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24th May 1998

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Ports of CallPenang hill railway Mad genius?

Georgetown, Penang: The name of the port at Penang is Swettenham Pier; it is about a mile from the centre of Georgetown. To passengers who disembark from the air-conditioned cocoon of a cruise liner into the embracing humidity of the island known as Pulau Pinang, it is quickly re-named “Sweating” Pier.

The island is the northern gateway to Malaysia and was the first British settlement in Malaya. Penang is the British version of “pinang” which is the Malay word for betel nut, so Penang is literally Betel Nut Island. Groves of arecanut palm testify to the name’s origins. The capital of Penang state, Georgetown, was named after the George who later became England’s George IV.

There are traces of British colonial era in the wide boulevards, venerable colonnaded mansions and sprawling, shaded suburban gardens. Britain competes with China for dominance in street architecture. China wins in the city centre, beyond the grandeur of buildings like the clock commemorating 60 years of Queen Victoria’s reign that greets passengers leaving the port.

We chose to rise above the town, and the heat, by visiting Malaysia’s first hill station. Penang Hill is 2,730 feet above sea level. Its local name is “Bukit Benera” which translates as Flagstaff Hill, for it was there the Union Jack was flown daily as a symbol of Britain’s empire. Until the 1920s, access for the pampered and privileged, was by sedan borne up on the shoulders of a sextet of brawny servants. The more energetic hiked up; even today the climb takes at least four hours.

Show an empire-builder a hill with a popular demand to find a way up it, and he will devise a method that makes a profit.

In this case it was a funicular railway, opened in 1923. Looking at it today makes the observer feel that building the railway must have been inspired by madness. The gradient is 1 in 1.93, almost vertical. Yet, with the help of Swiss ingenuity, it was done.

It was Swiss technology that was used for that other railway of mad genius, the astonishing climb of the rack- and-pinion railway that creeps up the Blue Mountains of Tamil Nadu to the once British hill station of Ooty.

The extraordinary gradient of the Penang Hill Railway is so steep that the carriages themselves have been designed as a slope, so that passengers in the front of each carriage are on a higher level than those at the back.

The first carriages were wooden and one of them is to be seen at rest in the shopping area atop the hill. The carriages served the railway for over 50 years, with defined 1st and 2nd class compartments in each one.

They were retired in 1977 and replaced with the red carriages with fans and automatic sliding doors in use today.

Each of the sloping carriages holds 80 people, mostly standing. It’s no surprise to discover that they were made in Switzerland, by The Habegger Engineering Works at Thun.

A funicular railway is actually a railway powered by cable, with ascending and descending cars balanced so they provide the motion that gets the carriage up or down. But for the sighs and oohs of the passengers, the carriages glide noiselessly. There are four in operation on the Penang Hill Railway, with two counterbalancing each other on the lower section and two on the upper section.

We joined a queue of excited passengers, which included Malaysians on holiday as well as curious foreigners, to buy tickets at the 1920s-built station, a symphony of granite blocks with a resemblance to stations like Ella on Sri Lanka’s hill country line. The round trip fare was the equivalent of SLRs 75.

The train of one large red car divided into four compartments, descended to the terminus stations as though being lowered by a hand of an unseen giant.

At the same time, the carriage which had just departed, rose slowly up the hillside. The two carriages passed each other at a loop half way up the single track.

Only after we had started the journey did we realise that we had to change carriages, at Tengah station, at 1,013 feet above sea level. Then the line climbed through woodland with glimpses, as we glided upwards, of the town, the coast and Swettenham Pier in the far distance. Trees by the line were labelled with their botanical names, providing silent answers to tourist questions.

An added thrill just before reaching the top, was the sudden swoop of the train into a tunnel, built in 1922 and still functioning as the gateway to Flagstaff Hill. And what was at the destinations? Breathtaking views, of course, with the whole of Georegtown laid out in the haze below.

Being Malaysia, there was the food bazaar a short climb away from the station. There a gram seller, with a score of different freshly-prepared snacks, was catering for the sudden appetites of visitors buffeted by the clean, warm breezes of the hill top.

The atmosphere was a refreshing change after the cloying heat of the port and we felt grateful to the madness, or the genius, that had created the Penang Hill Railway.

Travel Notes: There are flights to Penang from Colombo via Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. The airport is about 12 miles from the railway terminus.

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