Funicular railway is Penang's symbol of achievement


(From left) Chow, Ahmad Fuzi and Cheok launching the commemorative book at the centenary celebration gala dinner.

EVERY major tourist destination has an iconic attraction that will be included in visitors’ travel itineraries.

In Penang, many would identify Penang Hill funicular railway, which climbs through tropical forests and rewards passengers with panoramic vistas at the peak, as the island’s most iconic attraction.

While the rail system may have greatly evolved since it began operations in 1923, it retains the same magic and wonder for those hopping onboard a century later.

The 2km track is among the longest of its kind in Asia and takes visitors past rustic hillslope residences, vegetable and fruit farms, meandering hiking trails, temples and shrines.

Once above the lush canopy, the island’s urban sprawl comes into view – often eliciting a collective gasp from those on their maiden voyage.

Panoramic view of the island’s eastern seaboard and mainland Seberang Prai from the top of Penang Hill, 833m above sea level. — Photos: CHAN BOON KAI and JEREMY TAN/The StarPanoramic view of the island’s eastern seaboard and mainland Seberang Prai from the top of Penang Hill, 833m above sea level. — Photos: CHAN BOON KAI and JEREMY TAN/The Star

Roughly halfway up the hill is when another train will close in from the opposite direction.

The single track suddenly splits and both trains move past each other, side by side.

The ascending train soon enters a tunnel (said to be the steepest in the world at 27.9°), signalling imminent arrival at the summit.

As soon as the coach’s electro-pneumatic doors open, the crisp mountain air hits.

From that point, one can explore the hill’s diverse attractions.

There are serene roads full of flora and fauna, with the odd colonial bungalow or two.

Most passengers, however, will make a beeline for the viewing decks.

At 833m above sea level, it is the best vantage point to take in Penang Island’s eastern seaboard, with landmarks like Komtar Tower rising majestically over the heritage buildings of George Town.

Weather permitting, views go as far as mainland Seberang Prai. Also visible from the deck are the two Penang bridges.

The funicular coach with its 100th anniversary logo stickers and thematic graphics. — Courtesy of Penang Hill CorporationThe funicular coach with its 100th anniversary logo stickers and thematic graphics. — Courtesy of Penang Hill Corporation

The journey down includes a thrilling descent into the tunnel and is no less scenic.

Modern funicular railways use steel haulage cables to connect two counterbalanced trains on opposite ends of a gradient so they ascend and descend synchronously at equal speed.

The term derives from the Latin word funiculus meaning “rope”, which was what the early iterations used. Complex pulleys and gears are employed today, some of which are visible along the ride.

Penang Hill’s first-generation coaches, used between 1923 and 1977, were partially open to the elements.

While each wooden coach could accommodate 40 people on the roughly 24-minute trip each way – also factoring in a change of train at Middle Station – operational practicalities limited hourly capacity to just 70 passengers.

Nevertheless, it had transported 16.4 million passengers by the time it was phased out.

From 1977 to 2010, the second-generation coaches made of aluminium and steel could carry 80 passengers, with each one-way trip − including train change − still taking about 24 minutes.

Known for its red-and-white livery, the funicular had an hourly capacity of 200 passengers.

During its lifespan, it transported 16.7 million passengers. A retired coach remains on display.

Today, a one-way trip with no stop takes just under five minutes in air-conditioned, third-generation coaches.

These blue-grey cars were introduced in 2011 following a 14-month, RM63mil overhaul of the funicular railway.

Using a new track, each coach can accommodate 100 passengers and the funicular moves up to 800 passengers an hour.

By the end of last year, the new coaches had ferried 15.3 million people up and down the hill.

Old photos and imagery of the three iconic train models featured predominantly at Penang Hill Railway Centenary Celebration (1923-2023) held last Saturday, exactly 100 years to the day operations commenced.

The trains were depicted too on limited-edition button badges given out to the first 5,000 visitors who bought tickets on the day, as well as on a 1m-high standee specially made for photo-taking.

Scale models were also displayed at a gala dinner held at G Hotel Gurney later that evening, attended by some 400 guests including Penang Yang di-Pertua Negri Tun Ahmad Fuzi Abdul Razak, Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow and former chief ministers Lim Guan Eng and Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon.

Also present at the celebration were Penang Deputy Chief Minister I Datuk Dr Mohammad Abdul Hamid and state secretary Datuk Rosli Isa.

An exhibition chronicling the funicular railway’s history featured old photos and informative panels with text by researcher Enzo Sim.

It highlighted the challenges colonial-era engineers faced in connecting the hilltop with the foothills via rail and their ingenious solutions.

It also featured the transformative impact the completed railway had on both the Ayer Itam area and the state’s tourism.

Visitors checking out the new commemorative book and other Penang Hill funicular railway souvenirs.Visitors checking out the new commemorative book and other Penang Hill funicular railway souvenirs.

A century in the making

Not long after Captain Francis Light claimed what was then “Prince of Wales Island” for the British Crown in 1786, he sought to establish an observation post somewhere on the peaks of the inland hills.

According to Sim, this was to keep a lookout for French naval forces which were a security threat during the Napoleonic Wars.

Light first ploughed a rudimentary horse track and then built a hilltop bungalow that was staffed by sentinels.

In the ensuing years, the Great Hill as it was then known, became a sought-after escape for European gentry.

Its cool weather offered respite from the heat and its location provided distance from diseases of the lowlands, but for a very long time, the only way up was on ponies or sedan chairs carried by coolies – rough journeys which took up to two hours.

In 1897, British Residents Joseph Heim, Alan Wilson and Daniel Logan proposed the construction of a railway driven by a Pelton water wheel, with funding from the colonial administration.

This was completed in 1905 but the crowds that turned up to see its trial run were left disappointed as the carriage failed to move even an inch. It was back to the drawing board.

In 1909, engineer Arnold Robert Johnson proposed a funicular design that could move up and down the steep incline with minimal energy.

Construction commenced in 1913 but due to World War I, the project could not be completed until 1923.

A total of 11 viaducts were erected to span the hill’s gullies, bringing the final cost to $1.57mil Straits Dollars. The first trial run took place on Aug 11 and operations began on Oct 21, 1923.

At its grand opening on Jan 1, 1924, then governor of the Straits Settlements Sir Laurence Nunns Guillemard remarked that the funicular was, “if not the best hill railway in the world, one of the best such railways”.

Records showed that 726 passengers made their way up the hill that day, blazing a path which millions have followed since.

Excited visitors taking wefies with artworks of the Penang Hill funicular.Excited visitors taking wefies with artworks of the Penang Hill funicular.

Enduring allure

Penang Hill Corporation (PHC) general manager Datuk Cheok Lay Leng said taking into account this year’s figures and non-ticketed special guests, the funicular’s overall ridership had surpassed the 50-million mark.

“The Penang Hill funicular railway is one-of-a-kind in Malaysia and South-East Asia. For a century, it has taken countless visitors on captivating journeys.

“Our celebrations seek to rekindle an appreciation of this iconic railway’s rich history and reflect on the transformation it brought not just to Penang Hill, but surrounding areas like Ayer Itam, Air Putih and Paya Terubong.

“We also want to promote the area’s rich diversity in line with the Unesco Biosphere Reserve status accorded in September 2021,” he added.

Cheok said the commemorative programmes would continue until the end of the year.

He said these would appeal to a wide audience including foreign tourists who now made up 30% of all visitors.

There will be commemorative stamps and first-day covers produced in collaboration with Pos Malaysia and a “Vivid Penang Hill” art exhibition at the State Assembly building in December.

In his speech, Chow said the railway sparked a century of wonder, memories and progress for Penang. Besides easing access for those living on the hill, it also brought people closer to nature.

“As we celebrate its centenary, let us be reminded of the extraordinary vision and engineering prowess that brought this marvel to life. It is a symbol of human achievement, showing what is possible when we combine talents and resources.

“The funicular is also testament to our commitment to preserving natural heritage, ensuring that generations to come will still have the privilege of enjoying Penang Hill’s beauty.”

Chow said several new, ongoing projects would improve visitors’ experience without jeopardising the site’s biosphere reserve status.

These include works at Upper Station and Cliff Cafe, the creation of Gallery@Gatehouse with immersive reality technology, redevelopment of the Coolie Line and the much-anticipated cable car.

He later joined Ahmad Fuzi and Cheok in launching the commemorative book, Penang Hill Railway: 100 Years of Transformation, which was followed by a cake-cutting ceremony.

There were also cultural and musical performances as well as video interviews with current and former railway personnel.

Special place in their hearts

M. Arunasalam, a Penang Hill resident since 1952, remembers taking the first-generation trains to go to school daily.

“The farmers had to take their daily harvest down by train, alongside residents going to work and us schoolchildren,” he recalled.

Ang Sim Boo, who was station master from 1955 to 1988, has a soft spot for those airy, wooden coaches despite the train’s slow speed.

He remembers seeing the late Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia riding them during their state visits in 1972 and 1962, respectively.

Cheah Peng Soon, a station master who served from 1969 to 1995, said the funicular railway was also special to him as his son had been born on the train.

Many other locals have similar memorable experiences linked to the railway, underscoring its significance to people’s daily lives for a century.

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