Development of Malaya: Transport

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The environment of Malaya plays a very important role in its development. The main geographical feature is a series of mountain ranges. There was heavy rainfall. From it arose the rivers. The Malay people settled on the lowlands and coastal areas. Rivers were first used as means of communication and trade. Rice cultivation drew settlers to flood land with convenient sources of irrigation. Malay kingdoms were cited and the capital was at a point near river mouths. All goods were taxed from areas watered by the main and subsidiary rivers. Land transport was very difficult. The jungle was difficult to penetrate. The carriage of goods using bridle paths was by elephant and human porters. The houses were built on stilts on riverbanks above the ground level to avoid floods.

In the 19th century, there was a rivalry between the European powers for control of the tin deposits in Malaya. Tin was becoming an important raw material for the industrial revolution. Earlier in the 1840s, large tin deposits were discovered in Larut in Perak and in the valleys of Klang River and at Sungei Ujong. In the early days, mining was by the Malays. Later the Chinese came in. In 1874, the British came in to control the unrest in the tin-producing areas. The residential system was established in Perak, Selangor and Sungei Ujong.


From “The Graphic” newsmagazine (March 14, 1925)

There was a need to connect the mines to the ports. Bullock carts were used. A gradient of 1:20 was maintained to allow for a smooth ride. Later, better rods were built and metaled if possible. Townships developed along the roads. In the townships, utilities were provided and other infrastructure arose. The government built accommodation for its workers. Accommodation was also provided for workers in the private sector. Individuals began building shophouses and houses for their own use or rent. Towns like Taiping, Ipoh, Seremban and Kuala Lumpur came into being. Later, as time passed, settlements began to move further inland.


There appeared a further need for transport improvement. Road building methods were improved. Most of the towns were connected to the mining areas and principal ports. In 1874, there were already 13 miles of road in Perak. One was from Kota Klian to Ujong Tempoh on the Larut River. There was one road from Simpang to Bukit Gantang. Matang was also connected to Taiping. In 1875, the rich tin fields of Kamunting were also connected. The road was also extended to Province Wellesley through Krian. There as a thorough road to Penang. In 1876, Telok Kertang on the Larut River was connected to Taiping.

In Selangor, the mining lands were much to the interior. The Klang River and the port at its mouth were the only outlets. Yap Ah Loy built roads from Kuala Lumpur to the mining areas. A road was built by Sultan Abdul samad connecting the mining areas with the Klang and Langat Rivers. In 1886, a road was built connecting Kuala Lumpurt to Damansara, about 16 miles long. Damansara lay on the Klang River. Later, a trunk road connecting the northern and southern parts of the mining areas was completed.


Shophouses built by Yap Ah Loy

In Sungei Ujong, a cart road linking Seremban to Pengkalan Kempas was completed in 1882. Later, roads were extended to Pantai and the valley of Sungei Ujong. Public works departments were established in all the protected states. By the end of the 19th century, the British also established in Pahang. PWD labourers were Indian. Engineers and Assistant Engineers were British. Technical Assistants and Overseers were mainly Ceylon Tamils. By 1902, there was a road linking Pahang to Selangor. Mecadamised road building was introduced. Labourers were housed in lines. Better accommodation was provided for the higher grades. Engineers were given bungalows. Kuala Lipis was connected by cart road to Kuala Kubu Bahru. A road from Benta in Pahang was connected to Selangor.

In 1908, a road linking Kulim to Province Wellesley was built. In 1909, Kangar in Perlis was linked to Alor Setar. In the Unfederated State of Johor, the development of the railway led to road building. In Kelantan, roads were built to connect all the agricultural areas. Finally, Kuala Terengganu in Terengganu was linked by road to Kota Bahru in Kelantan.



Kuala Lumpur Railway Station (from an old postcard)

At the same time, the British administrators also planned a programme of railway development. Rail traffic was cheap and it was ideal for the transport of tin. Roads alone were not able to handle the increasing traffic. The first railway was built in 1885 from Taiping to Port Weld and this was followed by one from Kuala Lumpur to Klang in 1886and. IN 1892 The railway was built from Seremban to Port Dickson and then there was a line from Ipoh to Telok Anson. Telok Anson was joined to Tapah road. In 1886 a second line was built linking Kuala Lumpur and Bukit Kuda through the Connaught bridge.

The British felt that building a railway with local labour was impossible. Appeal was made to Ceylon and the Ceylon government sent the pioneer corps. They included British engineers, Ceylonese subordinate staff and Indian labourers. The first core was 200 member strong and headed by John Trump. The difficult Bukit Berapit in Perak was tackled. They had to go through the jungle including building a tunnel under the hill. Everything was done by hand and later a second division of the pioneer core arrived.

The traffic manager and his subordinates handled traffic and they prepared specifications and estimates assisted by locals consisting of tracers and draughtmans. Labour was provided by Indian labourers and the accounts department headed by a Britisher assisted by locals mainly Ceylon Tamils handled revenue expenditure and statistics.

The Selangor railway had its compliment of station masters, drivers, guards, clerks, porters, watchmen and unskilled workers. In 1930 the FMS  railway took over the Selangor state railway. There were 189 British mainly technical and administrative staff, 1899 Indian and Ceylonese and others to fill the subordinate positions. Labourers were Indians and later the Sungai Ujong railway, the Johore railway and the Singapore railway was taken over by the FMSR.

The Federated States railway set up the Sentul Workshop equipped with modern machinery. The need for technical staff was met by introducing a five year course in the evening. It was mainly Ceylon Tamils and Indians who benefited. Rolling stock was manufactured locally. Locomotives were imported from England and assembled locally.


Malayan Railway locomotive (1938) (KTM Archives)

By 1920 Malaya had 959 miles of rail road and later train services to the east coast states from Gemas in Negri Sembilan was introduced. The train stations in Tanjong Pagar in Singapore, the Kuala Lumpur railway station and the railway administrative building and the Ipoh railway station became architectural masterpieces based on Moghul architecture.

Various stages in the development of the railway


  1. Taiping to Port Weld (1885) to Ulu Setatang (1892) to Pondok Tanjung (1889)
  2. Taiping to Bukit Gantang (1902) to Padang Renggas (1903)
  3. Krian River to Bagan Serai (1899) to Alor Bongsu (1901) to Pondok Tanjung (1902)
  4. Teluk Anson to Tapah Road (1893) to Talam and Kampar (1895) to Kota Baru (1895)
  5. Tapah Road to Bidor (1902) to Sunkai (1903) to Slim River (1903) to Tanjong Mail (1903)
  6. Perak boundary to Tanjong Malim (1900)
  7. Teluk Anson to Wharves (1909)
  8. Ipoh to Batu Gajah (1893) to Kota Baru (1894)
  9. Ipoh to Taiping (1896) to Chemor (1896) to Sungei Siput (1897) to Enggor (1898) to Kuala Kangsar (1890) to Padang Renggas (1901)


  1. Kuala Lumpur to Klang (1886) to Port Swettenham (1899)
  2. Connaught Bridge to Kapar (1913) to Jeram (1913) to Kuala Selangor (1914)
  3. Kuala Kubu to Kalumpang (1890) to Tanjong Malim (1890)
  4. Kuala Lumpur to Rawang (1892) to Serendah (1893) to Kuala Kubu (1894)
  5. Kuala Lumpur to Pudu (1893) to Sungei Besi (1895) to Kepong (1897)
  6. Batu Junction to Batu Road (1893) to Batu Caves (1905)
  7. Ampang Junction to Ampang (1914)
  8. Kuang to batu Arang (1915)

Negri Sembilan & Johor

  1. Seremban to Port Dickson (1891)
  2. Seremban to Tampin and Gemas (1906) to Johor Bahru (1909)
  3. Gemas To Bahau (1910) to Kuala Pilah (1910)
  4. Johor Bahru to Woodlands, Singapore (1923)

Northwestern States

  1. Bukit Mertajam to Nibong Tebal (1890) to Krian River (1902)
  2. Prai to Bukit Mertajam (1899)
  3. Pengkalan Tunggal to Gurun (1915) to Alor Setar (1915) to Kuala Kitil (1915) to Padang Besar (1918)

East Coast States

  1. Bahau to Triang (1910) to Semanta (1911) to Kuala Kerau (1902) to Kuala Jeli (1911) to Lembing (1913) to Kuala Lipis (1917) to Padang Tungku (1921)
  2. Tumpat to Tanah Merah (1914) to Pasir Mas (1920) to Rantau Panjang (1920)

In 1923, the Johor Causeway was built.