2011/07/01

End of the line for historic Singapore station

SINGAPORE, June 30, 2011 (AFP) - A historic train service from downtown Singapore to Malaysia faces its final run Thursday as part of a multibillion-dollar territorial settlement between the two neighbours.

The last train to Kuala Lumpur from Tanjong Pagar station in Singapore's port district is set to leave before Malaysia formally cedes ownership of the facility at midnight (1600 GMT), with railway buffs and tourists on board to mark the journey.

The closure resolves a gripe among Singaporeans over Malaysia's ownership of the station and a swathe of railway land running deep into the city-state's territory well after the two countries separated in 1965.

From Friday, the service to Kuala Lumpur will be operated by Malaysian train company KTMB out of a modern building in Woodlands, an industrial suburb linked by a causeway to Malaysia's southern state Johore.

In addition to the Tanjong Pagar station, built in 1932 when the two countries were still British colonies, Singapore will take possession of 174 hectares (429 acres) of railway land, some of which cuts through exclusive residential areas.

For its part in the deal, Malaysia has received 60 percent control of a joint company that will develop prime land parcels around Marina Bay, Singapore's fashionable new financial and entertainment zone.

The six plots have an estimated market value of Sg$11 billion ($8.8 billion) after development, according to state investment agencies from both countries.

Singapore could also reap a fortune from the recovered railway land, but to its fans, the closure of the iconic art-deco Tanjong Pagar station represents more than commercial gain and territorial pride.

The station earned widespread affection as a transport hub, meeting place and colourful home for Malay, Indian and Chinese food stalls reflecting the two countries' immigrant roots.

"This whole place is like a kampong (village), that is why I love it. The people here are friendly. They are all like our family members," said India-born Mahmoobul Hasan, 70, a stall owner.

The three-storey station, a tourist attraction with four prominent sculptures on its stone facade, will be preserved as a national monument by Singapore.

Station manager Mohamad Ayob and 100 other staff will be assigned to new posts starting Friday.

"I will miss the building," said the bespectacled 50-year-old, smartly clad in a bright blue company jacket.

At its peak, the railway was a vital link to Malaysia and Thailand for passengers and cargo but was eventually eclipsed by airlines and freeways.

Singaporeans, Malaysians and tourists snapped up tickets for the train to Kuala Lumpur in its final weeks of operation from Tanjong Pagar.

Some simply visited the station for sentimental reasons.

Retiree Chen Shih Lim came with his wife Chin Xiu Mei, children and grandchildren during the station's last weekend of operations to catch a final glimpse of a building that holds precious memories for the couple.

Chen and Chin first took the train 40 years ago when they brought their children to Malaysia for a holiday.

"I had to chase and shout at my five children as they were very mischievous and jumping all over the place," Chin remembered.