Hill railway: Safer, cost-effective option


Here are a couple of letters to theSun on the federally funded project to upgrade the Penang Hill Railway written by tram engineer Ric Francis and heritage activist Dr Choong Sim Poey.

Ric has his say here:

As an experienced engineer who was responsible for the alternative proposal for the up-grading of the Penang Hill railway, that the NGOs presented to the Ministry of Tourism, I am insulted by the accusation that my system will be a clone. It is obvious that the JKR has neither learnt from the 1905 failure of the first Penang Hill railway which was a one-stage system similar to what is being proposed nor studied the original report prepared by the engineer who built the existing railway.

I have the support of several Japanese and American railway experts who say that my proposal is far superior to that of the JKR as it will result in a system that will be cheaper, safer, as efficient and preserves one of the world’s heritage railways.

Most funiculars follow a straight route of even gradient whereas the track of the Penang Hill railway dips up and down and winds from side to side on a very difficult terrain. When it was first commissioned it was regarded as an engineering triumph and even today many railway experts regard it as a unique technical marvel that is worth preserving.

There is no advantage in taking tourists to the summit at top speed if they are going to be dizzy and if their ears are to pop and hurt. One the other hand, with my proposal visitors will be taken up the hill at a slower speed that is safer, more comfortable and more enjoyable.

It is also obvious that the JKR has not fully considered the implications of having to move the bottom track 5 ft higher and 15 ft to the left on a steep slope 1200 ft above sea level on a hill that receives a lot of rain. Any landslides will have very serious implications for the whole project.

It is to be noted also that if the railway is upgraded according to the JKR proposal, it will become the longest single-stage funicular in the world. That may be a cause of pride, but it may well be a recipe for failure. So beware.

3 August 2009

And Dr Choong here:

The PHT would like to respond to the letter from the Secretary General of the Ministry of Tourism on the reasons for their adoption of the more expensive single stage system for Penang Hill Funicular Railway (Sun 27/07/2009).

As mentioned by Datuk Ong, the NGOs have been involved in discussions over the best solution for improving this historic icon and industrial heritage. We believe we have explained why from almost every aspect, from engineering, logistics, cost and the social disruption of the hill residents, our proposal to upgrade by retaining the original two-stage system wins hands down. As this is a massive project using public funds, we feel an obligation to make our views public on behalf of the NGOs.

In a long letter none of the issues we raised were addressed satisfactorily or meaningfully. To suggest that the system that Ric Francis proposed will be a clone, is inferior and will not last as long as the JKR system is either to deliberately misunderstand the proposal or to distort it. We wish to re-state firmly that the alternative proposal we put up with Ric will last as long, be as safe (if not safer, because the speed is slower) and as reliable, and have the same capacity.

In addition no convincing reasons were given for rejecting a proposal that is much cheaper, faster to implement, less disruptive to the local people and preserves the entire heritage value of the system and not just the viaducts and tunnel. The only merit of the JKR system is that it is more expensive, it seems to us.

Taking tourists straight up the top at 10 times the present speed in an air-conditioned coach is to deprive them of the pleasure of the leisurely trip that enables them to experience and savour the delightfully charming journey. The change in the middle station is not a negative point and no tourist has complained. It is part of the heritage characteristic.

Suggesting that the system the Ric proposed will result in a clone is to misunderstand how complex engineering systems are put together. All engineering systems, even the family automobile or the lap-top computer, are assembled from components sourced from different manufacturers, but that does not make them clones. No manufacturer makes every component it uses. Similarly the new funicular will be assembled from components made by different suppliers. If Ric’s proposal will result in a clone, so will the JKR system.

At least 80 per cent of the present mechanical equipment is still in good working condition and will last another 80 years or more. This is 30 years longer than the JKR system which the Secretary General has stated, will last 50 years. All that is required in the Ric Francis proposal is to change the motors and the gears. There is no excuse or reason for replacing them

Nowhere in his letter did the Sec-Gen show that he is sympathetic to the travails that the local residents and hawkers will go thorough during the 10-month shut-down. About 50 people are totally dependent on the railway for access to the town and the Sec Gen has their names. How will the children go to school? How will the older folks go to the city in an emergency?

By ordinary standards the earthworks is small, but please remember that the site is 1,200 ft up a steep slope in an area that is known for its heavy rainfall. By any standard, it will be a challenging site. Also is the Sec-Gen. aware of the point Ric made in a letter which appeared below his: to join the two tracks one of them will have to be raised by 5 ft and shifted to one side by 15 ft. All things considered we doubt if the job can be done in 10 months.

Before making a final decision we sincerely suggest the Minister of Tourism and the Sec Gen make a visit to the site to talk to the people who will be most affected and to see the actual conditions.’

28 July 2009

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Ong Eu Soon
2 Sep 2009 8.01pm

Sorry Andrew, LGE just has no gut and wisdom to intervene! He want development. All the NGOs are fool, no experts! UMNO know best, so were BN. Who are you? You never run a state before. LGE will just follow whatever decision of UMNO or BN in building the railway. You seriously think that he is Pakatan CM? He seem to be a BN CM, as he seem to like all the decision make by the federal government. Wonder if Pakatan already took over Puterajaya!

Ong Eu Soon
2 Sep 2009 7.55pm

Some people always think that old people are backward, undeveloped. All their work should not be appreciate. The modern smart guy think he know, wait until he start to build will he realise what cost and challenges he need to contend with. Some people think that they can make good profit out of the project without learning from history. May be we should let them try, and let some innocent folks pay with thier life for the stupid ideas and mistake. People need to learn from blood and dead, otherwise they think that they are too smart!

1 Sep 2009 4.21pm

The Penang Hill Railway is under state jurisdiction – even if the project is federal-funded the state should refuse permission.

1 Sep 2009 2.47pm

The only reason the powers-that-be want to implement that ill-conceived replacement of a beautiful system is that it’s going to COST MORE!

Read this excellent piece on how our North-South Highway was actually highway robbery of the highest order!


Rusty (BKK)
Rusty (BKK)
1 Sep 2009 2.30pm

well, I have been here twice in my lifetime and the speed is the essence of the whole trip…enjoy the scenery, surroundings, ambience, nature, monkeys, blahhhhhh….anything changed will destroy the beauty. If the dang Government do not listen and keeps doing stupid things, go ahead but be assure that I will not be coming to Penang for holiday anymore.

You Penang folks, this is your HOME, if you want to drive away TOURISTS, go ahead and keep QUIET. Don’t blame anybody else then.

That’s all from BKK.

1 Sep 2009 1.13pm

What is the excuse or reason for replacing them? Spend more money la… we know how much will be wasted along the way, so it will satisfy their cronies. Then they can tell people how much they spent on that 1 project alone for Penang lang! The Tourism people are missing the big picture. We want to give tourists an experience they will never forget: take a slow ride up the hill and see the beautiful view and smell the greens as they travel up. I guess a lot of these busy and hectic Ministers have never taken the slow… Read more »

1 Sep 2009 12.02pm

Agreed with ike. Why don’t these people request some consultancies from Hong Kong. How other people can maintain the heritage so well.

1 Sep 2009 11.24am

is it so difficult to repair and maintain it?!!! don’t know how to appreciate what our fore-fathers worked hard to build and pass-on to us. it goes to show that the engineers of today are incompetent in solving technical or mechanical problems. only good at spending public funds. easy way out!

1 Sep 2009 8.54am

leave the current system alone (and upgrade it). why would anyone want to shoot up to the top of the hill when the current ambience absorbing (okay its a bit slow – but thats the point!) journey is a beautiful experience. We should also conserve, reuse and recycle. The new more expensive system will be a waste of public funds and will do no justice to the scenic beauty of the whole Penang hill, not only the top.

Ivan Ho
Ivan Ho
31 Aug 2009 10.34pm

If using the design from Ric, the NGOs’ will know approx. the price of construction. As for JKR’s design, nobody knows the actual cost hence the price higher……you know what I mean, heh! heh!

jo fernandez
jo fernandez
31 Aug 2009 10.13pm

why is it that those in power find it so difficult to do what is so obviously the right thing?

31 Aug 2009 10.06pm

This is Federal Project anyway, efficiency of the system definitely not the main criteria.

31 Aug 2009 7.35pm

Whatever it is, please do NOT leave the decision in the hand of Ng Yen Yen, she has proven herself to be not very smart yah…