Down Memory Track

It was a mere 12.8km in length. A short distance by today's standards, but it went down into the annals of history by heralding the beginning of modern transportation in the country. The railway tracks linking Taiping and Port Weld were the first to be laid on Malaysian soil.

In the early 1880s, Taiping was the capital of Perak and centre of the lucrative Larut tin mining area, while Port Weld (now Kuala Sepetang) was a prominent port for steamers and trade vessels from Penang. The line was to become an important link for the export of tin to Europe and the United States.

Construction of the line began in 1882 but was hampered by shortage of labour. Two divisions of Pioneer Corps from Ceylon were called in to complete the job, and on February 12, 1885, then acting Governor Sir Cecil Clementi Smith and acting resident Frank Swettenham rode the maiden journey on the rails.

The line was opened to traffic on June 1 that year, 60 years after the first railway line was opened between Stockton and Darlington in England. Although there is no record of any official ceremony, one popular tale describes the auspicious day.

As the story goes, senior railway officials went to Port Weld to join the train which consisted of one engine and one carriage. The day was hot and the engine driver had apparently imbibed a little too much, and as a result forgot to couple up the VIP carriage to the engine. The engine chugged off, leaving the carriage behind in Port Weld. A large welcoming party of officials including the British Resident in Taiping were dismayed when the engine arrived - sans carriage. The red-faced driver had to return to Port Weld for the carriage and VIP passengers.

The first steam locomotive, made by Ransome and Rapier England in 1881, bore the plate "No. 1". The line ran in an almost straight line from the port to the Taiping terminus, located at the present KIng Edward VII Primary School, with two intermediate stations, at Matang and Simpang.

The advent of railway was a boon for the inhabitants of the towns. In 1885, there were no proper roads, only a rough, bridle road and the journey was hazardous because of notorious gangs. The railway was faster and brought significant growth. But it was not to last.

By the 1890s, the high water table made mining difficult in Larut and tin production began to decline. Chinese miners moved to the Kinta valley which soon took over as the new mining centre. In 1895, a railway line was built linking Ipoh and Tapah Road which was already connected by rail to Teluk Anson (now Teluk Intan) further south. This new line was a severe blow to the growth of Port Weld because it diverted much of the traffic. Teluk Anson became the State's main port.

In 1902, Port Weld received a further setback when the Taiping-Prai line opened. By 1920, Port Weld was no longer a tin-exporting port. Instead, rubber replaced tin as the main exported commodity.

During the Japanese occupation the rails were dug up for the infamous Railway of Death in Siam. The tracks were later replaced. After the war, the railway line's importance further dwindled. Livestock and charcoal wre the main goods transported but only once daily. According to a source, the line was still in use up to the early 1970s, before silting and track damage ground train services to a halt.

In Taiping today, there is little evidence the line ever existed. A miniature model of the first locomotive can be found at the Perak Museum, but no one knows the whereabouts of the original.

At the King Edward VII school, there are no signboardds to mark the historical spot where the first station once stood. The line was dug up to make way for a new building and sewage tank. Staff at the school point out the remains of what they think is a railway track in a classroom. A safety box, embedded in a wall behind the school piano, might have been used during that era. In the gardener's shed is a rusty object, uncovered during renovations, believed to be a spring that was part of an old locomotive.

At the Taiping railway station, a railway museum set up in 1985 to mark the railway's 100th anniversary was eventually closed due to poor maintenance.

Kuala Sepetang is now a small township where fishing and charcoal manufacture are the primary source of income. The station there has long since been replaced by fishing godowns. The only evidence that a train line ever existed here is an old stone sign near a coffeeshop. Nearby, several homes along the fishing wharf display parts of railway tracks embedded into the ground - probably claimed as souvenirs by the inhabitants.

Just outside twon is a trail, now overgrown with weeds, where the tracks once ran. All tracks were removed and probably sold as scrap metal. The first railway line is no more than a memory.