Officially the East Coast line, this railway is an interesting way to get from Kuala Lumpur or Singapore to the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia. It can form a more adventurous alternative to the mainline for an overland trip between Singapore and Bangkok. However, while there is track across the Thai border, passenger services do not run and a 30-minute bus journey is required between either Pasir Mas or Kota Bharu and Thailand's railway network at Sungai Kolok.
Although not an epic train journey like the Trans-Siberian Railway, it nevertheless offers an insight into life in the hinterland of the more rural East Coast states. Until a programme of road building in approximately the 1980s, most of the towns and villages along the line had no other means of accessing the larger world. While the name evokes a journey through thick rainforest, the reality is that the forests of Peninsular Malaysia are disappearing to be replaced with oil palm and rubber plantations. In particular, south of Jerantut the influence of humans on what was once rainforest is obvious. However the terrain, rivers and patches of remaining jungle are impressive.
Taman Negara, Malaysia's oldest national park, lies near the railway and is most often accessed from Jerantut. Other attractions include the Kenong Rimba Park in Pahang, strong waterfalls and limestone caves in Gua Musang.
The Jungle Railway is 526 km long and runs between Gemas on the Butterworth-Kuala Lumpur-Singapore trunk line, and Tumpat in the northeastern part of Peninsular Malaysia. It passes through the states of Negeri Sembilan, Pahang and Kelantan.
Despite it being called the East Coast Line, it only goes near the coast at its terminus in Tumpat: it goes through the center of Peninsular Malaysia.
There are no large cities along its route. Most stations are in remote, jungle-surrounded villages and many stops are nothing more than a platform in the middle of the jungle. The bigger towns along the line are Mentakab (on the Kuala Lumpur-Kuantan main road), Jerantut, Kuala Lipis (former capital of Pahang state), Gua Musang and Kuala Krai.
The East Coast line was developed a little later than the West Coast trunk line, purely because there was just not as much economic activity in the East Coast states. The construction of the line was an engineering breakthrough of its era, considering the terrain and thick jungle.
The first stretch between Gemas and Bahau opened in 1910. From the north, the first stretch from Tumpat to Tanah Merah was completed in 1914. Both ends met in 1931. The link to Sungai Kolok in Thailand from Pasir Mas was completed in 1921. About 240 km of track was removed by the Japanese during World War II and used in the construction of the Death Railway between Thailand and Myanmar. It was replaced after the war.
The Malaysian Railway Company, KTMB (online timetables) runs a variety of services along the Jungle Railway. As of 2017, there is only one sleeper express train per day from Johor Bahru to Trumpat. Third class trains as described in other parts of this article do not exist anymore.
Most speedy and comfortable are the express services which links Tumpat with Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. These allow you to see the jungle interior and not spend days over it. There are also comfortable overnight express trains to Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Johor Bahru (the Malaysian town closest to Singapore), though the views aren't so good at night. These express and night trains are all A/C and are equipped with a restaurant car, though the food on offer is basic and nothing like the feasts on Thai trains.
The more adventurous will enjoy the entirely third class local trains, which besides passengers, may carry livestock and tons of merchandise. They stop at almost every station along the way -- and there are many -- and will almost certainly run late. These trains often do not run the line's entire length, so some overnight stops will probably be needed. Surprisingly, they usually are entirely A/C, although the system may be down. Seats are individual and padded, making them much more comfortable than Thailand's third class wooden benches.
From north to south, some of the main stations along the line:
All three of these station serve Kota Bharu and can be considered the end of the line.
- 1 Tumpat (+60-9-7257232) - the actual end of the line, a stone's throw from the East Coast beach
- 2 Wakaf Bharu (+60-9-7196986) - nearest Kota Bharu, the best choice for a taxi into town, though there are also buses.
- 3 Pasir Mas (+60-9-7909025) - the station best connected by bus. Buses go to Rantau Panjang, the border town opposite Sungai Kolok in Thailand, and of course Kota Bharu
Into the interior
- 4 Dabong - to get to Stong waterfalls
- 5 Gua Musang (+60-9-9121226) - main inland town in Kelantan
- 6 Merapoh - gateway to the less used access point into Taman Negara
- 7 Kuala Lipis - former capital of Pahang until 1953, also the nearest station to the Kenong National Park
- 8 Jerantut - main access point to Taman Negara
Back to civilization
- 9 Mentakab (+60-9-2771002) - nearest point by road to Kuala Lumpur and Kuantan, capital of Pahang
- 10 Gemas (+60-7-9482863) - where the line meets the West Coast trunk line
Fares are cheap. The cheapest fare (3rd class seat) along the whole length of the line from Tumpat to Kuala Lumpur is RM 31. The most expensive fare for the same journey (a first class bed in a two-bed compartment) costs RM 101 (upper bunk) to RM 130 (lower bunk). A third class journey from Pasir Mas to Gua Musang cost RM 11. Second class seats are approximately double the price of third class seats.
For train buffs, the Jungle Railway used to offer the excitement of old-style train travel, although the trains are now quite new. The entire line is a single line, hence the numerous delays when the mail train is moved to a loop to allow express trains to pass. Key tokens are still used and are passed to drivers by station masters without the train stopping by using pouches. Stations are also not interlocked. While the trains are diesel and coaches modern (although a bit short on maintenance), journeys on these trains are still full of atmosphere.
The Jungle Railway may go through thick rainforest, at least in parts, but you will be hardly far away from civilization and the best preparation is:
- Arrive early - schedules are more for inspiration than for rigorous following and trains may leave early, though late is more likely
- Bring something warm - you may be in the tropics but the A/C carriages can be close to refrigerated
- Take a picnic - express trains have restaurant cars selling drinks, basic meals and snacks, everything is overpriced and not particularly exciting; local trains do not have an official food service but there may be enterprising locals hawking snacks and you'll probably be held at some stations long enough to jump out and get something
- Take a blindfold - unless you're in a first class compartment, you won't be able to control the lighting on the overnight trains, lights are left on in the second class sleepers
Toilets are generally tolerable (seat and paper are the norm!), and are cleaned almost after each station.
On busier parts of the line (mainly from Singapore to a few station after Johor Bahru and the last few stations before Kota Bharu), you might end up next to piles of merchandise, agriculture products (like smelly durian and the odd chicken) and crying babies. However, the trains are rarely full.
The Jungle Railway can be accessed at various points. As the line is also served by express trains, you can board the jungle train at the many stations along the way. Federal Route 8 also runs parallel to the railway, allowing road access to many stations. All this allows you to ride the Jungle Train for a portion rather than for the whole journey.
Most people take the Jungle Railway from the north - mostly from Wakaf Bharu station which is near Kota Bharu, Kelantan. The station is 5 km from the city center and can be reached by bus or taxi. As the trains may leave extremely early, please make sure that you have your transportation to the station sorted out the night before.
Tumpat is of course the start of the line and about half an hour north of Wakaf Bharu. It can be reached by bus from Kota Bharu and Pengkalan Kubur on the Thai-Malaysian border across the Golok River from Tak Bai in Narathiwat province. However, there is no accommodation in Tumpat, making it very difficult to catch the 05:00 mail train.
Gua Musang, the frontier town in southern Kelantan, is the end of two jungle trains and is a convenient place to end or start your journey, although the area to the south towards Pahang is also interesting and thickly forested. Gua Musang has accommodation and is easily accessed by road from Kota Bharu and Kuala Lumpur via bus, taxi or express train.
Jerantut in Pahang is another popular access point as it is the station to or from Taman Negara. Jerantut is also a stop for all express trains serving the East Coast Line, and is also served by bus or taxi from Kuantan and, with a few changes, from Kuala Lumpur.
Kuala Lipis is the starting point of several trains, including the 81/82 heading to Tumpat and 91/92 from Singapore. It is also a stop on all express and night trains. It is a very convenient start or ending point for a jungle line trip. There are several very cheap accommodation and restaurants along the (almost only) main street in the city. Furthermore, its location in the National Park is an interesting starting point for trekking in rainforest. Most guesthouses can organize such tours.
Mentakab is a possible access point as it is on the main road linking Kuala Lumpur and Kuantan. It is however quite a long way from the more interesting parts of the railway which lies further up north in northern Pahang and Kelantan.
Gemas, the southern end of the Jungle Railway, is on the Butterworth-Kuala Lumpur-Singapore railway line and can also be easily accessed by road. Gemas station has benches which afford sleeping, a proper waiting room and an all-night restaurant -- all convenient to those arriving late at night to catch the morning northbound mail train. Although the journey going up north is interesting, it is a long way before you get to the interesting parts in Pahang and Kelantan.
This is probably the most interesting portion of the Jungle Railway and the portion which is most served by trains. The scenery when you leave Tumpat is that of flat rice fields of the Kelantan River Delta. The area is dotted with little villages surrounded by, depending on season, emerald green or brown dried-up ricefields.
At Kusial, the railway crosses the wide Kelantan River. The Guillemard Bridge is the longest railway bridge in Malaysia, built by the British in 1925, destroyed during World War II to hold back the invading Japanese Imperial Army, and rebuilt in 1948. The line now runs through rubber, oil palm plantations and secondary forests and if you are on the local "jungle trains" (shuttle trains), you will be stopping every 10 to 15 minutes at little stations along the way.
After Kuala Krai, the line starts moving into hilly country and into isolated spots far away from Federal Route 8, or the main East Coast inland trunk road, which links Kota Bharu and Bentong in Pahang. You will start seeing the jungle which gave the line its nickname. Still, the stretch is quite heavily populated with little towns located along the line. On the early south-bound train, you may be joined by school children catching the train to school in the larger settlements along the line.
You will know that Gua Musang is drawing near when you start seeing limestone outcrops. Gua Musang station itself is located at the base of a steep limestone cliff. The town, once totally unreachable except via the Jungle Railway, is a convenient place to break the journey as there are several accommodation options. You can also return to Kota Bharu or go directly to Kuala Lumpur by bus from here.
The area immediately south of Gua Musang has the thick jungle for which you may have been looking. The area also has many limestone outcrops and hills, making this area probably the most scenic. The railway line meets Federal Route 8 again at Merapoh, where you can get off the train and try getting to Taman Negara via the less-used Sungai Relau road.
After numerous tiny villages and more jungle, the train draws into Kuala Lipis, the former capital of Pahang. The town is surrounded by hills and is quite charming, containing in particular a very nice main street with traditional Chinese houses. The tracks then run roughly beside the huge Pahang River. The Batu Sembilan halt, about half an hour south of Kuala Lipis is the access point for the Kenong State Park.
You will pass Mela, the nearest scheduled stop to Kuala Tembeling where you can catch boats to Taman Negara. Tembeling halt, which is south of Mela, is nearer Kuala Tembeling but trains do not stop there anymore. Taxis may be available to shuttle you from Mela to the jetty at Kuala Tembeling or vice-versa.
Jerantut, the next stop after Mela, is a more popular getting-off point for Taman Negara, simply because there are more facilities than tiny Mela. Jerantut has many places to stay and eat and public transport to Kuala Tembeling for the boat, or directly to Kuala Tahan opposite the Taman Negara park headquarters can be easily arranged. For those leaving the Jungle Railway, there are buses to Kuantan and Temerloh.
Heading south, the landscape changes from jungle to rubber and oil palm plantations. There are fewer stops but the towns now tend to be much bigger. From being predominantly Malay, the ethnic composition now becomes more mixed, with towns mainly inhabited by the Chinese.
The railway line crosses the main east-west trunk road between Kuala Lumpur and Kuantan at Mentakab, where there are bus and taxi connections to both cities. You can also get to the Kuala Gandah Elephant Rehabilitation Center from Mentakab.
Between Mentakab and Gemas on the Johor-Negeri Sembilan border, plantations dominate the scenery. You can get off at Triang and try (with great difficulty) to reach the Tasik Bera wetlands area, a Ramsar site. Before Gemas, the train passes through Bahau, where there are transport connections to Seremban.
Gemas is the southern end of the Jungle Railway. It is a major railway junction where the East Coast and West Coast railway lines meet. Keretapi Tanah Melayu (Malayan Railways) has a huge yard here and one of its old steam engine is kept here. From Gemas, you can catch trains south to Johor Bahru and Singapore or North to Kuala Lumpur. There are also numerous bus services to other destinations. Gemas also has accommodation for you to break your journey.
Train journeys in Malaysia, including the third-class only jungle trains, are very safe, both in terms of the trains staying on their tracks, and the risk of your luggage disappearing. Nevertheless, as there may be some pushing when boarding trains, do keep an eye on your wallets or bags - there are pickpockets even in these parts, especially in the bigger stations.
Pack some food if you have a sensitive stomach and cannot handle the local stuff sold on trains and at stations. Furthermore, there is not guarantee that food will be sold the day where you take the train. And even if so, it will mostly be drinks and dry snacks.
Beyond the ends of the line
- Thailand - get off the train at Pasir Mas or Wakaf Bharu and either catch a bus or taxi to Rantau Panjang where you can cross into Sungai Kolok and continue your journey by train in Thailand. Alternatively, continue to Tumpat and catch a bus or taxi to Pengkalan Kubur, which has a ferry to Tak Bai in Narathiwat province.
- Perhentian Islands - from Kota Bharu, take a bus or taxi to Kuala Besut from where there are boats to the Perhentian Islands. Alternatively, get off at Tanah Merah and grab a 45 minute taxi to Kuala Besut.
- Singapore - direct trains run day and night along the Jungle Line to Singapore
- Taman Negara: Get off the train at Jerantut where there is transport to Kuala Tembeling for the boat to the park, or directly to Kuala Tahan opposite the Taman Negara headquarters. If you are feeling adventurous, you can get off at tiny Mela and catch a taxi to Kuala Tembeling.
- Kenong Rimba Park: Get off the train at Batu Sembilan. You will have to walk to the Pahang River to catch a boat to the park.
- Stong waterfall: Get off the train at Dabong, Kelantan. It may however be difficult getting transport from the station to the waterfall.
- Kelantan River Delta: Tumpat and Wakaf Bharu are the best stations for you to have a look around the rice fields and small villages, some with impressive Thai Buddhist temples, of the delta.