Penang Hill Railway: Heritage lost


While others are marvelling at the unique Penang Hill funicular railyway, we are about to lose large chunks of a priceless heritage, thanks to a hasty federal “upgrading” project.

Who was the RM63 million contract awarded to? And who will absorb any cost overruns?

Already, not a few Penangites are muttering that the proposed quick 10-minute train ride up the hill will defeat the whole purpose of going up the hill – a leisurely ride up for passengers to savour the tropical fauna and the lush greenery along the route as they leave the cares of the world down below. Okay, the trains may be crammed now during the holiday seasons, but there was an alternative proposal to improve the railway here.

Rob Dickinson, of the International Steam Pages, commented on this blog that he spent a week here filming the funicular line in December 2009. A DVD of its operation – which can now double up as an ‘obituary’ of the old line – will be ready by May 2010. Check out his brilliant photos here, especially those of the machinery. “This was definitely ‘just in time’ industrial archaeology,” reflects Rob.

Garth Johnson, whose great uncle Arnold R Johnson designed the railway, commented on this blog that Arnold’s “very clever” blueprint involved carving the hillside taking into account the weight of the cable. “That was why he divided the track into two sections with a central station,” said Garth. The Penang Heritage Trust points out below that the existing funicular track, which opened in 1923, was actually the second attempt at building a railway on Penang Hill. The first attempt, begun in 1898 and completed in 1906, was a two-car system that comprised only one section covering the entire distance. It flopped due to technical reasons.

The big question now is, how much hill-cutting and tree-chopping will we now see when they try to put in place the new track alignment? Have they carefully considered the terrain, the maintenance required and passenger safety?

In some ways, what is happening in Penang Hill mirrors the federal “upgrading” project in the Botanic Garden, another historical treasure which could be scarred by concrete structures sprouting amidst lush greenery.

Check out this statement by the Penang Heritage Trust:


The closure of the Penang Hill Railway – the only one of its kind in Southeast Asia – is an event of great sadness in the rich history of Penang. It is claimed that Penang’s historic funicular railway is being closed on 22 February 2010 for “upgrading”. The public is generally unaware that the project will irrevocably alter the character of the existing railway as we know it, and entail the destruction of many of its important elements.

The Penang Heritage Trust would most certainly welcome a cautious upgrading of the Penang Hill Railway for the convenience of passengers and tourists. However, we would insist that any upgrading be done with a thorough understanding and appreciation of history, heritage and environmental issues. We would also insist that important heritage elements of the original railway are retained. We believe that this is not the case with the present project.

When the project was launched by the Federal Government in October 2009, it was announced that the capacity of the “upgraded” railway will be increased from the current 280 passengers an hour to 1,000 passengers an hour. Very little information about the project has been made available. From reports, however, it is clear that that the two-section system will be abolished by realigning the track to create a single system. The train-changing at the Middle Station will be done away with. The existing rails, cables and original machinery will be removed and replaced. The present four passenger carriages will be replaced with two larger carriages.

To appreciate what Penang is losing with the replacement of its historic railway one needs to recall its history. The current funicular was the second attempt to build a railway on Penang Hill. The first attempt begun in 1898 and completed in 1906 was a two-car system. Comprising only one section covering the entire distance, it failed for technical reasons.

The current funicular railway comprises two independent sections. It was designed by Arnold R. Johnson, senior district engineer of the Federated Malay States Railways, and built under his supervision. However, many Asians took part in the project, from the labourers and technicians who physically constructed it to the Municipal Commissioners and public who watched and debated every stage of its development. Work began in 1920 and was completed in 1923. The two-section solution proved extremely successful.

Passenger service began on 21 October 1923 and the railway was officially opened on 1 January 1924. There are eleven viaducts and one tunnel. The tunnel was one of the steepest in the world. Because of the physical characteristics of the terrain, the railway has required the highest standards of maintenance to ensure the safety of passengers. A true Malaysian achievement, the Penang Hill Railway was heralded by the Straits Echo as a “Malayan Wonder” and an engineering feat.

The construction and maintenance of the railway has been a veritable battle against the forces of nature. Drainage is a major concern as streams continually work new passages down the hill threatening to undermine the masonry on which the track and its infrastructure are built. In the early days rigorous maintenance was observed and the cables were routinely replaced every three years. The railway was handed over the Municipal Council of George Town, whence it was maintained by local technicians from the Electrical Department. One of them was the late James Tait, a Penang Eurasian who managed to restore the railway during the Japanese Occupation without the help of European engineers.

In recent years frequent and sudden temporary closures of the railway have raised concerns about the standard of maintenance. Instead of addressing these concerns, the authorities have responded with a project to replace the old railway, under the guise of “upgrading” it.

As anyone who has traveled up the hill by funicular will realize, the over 20 minute journey does not traverse a straight line. The railway has been very cleverly and thoughtfully built with respect to the natural terrain, negotiating many curves and bends, and using viaducts to circumvent drainage flows. The new project, which proposes a quick journey on a straight one-section railway, thus raises a lot of questions.

What will happen to the cable drive-engines at Middle and Upper Stations which are part of Penang’s engineering heritage? Will the project require new hill cutting on steep slopes? Will the new railway involve unacceptable levels of stress on the infrastructure and environment, and prove difficult and costly to maintain after the handover date?

Once the project has been completed, familiar maintenance issues will resurface. However, with such an ambitious high-speed high-capacity railway, poor maintenance will not only result in train breakdowns, but more importantly, put the safety of passengers at risk.

The new railway project is virtually a fait accompli. A large contract has been awarded after a hasty tendering process. Such is the way of doing things in Malaysia. We thoroughly sympathize with Penang Hill residents and businesses, who are wondering how long they will be denied a rail service. We will continue to question the wisdom of undermining the historic value of this 87-year old monument of Malaysian engineering heritage.

When the project is underway, unanticipated problems may be encountered, necessitating variations to the original proposal. We urge the authorities, project managers and contractors to consider the heritage value of the Penang Hill Railway in every decision taken. If called upon, the Penang Heritage Trust is ever willing to provide advice at the service of history and heritage.

Khoo Salma Nasution
Penang Heritage Trust

Blog reader tan cairong adds:

In the early to mid-1970s, the maintenance of the hill railway was entrusted to the Electricity Supply Department (ESD) of the then Penang City Council. Besides the late James Tait, who was based at the Mains Department at Lorong Kulit, mechanical engineers from the ESD’s power station at Gelugor, then headed by the station superintendent K Nithyanatham, were in charge of major maintenance like the replacement of the cables. In 1976, the City Council’s ESD was taken over by Lembaga Letrik Negara (LLN), which today is Tenaga Nasional Berhad.

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Ric Francis

As it was I that suggested the best way of upgrade the Railway and was just not take any notice of my suggestion. I await the rain season to hit the hill to see what will happen to the bottom section perway.
Perhaps I may be wrong but land slides may be just like happening.
God will it will not happen


Anil, I lived in Penang Hill from 1968 until 1973. Penang Hill lost its Heritage long long long ago when Gerakan changed the wooden coach (i hope now one coach still in Penang Muzium) to the current coach(always breakdown). Penang Hill’s lost heritage got nothing to do with DAP. In 1969, more flowers more big roses amd flowers to be seen, more colder climate. When I last went up in 1985 (the height of Gerakan ruling Penang) Penang Hill a disaster, until today. Its impossible for LGE’s administration to bring change to Penang Hill so fast back into as per… Read more »

Yellow Jacket

there is a way; demolished the whole … thing and rebuild it again from the scratch!


I am also curious who the WIFI installation rights are awarded to, and what other rights have they gained, like any rights to build transmission/capacity/services on the side for profit (while requirement to maintain the free WIFI service may not be strict). Will be really CAT to see the contracts. How about the PISA convention center. When will be all the related reports and approvals become public? How about Kampung Buah Pala post March 2008 legco minutes? A pattern is emerging of a not so transparent state government. I hope DAP/PR does not turn into the Chen Shui Bian government… Read more »

tan cairong

A people without heritage, is a people without history. A people without history is a people without culture. A people without culture is not a people at all…. Big Ben has been there for over a 100 years and it is still keeping time. Why did they spend millions to keep the leaning tower of Pisa from toppling over? Both these perform no economic function at all. It’s simply competency of the maintenance people that keep them working. Bring back the propeller planes? We might as well send our ferries to Bkt Beruntung with the buses. Why are the Hong… Read more »


Yeah heritage is good and must be preserved but some of the commentators and those in the heritage protection side seem to conveniently forget about the numerous breakdowns that has plagued the rail service. Anybody remember the trapped passengers when the train broke down for almost 2 hours or more? That was just one case. It is easy to romanticize things but this is not one of them. I am all for heritage preservations and conservations but we have to draw a line somewhere. Are you guys (including Anil) saying we have to keep the train at the risk of… Read more »


Nick, true to the point


Change is a must,but as long it does not burden the taxpayers…

Anildeep S

ai yo yo…

adakah di antara kita masih guna Windows 95 ? Saya rasa ramai di antara kita telah guna Windows 7. Sila pandang ke depan. Kita perlu cuba yang baru dan tinggalkan yang dulu. Kalau kita anggap mana-mana benda yang lama itu warisan, maka tiada lagi inovasi dan pembangunan.


Heritage, heritage, heritage has its limit. I just don`t understand these heritage people.


Maybe we should dismantled the new airport and bring back the old airport or start using propeller plane instead, If we start listening too much to these heritage guys our our and society will be at a standstill.


Why do we need to change the entire railway system when it is working well & is well marvelled by locals as well as foreign tourists? Why do we need to spend more when we can save ‘A LOT’ by just upgrading the cables and cable car interiors, and increase quality of maintenance? Why do we need to take away Penang’s old world heritage which can add value to its heritage status? Just because it is under the purview of the Feds does not mean it can do anything to damage Penang’s unique and God’s given heritage assets. This is… Read more »


Nobody could do anything to save it from the government. The government (appears to be) on its mission to annihilate what’s left of our heritage.

Ramesh Laxman

It is a shame that we cannot even take care of this simple railway. And yet we are talking about sending a Malaysian Tourist to the Moon. If you are too big to do a small and simple job then you are too small to do a big job.

tan cairong

In the early to mid 70s maintenance of the hill railway was entrusted to the Electricity Supply Department (ESD) of the then Penang City Council. Besides the late James Tait who was based at the Mains Department at Lorong Kulit, mechanical engineers from the ESD’s power station at Gelugor, then headed by the station superintendent Mr. K. Nithyanatham was in charge of major maintenance like replacement of the cables. In 1976 the City Council’s ESD was taken over by the Lembaga Letrik Negara (LLN) which today is the Tenaga Nasional Berhad.