Penang Hill railway: Design issues


No real surprises with the ‘new’ Penang Hill Railway design. In the first place, was the project with new tracks to bypass the Middle Station really necessary?

And I hear that the hump in the tracks near the Middle Station may even cause stress to the pulleys in certain sections. What do you think of this Insider report?

Bad design, poor upkeep behind Penang Hill rail breakdowns

By Opalyn Mok
January 07, 2013

The new Penang Hill train service takes a third of time of the old railway but has been plagued by service breakdowns. — Picture by KE Ooi

GEORGE TOWN, Jan 7 ― A design flaw coupled with poor maintenance are the main culprits plaguing Penang Hill’s sole railway despite its RM73 million makeover two years ago, said engineers who had worked on the system.Despite being fitted with a new and faster electrical system allowing the funicular train to travel up and down on a single track in 10 minutes, the hill railway service is frequently disrupted by serious breakdowns, which earned it a slapdown in the Auditor-General’s 2011 Report published last year.

“The new track could do with a lot of improvements to prevent frequent breakdowns,” an engineer from the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport Australia (CILTA) told The Malaysian Insider in an email interview.

The engineer, who asked not to be named as he used to work as a consultant for the hill railway, explained that a “hump” located on the sloping track near the middle station was the reason the electrical contacts tended to wear out frequently.

He highlighted that the hump also caused the cable to “jump”, which contributed to the train breaking down.

In order to prevent the cable from being dislodged from its alignment, the electrical pick-up must be modified and its pulley corrected, he said, adding that the old double-track rail system should have been kept and then upgraded instead of shifting to the new single-track system.

“Now, they will need to check on the electric contacts regularly and replace it to prevent it from wearing out because of the design fault.

“They need to look at the 1923 track designs again and modify the new track according to the former design,” said the Australian who has visited the railway twice since the completion of the overhaul in 2011.

Another engineer who used to work in the Penang Hill Corporation (PHC) and had overseen the railway operations agreed the hump was a problem.

“But his claims can only be proven through various tests on the track so I would not entirely say that is the problem,” the Penang-born engineer said, referring to the Australian’s views.

The former engineer, a Penang-born, attributed the biggest cause of the breakdowns to the poor standard of the railway’s maintenance.

“They have scheduled maintenance and I am not saying that they don’t do maintenance work, but it is the standard of maintenance that is not as good as it should be,” said the man who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of legal suits.

The pensioner said the railway system needed skilled and dedicated people to ensure the maintenance was carried out properly, adding that those working at PHC lacked the qualities and tended to “sweep everything under the carpet”.

The two men’s remarks appear to corroborate the Auditor-General’s views on the state-owned hill railway operator.

The 2011 report noted weaknesses in the train operations after PHC took over its management, which may affect passenger safety.

The Auditor-General also reported that PHC should ensure the officers responsible for operations were given proper training and experience.

Tan Sri Ambrin Buang had in his report also recommended the Tourism Ministry and Public Works Department (PWD) act against PHC for its failure to carry out the scheduled maintenance of train operations, the New Straits Times reported on October 17 last year.

The hill railway has been afflicted by numerous “technical glitches” in the past two years, the most recent being two breakdowns last November just two weeks apart.

In the corporation’s defence, PHC general manager Maklen Ali was reported saying the PWD had handed to it the operations manual 11 days before the government audit on the railway was carried out in July 2011.

He denied poor maintenance was the cause of the breakdowns in a press conference last year following the disruptions in November, insisting PHC conducted regular checks on the railway and that the service outages were due to unforeseen technical glitches.

PHC, on its website, announced that the railway service will be closed from today until January 13 for an annual inspection by manufacturers of the coaches and tracks, Garaventa and SISAG respectively.

It is not the first time the hill railway service had to be shut down for several days, Maklen said, adding the same had happened in January last year for a week.

“It is not unusual as the manufacturers need time to do the inspection and we did the same last year,” he said.

The Penang Hill Railway has been mired in controversy since 2010, when the Tourism Ministry undertook to replace the 89-year-old funicular rail system that took 30 minutes one way from the foot of the hill in Air Itam to the peak.

The old dual-track system, designed and built in 1923, split the passenger load into two halves. Passengers would take a coach from the lower station to a middle station halfway up the hill where they were required to disembark and board another coach that would haul them on a separate cable and track to the upper station on the hilltop.

It used to take around 30 minutes for a journey up the hill on the old railway system but the new system, with air conditioned coaches, now takes only about 10 minutes.

The old railway was closed in 2010 and the new railway system was opened to public in April 2011.

The operations of the railway were handed over to PHC, a company formed by state government to oversee the project, after its completion.

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another problem-ridden project by MCA
trains that dont work
PKFZ 12b fiasco.
laundry list is longer than Great Wall Of China
and it wants another 5 years to create more headaches.
maybe, MCA is he biggest manufacturer of aspirins and it needs a big market to consume all its production.

Ong Eu Soon

Talk about maintenance, what sort of maintenance do you expect for a brand new equipment? Nil. Maintenance should not be an issue in the first place, the local engineer should be ashamed of his strange view. I have been in the industrial automation business for more than 10 years. Never come across any case where new equipment is plagued with so many problem within a very short span of time. I used to have a team of 14 engineers which no factories in the FTZ like to see their faces, as most equipment if under proper design will not create… Read more »


I am glad I am not the only person making comment on the railway, good to see other engineers are reporting there comments I must say others are now getting heard, perhaps some thing will be done to improve this railway, Must try an contact these engineers.


Now this is a GOOD lesson for Penang, perhaps all Malaysian. Whenever the gomen say “you want” so and so infrastructure, do you KNOW THE COST OF MAINTENANCE ? In reality, all infrastructure will cost ~ 10%~20% of the building cost. Depends on the wear and tear. If you use it frequently and use it beyond the building specification, the maintenance cost will sky rocket. So Bolehland Penang hills 74 mils, the “conservative” maintenance cost is 7.4 millions per annum. Perhaps Penang people can tell me, can the service revenue earn the the railway to cover the minimum 7.4 millions… Read more »


The uphill problem is: nobody in power in the state can (with strong political-will) reject such a ‘scheme’ of problematic SLP (Satu Lagi Projek). “Sin Sai”, for want of better words can best describe the Penang Hill Railway Speedy Gonzales makeover of annual breakdowns. As Jimmy Lim, Penang’s architect rightfully said: “Whatever we do up on the hill has to be done with humility. It is very important to respect nature.” The EPL football season is on. This will be another political dirt football to kick between Putrajaya & Penang. Be ready to make the score (of disgruntled votes) comes… Read more »


I am no expert on rails but “”” I SMELL RAT””” (If you smell a rat, you know instinctively that something is wrong or that someone is lying to you.) when the Federal Government was so keen to get it installed so to say it will benefit the people of Penang especially on tourism++ To those who still “sing praises of the current BN/Dumno clowns or recycled leaders” I say it’s high time to kick them out in GE 13 and let Pakatan administer for the next 5 years. SEE YOU ALLl at Himpuan Kebangkitan Rakyat (People’s Uprising Rally) at… Read more »