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Include touristic elements in train

The train used to be my main transport home to Johor Baru. I would take the night train from Kuala Lumpur on a Friday, reach Johor Baru in the wee hours of Saturday morning and return to Kuala Lumpur on the night train on Sunday to reach the city at dawn and go to work directly from the station. My parents preferred me to travel home by train although it would take a longer time than going home by bus.

They think train travel is much safer than the bus. And with the planned high-speed train to Johor Baru, it would take a far shorter time to get home. But, I can’t say the same for the train service to the East Coast. I would rather drive or fly to Pahang, Terengganu or Kelantan. I took the train once to Kuala Lipis on a tourism assignment. I had to board the train in Kuala Lumpur and go south to Gemas before taking the connecting train to the East Coast. I remember having to wait for a few hours in Gemas before the sleeper train to Tumpat arrived. It takes nine and a half hours to cover the 526km from Gemas to Tumpat, with stops at some of the bigger stations.

In comparison, it takes about seven hours by road from Gemas to Tumpat. And, if you’re travelling from Kuala Lumpur, it takes you about seven hours to get to Tumpat via Gua Musang (without having to go south to Gemas first). But, some tourists enjoy the train travel to the East Coast. They call it the “Jungle Train” or “Jungle Railway”. They recommend that anyone taking the train to the East Coast should start their journey from Kuala Lipis in Pahang instead of Gemas. A posting gave the scenic areas on the route. It describes the Gemas-Kuala Kerau sector as “miles after miles of oil palm and rubber estates, with the terrain being fairly flat”.

From Kuala Kerau to Kuala Lipis, “the jungle closes in. We cross some large muddy brown rivers and it is more hilly”, the website said. It said the best scenery could be found on the Kuala Lipis-Kuala Krai sector and onwards to Wakaf Baru. “This is where the best scenery can be found. Huge rivers, the colour of strong English tea and spectacular limestone hills around the town of Gua Musang. Rice fields, scenic kampung and traditional rural life in Kelantan.” The writer of the website said the jungle itself was impressive, and when combined with the limestone hills of Gua Musang, river crossings and historic importance of the railway, “it is certainly a journey which should be on the list for all dedicated travellers to Malaysia”.

It also suggested the train company consider a daytime service for the Kuala Lipis-Kuala Krai sector and “adding an observation carriage with panorama windows and an open air viewing deck for (mostly foreign) tourists, who I expect would be willing to pay more. With slick marketing from the Tourism and Culture Ministry, Malaysia could create another unique attraction to draw in visitors”, it read. I find the idea attractive. The Jungle Train, with an observation car, could be a poor man’s Eastern & Oriental Express, that five-star hotel on wheels, which takes travellers through Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. An observation car will allow passengers to better enjoy the scenic view. I am hopeful that authorities in charge of the rail services and those responsible for tourism promotion will incorporate the idea as the government proposes to develop the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) as announced by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak on Monday.

The ECRL should not only be aimed at spurring a new wave of development to realise the social-economic potential for the East Coast, but also to boost rail tourism in the country. The 600km ECRL project is expected to connect Kuala Lumpur and the East Coast Economic Region and allow for faster connectivity to the east coast states. Tourism authorities and industry players should identify tourism potential to be further developed in Bentong, Mentakab, Kuantan, Kemaman, Kuala Terengganu, Kota Baru and Tumpat. I can already envision tour packages via rail for shopping trips to Pasar Payang in Kuala Terengganu and Pasar Siti Khadijah in Kota Baru or even across to Golok in Thailand. It was Thomas Cook, a cabinet maker, who started the first rail excursion back in 1841. Cook, the man who established the travel firm Thomas Cook, had arranged for a train to take 500 people at a shilling a head on a 20-km trip from Leicester to Loughborough.

And history showed that the first railway track in Malaysia was built from Taiping to then Port Weld (now Kuala Sepetang) and the steam locomotive service was introduced in 1913. But, we have yet to fully realise its potential here. The Malaysia Rail Explorer website, said to be the Tourism and Culture Ministry’s programme to promote rural tourism experience by rail, does not offer much information besides listing affordable homestays, especially in Kelantan. Fauziah Ismail is a United Nation’s Journalism fellow and Wolfson College Cambridge press fellow. She has 30 years of experience as a journalist, half of which with the ‘Business Times’

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