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Farewell My Lovely

farewell

 

In which the author(N.Senthilkumaran) finds himself on the first inter city train to arrive at Kuala Lumpur’s new KL Sentral railway station- a far cry from the famed grandiose old station with it’s Moorish architecture and minarets.

Standing beneath the grand vaulted ceiling of the Railway Terminus on Keppel Road in Singapore, I peered carefully at the train tickets I had just purchased from the counter of the Malayan Railway, KTMB for my forthcoming night train journey to the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.Standing beneath the grand vaulted ceiling of the Railway Terminus on Keppel Road in Singapore, I peered carefully at the train tickets I had just purchased from the counter of the Malayan Railway, KTMB for my forthcoming night train journey to the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.
Although I had purchased many tickets here before, something seemed different. ‘Depart Singapore 15 April 2001 2230hrs arrive KL Sentral 16 April 2001 0630hrs’ it read. KL Sentral. I asked the girl at the counter “Does this mean we will be arriving at the new station?”

“Yes, sir,” she replied pointing to a nearby poster with her thumb in the polite Malay manner ” 16 April is the first day of operations for KL Sentral, you will be one of the first passengers to use arrive at this station.”

“KL Sentral, KL Sentral”, came the voice of the conductor along with the rapping at the door. I roused my self from my upper berth bed in the first class compartment and parted the curtains to peer out of the window. By dawns early light I could see the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur as the train heeled into a curve and slowed for the signals at Bangsar which is the junction for the line to Port Klang.

Knowing that we would be arriving soon, I scrambled down the ladder and changed out of my sarong which I use as a night dress. I had just finished brushing my teeth and washing my face in the washbasin which is provided in the compartment when the train trundled into the station.

Grabbing my carryall, I stepped out onto the tiled platform. A platoon of KTMB staff in their blue uniforms were directing the passengers to the exits. It was a modern platform similar to the new ones in Europe with a very low metal strip ceiling, flourescent lighting and modern signage. In the old station you arrived in a grand high shed and you could see across to the other platforms as in older European stations. This was more like a subway station in its feel. I looked up above the coaches for the ventilation system and couldn’t see any- no ducts or extract fans. All of Malaysia’s intercity trains are hauled by diesel-electric locomotives, the low ceiling and no exhaust system would mean the locomotive exhaust has no place to go but onto the platforms- hmmmm.

Unlike the older station (built in 1911 to designs by A. B. Hubbock) which was a large steel framed shed sandwiched between two Moorish styled ticket halls and hotel, the new KL Sentral is a three tier station. Trains arrive and depart at the lowest levels, the ticketing concourse and shops are one level up. This has the road access so the lower level platforms feel as though they are underground. This concourse is covered by a huge sweeping metal roof with curved steel trusses. Set one level up is the station link to one of KL’s LRT services. Eventually, dedicated express trains will connect KL Sentral to the new international airport KLIA at Sepang an hour away.

This entire station building, large as it is, is merely part of an even bigger complex of high rise offices and hotels which surround it. These are still in various stages of construction and this whole massive complex is called KL Sentral. Carved out of the old railway yards, this was one of Malaysia’s recent “mega projects”- the others being the new airport and of course the Petronas Twin Towers. As a small boy living in KL, I remember passing by this site and seeing the sheds to house the train coaches and also the old round house where the locomotives were parked. This was opposite the National Museum with its striking Malay style roof. On the other end, along what was called Brickfields Road ,were godowns and warehouses for the railways including one for the beverage company Nestle. More recently, I have passed through the site ,as trains ran daily along the tracks whilst the new structures of KL Sentral were being erected around them.

So, there I was on the morning of 16 April 2001 walking towards the escalator which would take me up to the concourse level. Passengers with heavier luggage were experiencing difficulty in taking these pieces up on the escalator and were re-directed by KTMB staff towards a bank of elevators. As I came up the escalator, I could hear music and as we stepped onto the air conditioned concourse we were greeted by the sights and sounds of a live Malay band with the players dressed in traditional garb. Each passenger was given a gift of a flower and a souvenir key tag inscribed with the words “Your One Stop Transit Gateway; Stesen Sentral Kuala Lumpur” surrounding an architectural sectional drawing of the building showing the sweeping curved roof.

The overall impression that morning was that of greyness. A lot of modern architecture tends to use grey as a basic colour. Here the roof trusses and ceiling were grey, the polished granite covering the floor was grey (with a few beige highlight pieces) and the walls finished in grey aluminum cladding. All very modern, yes- but this could have been any where in the world. At the old station you knew that you had arrived in Asia- with its humidity and colour and hustle and bustle. The spires, minarets and Moorish arches announced that this is a city whose inhabitants are Muslim. The old concourse was not air conditioned so the hum of city traffic penetrated the hall, mingling with the pungent smells of food from the nearby canteen. Now you arrive in a grey air-conditioned cocoon. This is progress they say, but it takes all the romanticism out of train travel.

No doubt as KL Sentral fills with people, they will bring colour to the grey building. No doubt that travelers will find it easier to make connections to trains serving the suburbs and the airports- all the while doing so in air-conditioned comfort. No doubt that future legions of office workers will glide off these trains and the LRT into their offices with ease. No doubt that the tourist arriving at KL Sentral will be impressed with the same thoughts he would have if he had arrived at KLIA- “This is a modern, efficient city in South East Asia”. But for me the “old girl”, the old station with its Arabian Nights architecture featured on untold numbers of postcards and brochures, will always be my favourite and I hope that the Malaysians find a good use for what is still a sound building. As the tracks still pass through there, trains heading North will still pass through her great shed for the near future. As I look back I am a bit sad that we won’t be arriving at the beautiful old station any longer and that reminded me of the title of the Raymond Chandler novel which sums up my feelings – Farewell my lovely.