Last Man Standing – Part 3 of “The Last Train”

August 1, 2011 by  
Filed under Heritage, Stories, Transport

By David Teo, 9 Jul 2011.

The quaint Bukit Timah KTM Railway Station
The quaint Bukit Timah KTM Railway Station

This post is a follow-up from Part 2 of “The Last Train” series, a planned 5 part series focusing on the closure of the KTM railway in Singapore.

Of all the things I’ve seen while documenting the closure of the KTM railway in Singapore, my favorite has always been the quaint little-known Bukit Timah station. Indeed, prior to embarking on this project, I, like many Singaporeans were not even aware of this station sitting quietly among the suburbs, nested in the heart of prime Bukit Timah land – one of the reasons why our government wants the land back, I’m sure. Don’t be surprised to see condominiums and shopping malls springing up left, right and centre, even if this station is to be preserved, from what I’ve read…

Singapore and Malaysia flags fly side by side over the Bukit Timah KTM railway station
Singapore and Malaysia flags fly side by side over the Bukit Timah KTM railway station. The station, tracks and the land it runs through all belong to KTM Malaysia

The picture below shows a rest point for passengers. It is important to note though, that in recent times, the station had become a loop station – meaning there was actually no boarding or alighting of passengers at the station itself.

A rest point at Bukit Timah Station
A rest point at Bukit Timah Station

The station can be accessed most conveniently from the base of the iconic black Truss Bridge running across Upper Bukit Timah Road. This is a familiar site in this area, and is very near the MacDonalds at King Albert Park. In fact, it was from this bridge where 2 footpaths can be found flanking the bridge which will lead one to the station.

Black Truss Bridge across Upper Bukit Timah Road
Black Truss Bridge across Upper Bukit Timah Road

Bukit Timah Railway Station
Bukit Timah Railway Station

It’s sad that we didn’t treasure what we had until it’s gone (poignant words from one of the KTM workers) and this station in its last days had seen a great number of visitors flocking to see and photograph it before it became a distant memory.

Kids playing alongside a maintenance train at Bukit Timah Railway Station
Kids playing alongside a maintenance train at Bukit Timah Railway Station

Everything about this place has a very early 1980s feel to it – the design of the tracks and the materials that were worn out over many years bear witness to the long 79 year old history of the KTM railway in Singapore. In 1932, the first train left the Chua Chu Kang railway station (today it’s a signal hut at the Chua Chu Kang level crossing) and rolled towards Tanjong Pagar station for the first time.

Water accumulating on the wooden portions of the track near Bukit Timah Railway Station
Water accumulating on the wooden portions of the track near Bukit Timah Railway Station

Looking back towards the Truss bridge from Bukit Timah railway station
Looking back towards the Truss bridge from Bukit Timah railway station

This station also houses one of the most famous and talked about characters I’ve come to know of during this project, and it is none other than the famous Mr Atan Ahmad, one of the station masters of Bukit Timah railway station. An affable and friendly man, Mr Atan has warmed the hearts of so many people that someone actually took the step of creating a Facebook account for him. It was said that his son is currently helping him to administer it since he has no clue about it. Mr Atan has since returned to Johor Bahru after the closure of the KTM line from Tanjong Pagar station to Woodlands, along which lies the Bukit Timah Station. I count myself fortunate to have met and talked with him during my second visit to the station. (He was off duty the first time I went.)

Mr Atan (far right) and friends
Mr Atan (far right) and friends. The man in the centre is Mr Hashim, who is the “last station master” as he is re-assigned to the new Woodlands station, thus continuing his relationship with Singapore.

It was not hard to like Mr Atan – besides allowing us a peek into his daily work life, he also took the time to talk to, and answer the many queries we have regarding train operations.

Mr Atan answering queries about railway operations
Mr Atan answering queries about railway operations

The KTM railway in Singapore was one of the last bastions of the practice of token exchange, an antiquated system inherited from the colonial British era where tokens were exchanged between the station masters and train drivers. Since the track is two way, the holder of the token will have the right of way. This old system is no longer in use along other parts of the KTM railway in Malaysia, having been replaced by newer electronic systems, but it is still practiced here in Singapore, and as Mr Atan put it “it’s old but it’s a reliable method”.

A train pulling into Bukit Timah Station
A train pulling into Bukit Timah Station

Mr Atan stretching out his hand to receive the token from the incoming train
Mr Atan stretching out his hand to receive the token from the incoming train

Once again, it’s hard not to like an always smiling guy!

Mr Atan receives the token from the incoming train
Mr Atan receives the token from the incoming train

I was so fascinated by this practice that I hung around for the next train to photograph it from a different angle. Today, this practice is no more.

Mr Atan waiting for the next train
Token hanging off his left shoulder, Mr Atan waits for the next train to arrive

Mr Atan offering the token to incoming train
Mr Atan offering the token to an incoming train

Token exchange
Token exchange – this train did not stop after receiving the token from Mr Atan. The big loop made it easy for the receiving train worker!

Close up of token
A close up view of the token. The pouch is used to hold token keys.

After that it was time to file in the paperwork and to place a call to the main station in Malaysia.

Pen in hand, Mr Atan checks the time before filing in the paperwork
Pen in hand, Mr Atan checks the time before filing in the paperwork

Finally he was able to take off his hat and engaged in a little banter with his colleagues.

Mr Atan on the phone
Mr Atan on the phone

Mr Atan also kindly showed us the system of levers he had to manipulate before a train would arrive at the station. Those levers were heavy; it’s not as easy as it looks!

KTM levers used to manipulate the tracks
KTM levers used to manipulate the tracks at Bukit Timah station. According to Mr Atan, in Malaysia some stations have modernised systems that are not so manual.

Close up of lever at KTM station at Bukit Timah
Close up of lever at KTM station at Bukit Timah

Levers used to manipulate the tracks at KTM station at Bukit Timah
Levers used to manipulate the tracks at KTM station at Bukit Timah

Mr Atan showed us that by pulling and pushing a system of levers, he was able to manipulate the hydraulic mechanisms of the tracks, altering the train course via alignment of the tracks.

Mr Atan manipulating levers at KTM station at Bukit Timah
Mr Atan manipulating levers at KTM station at Bukit Timah

Intricate Track Mechanics
Intricate Track Mechanics

After the explanation, Mr Atan got a health dose of appreciation from the crowd by the way of hearty applause. The levers are the secret to muscle building according to him – no need for the gym!!!

Hearty applause for Mr Atan in appreciation for his hard work
Hearty applause for Mr Atan in appreciation for his hard work

Mr Atan showing off his muscles
Mr Atan showing off his muscles!

The KTM railway may be no more, but hopefully our little bit of history will be preserved in the form of these photos and accounts. It is truly sad that this station saw its most number of visitors only in recent times, under such circumstances. None of the KTM staff probably thought they would become celebrities, followed by the camera and interviewed by the curious public. In the end, it was perhaps a most fitting end to their time in Singapore – it was their hour. For their long standing contribution to railway travel between Singapore and Malaysia (Mr Atan and his colleague, Mr Hashim have worked for over 30 years), they are really appreciated.

A train waiting to depart at the KTM railway station at Bukit Timah
A train waiting to depart at the KTM railway station at Bukit Timah

Waving goodbye
A lady and her family waving goodbye to passengers onboard a departing train at Bukit Timah railway station. On the night of the 30th July, the last train went past the station and the tracks remained slient ever since.

In Part 4 of this 5 part series, I will be talking about more of the Bukit Timah station, as well as the iconic Tanjong Pagar station. Hope you are enjoying this series so far and feel free to leave your comments and feedback!

Source credit: David Teo

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