to night express trains between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

12 gateway

In his speech at the opening of the station in 1932, Sir Cecil Clementi, the Governor of the Straits Settlements, provided an insight into the vision which provided the motivation for building of the station saying: “We stand here at the southernmost tip of the continent of Asia, and, since the Johore Strait is now spanned by a causeway which was opened for traffic in 1924, we may even say that we stand at the southernmost tip of the mainland of Asia. This point is, therefore, a real terminus as well as a natural junction between land-borne and sea-borne traffic; and it is very right that the terminal station of the Malayan railway system should be built at Singapore, the gateway between the Pacific and Indian Oceans and immediately opposite the Tanjong Pagar docks, where every facility will be afforded for interchange between railway and ocean shipping”.

13 visit malayaAlthough timetable variations reflected the locomotive power, pre-WWII journey times from Singapore were nine hours to Kuala Lumpur, twenty two hours to Penang, and twenty nine hours for the 580 miles to Padang Besar on the Siamese border. The Japanese increased train speeds during WWII, and reduced the time to the Siamese border by five hours.

The 1948 Malayan Railway Ordinance was created to manage the railways previously managed under the FMS Railway. The Malayan Railway Administration was later renamed as Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM).

Part 1 of this article can be viewed here.


Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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