Trail of the unexpected: Singapore station

The Art Deco station from which travellers left Singapore for Malaysia is to close, but the building will remain a national treasure, says Mark Smith

Crouching in the shadow of an elevated freeway at the western edge of the city centre lies one of Singapore's most impressive colonial buildings. And unlike some of Singapore's other colonial heritage – the General Post Office now serving as the Fullerton hotel, or the disused Supreme Court building, for example – it is still in daily use for its original purpose, at least for a few months more.

The Art Deco railway station is the terminus for three daily air-conditioned trains to Kuala Lumpur, 248 miles north along the narrow metre-gauge tracks, through palm oil plantations and patches of jungle. It is popular with both Malays and adventurous Western travellers, but less so with Singaporeans who are more likely to head for their shiny new Changi Airport than a faded colonial railway station run by their Malaysian neighbours. And it's with the ownership of the station and its railway that the trouble lies.

The railway linking the port area with the north of Singapore island was completed in 1903 and for two decades it remained separate from the main Malayan network. Passengers would alight at a location known as Woodlands at the northern tip of Singapore island and catch a ferry across the Johor Strait, boarding another train at Johor Bahru to continue their journey up the Malay Peninsula to KL, Penang or Bangkok. This inconvenient arrangement ceased in 1923 when the Johor-Singapore Causeway was opened, finally linking the Singapore line to the mainland network and transforming travel between Singapore and Malaya. In 1932, the governor of Singapore, Sir Cecil Clementi Smith, opened a grand new station on reclaimed land in Keppel Road – the building still used by Malaysia-bound trains today.

The station was designed by Swan & MacLaren, Singapore's oldest architectural firm, with Italian sculptor Cavalieri Rodolfo Nolli creating the figures representing Agriculture, Industry, Commerce and Transport which adorn each of the four huge pillars on the station's facade. Above each sculpture is a crest and a letter spelling "FMSR": the Federated Malay States Railway. The motif also features on the booking hall walls, along with Art Deco murals depicting scenes from Malaya's colonial economy: tin mining, rubber tapping, shipping, rail transport and rice planting among others.

The station's interior has been given a lick of paint in the last year or two, but this scarcely masks the impression of a grand old station that has almost faded away. This is not the Singapore of gleaming office blocks, immaculate shopping centres and spotlessly efficient mass transit. Instead of McDonald's or KFC, the catering area hosts hawker stalls selling noodles and rice. The floors are grubby: swept rather than properly cleaned. In fact, this is not Singapore at all.

When Singapore was expelled from Malaysia in 1965 and became a republic in its own right, the railway and the land it stands on remained the property of the Malaysian government through its national railway company Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM). No love was lost between the two states after they separated, and the presence of significant tracts of Malaysian land deep within Singaporean territory has been a festering political thorn in Singapore's side ever since, one of several key disagreements. (Another being Singapore's supply of drinking water, much of which comes from Malaysia through huge pipes laid beside the railway.)

Even the railway's customs and immigration procedures have caused disagreement in recent years. Singaporean and Malaysian immigration controls were originally carried out at Singapore station before passengers boarded trains, but in 1992 Singapore moved its staff to the new Woodlands Train Checkpoint, just south of the Causeway. Malaysia refused to move its own immigration checks, its passport control booths remaining at the entrance to the departure platform at Singapore station. So now, officially, you enter Malaysia before you leave Singapore.

The dispute over land ownership seemed as if it would run and run, and – I sincerely hoped – the trains would do likewise. But in May 2010, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Singaporean PM Lee Hsien Loong reached an agreement on the issue, Malaysia accepting a 60 per cent stake in a package of land earmarked for development in exchange for returning the railway and its station to Singaporean ownership. By 1 July 2011, the single-track railway from Singapore station to Woodlands will close, and the southern terminus of the Malaysian rail system will be relocated to the Woodlands Train Checkpoint, some 13 miles north of central Singapore. Malaysian and Singaporean customs and immigration will be co-located at Woodlands, and a shuttle bus will connect it with the nearest MRT (metro) station to take passengers to and from central Singapore. In the longer term, a rapid-transit link is planned from Singapore city to Johor Bahru, the Malaysian city just north of the Causeway, after which KTM may start and terminate all its trains at Johor Bahru.

If there is any good news in all this, it's that the station building will be preserved in any development of the area by the National Heritage Board. But in a few months' time, it will cease to be an operational station, and the concept of trains linking Malaysia directly with central Singapore will become another colonial memory. It's a sad loss, and if a high-speed rail link between Singapore and KL is ever built, the loss of a ready-made corridor through Singapore's urban landscape may turn out to be remarkably short-sighted. But if you get the chance to use the station before July, take it.

Mark Smith is the Man in Seat Sixty-One ( seat61.com)

Travel essentials: South-east Asia by rail

Getting there

* You can fly non-stop from Heathrow to Singapore on British Airways, Qantas or Singapore Airlines – which also flies from Manchester via Munich. Connecting flights are available on more than a dozen airlines, with Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways offering particularly good fares – and access from airports other than Heathrow.

If you plan to travel between Singapore and Bangkok, book an "open-jaw" itinerary – out to one city and back from another. BA, Qantas and the "one-stop" airlines can offer this.

Getting around

* Services from Singapore are operated by KTM. The train from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur costs S$34 (£16). A mere 43 Malaysian Ringgit (£9) secures an onward berth on the overnight sleeper from KL to Butterworth, the mainland rail terminal for the ferry to Georgetown on Penang island.

The problem is booking these services. KTM trains cannot be booked online. You can buy tickets at any station, or bookings can be made by email to KTM, callcenter@ktmb.com.my. Trains are rarely full, since travellers in a hurry will fly or take a bus, so turning up and going is usually possible.

Going north of the Malaysian border, hop aboard the International Express overnight from Butterworth to Bangkok. This costs 112 Ringgit (£22). As a result, you can complete the whole 1,249 mile, two-night journey from Singapore to the Thai capital for £47 – compared with £1,330 aboard the Eastern and Oriental Express (orient-express.com).

While life on board the scheduled services is not as opulent as the luxury train, it is comfortable and cheerful. Meals are tasty, reasonably priced and served at your seat – which converts to a bunk.

More details can be found at seat61.com/Malaysia. This is the only single source containing details of the whole Singapore-Kuala Lumpur-Penang-Bangkok journey, as KTM does not cover anything north of Hat Yai (just north of the Malay-Thai border) and State Railway of Thailand ignores anything south of Butterworth.

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