Thursday, May 19, 2011

As the Last Train Pulls Away . . .

Come 1 July, the time would be upon us to say our last goodbyes to an icon that holds fond memories for many of us.
Train services from the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station (TPRS) will have ceased on that day as the Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad (KTMB) operations are relocated to the Woodlands Train Checkpoint (WTCP).
And along with it, the closing of an oasis that has been a food haven for many of us who have had a craving for Ramli burgers, chappatis and keema, nasi kandar, nasi briyani, ayam penyet or a hot mug of creamy delicious teh tarik, just to name a few.
For the baby-boomers and GenXers among us, TPRS was probably one of the first ports of departure from Singapore for a trip to Kuala Lumpur or Penang as a child, unless your family was lucky enough to own a car or travelling by bus was the preferred choice.
Settling back into your seat or sleeping berth, you make yourself comfortable and enjoy the seven to eight hour journey to the accompaniment of the clatter of the train’s wheels as they roll along the rails and the visual delights of the places and people you pass along your journey.
Such a trip would usually be even more enjoyable when accompanied by friends or family but can be just as pleasing if you seek solitude and wish to be alone with your thoughts.
These days, a trip to Kuala Lumpur, for many, is by plane – the flight lasting a little over 45 minutes – followed by a short commute to the city centre by taxi or monorail. Quick and efficient; the best option if your goal is simply to get from point A to point B.
But if the journey is just as important as the destination, then riding the train will open up a whole world of sights and sounds that you would otherwise probably not have noticed.
As your train pulls away from the station and begins its journey north, you cannot help but be surprised by the green belt or nature corridors through which the train runs, especially in highly urbanized Singapore.
The half hour ride through Singapore – taking you from Tanjong Pagar through Bukit Merah, Alexandra, Tanglin Halt, Ghim Moh, Ulu Pandan, Bukit Timah, Bukit Panjang, Kranji and finally Woodlands – is like a trip back in time when times were simpler.
Back when I was much younger, the train ride allowed me a glimpse of the few remaining kampongs that had sprouted and grown along the tracks over the course of time. These kampongs are, of course, all but gone now in the name of progress and urbanization. But the ride through Singapore is pleasant enough for the verdant greenery that meets the eye.
So, as the last train pulls out of TPRS on 30 June, do give a thought to the fact that no longer will we be able to enjoy that ride through Singapore’s nature corridors.
With the closure of the 79-year-old station, gone too will be a retreat from our fast-paced urban jungle, which has always been popular destination with the port workers in Keppel Road, the office workers from Shenton Way and Singaporeans of all inclinations who come in search of a quick bite or a hearty meal on the station platform.
Stepping into TPRS is like taking a step back in time, given the station’s neo-classical and art deco fa├žade, imposing war murals and a 72-foot high vault ceiling. In that moment, you would not be faulted if you had thought that you had suddenly been transported out of Singapore to another place, another time.
It was therefore a pleasant surprise when the Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB) gazetted the TPRS as a national monument, thereby preserving an important historical link with our past. At least, the physical structure of the station building and platforms will be preserved for future generations to see, appreciate and enjoy.
But at the same time, I cannot help feeling that with its status as a monument, the character and flavor of the station as a port of call for people seeking a respite from cosmopolitan Singapore would be somewhat diminished, especially when the bean counters start thinking about how to turn a quick profit from it.
How many times have we seen such noble attempts to preserve our heritage being overtaken by economic imperatives, often at the expense of passion and emotion, for the sake of the bottom line? It would be a mistake to approach keeping this monument alive by treating it as a business venture.
The richness of TPRS lies not only in its architecture and place in history but also in the people, some of whom (through their family lineage) have been at the station since its inception, such as the Habib Railway Bookstore. And I cannot imagine coming to the station without at least having a quick bite/drink at the M Hasan foodcourt.
It would be a shame if the station were to simply become a monument in name, an empty shell devoid of a soul, with only ghosts of the past and fading memories as a reminder of bygone days.
What is needed is an ambitious plan, a plan that is by the people and for the people, a plan that would inject new life into the place but retain the ‘feel good’ feelings of the past.
It is my hope that the station building will be put to good use, serving the needs of those of us who have an affinity for our rich historical heritage as well as those of us who find pleasure in being able to continue to enjoy the simple things in life, like a good mug of piping hot teh tarik without having to pay an arm and a leg.

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