Bulan the high-tech ART smart tram – harking back to days of Sarawak’s railway

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Left is the old locomotive Bulan while right is the new ART smart tram Bulan.

THE wonder and excitement the people in Kuching felt at the sight of Bulan, the world’s first hydrogen-powered Autonomous Rapid Transit (ART) smart tram, on its test run near the Borneo Convention Centre Kuching (BCCK) on Aug 23, must have been similarly felt by the people when they witnessed the maiden run of Sarawak’s first train powered by the locomotive, Bulan, from Kuching to Mile 10 Bazaar (now Kota Padawan) back on Aug 1, 1915.

Significantly the ART smart tram was named Bulan in an obvious reference to one of three locomotives that pulled Sarawak’s first train from Kuching along a 16km track to a quarry near present-day Kota Padawan, with stations at Green Road, Mile 3 and Mile 7.

The world’s first hydrogen-powered ART smart tram that is set to be the backbone of public transport in Kuching. Photo shows the prototype unit, which arrived in Kuching on Aug 5 this year.

Today the stations, tracks and ties have all gone – even Jalan Keretapi, a road built on part of the railway track, linking Green Road to the Mile 3 Flyover, which gave a hint of the existence of the railway, has been renamed Jalan Tun Ahmad Zaidi Addruce.

Sarawak’s railway is part of the state’s history that many among our younger generation are not aware of because it is hard to imagine that once upon a time, Sarawak actually had a rail service.

Today Bulan, the ART smart tram, is like the reincarnation of Bulan, the locomotive that once pulled Sarawak’s first train.

What a difference 92 years make!

The original Bulan was a second-hand 4-4-OT steam-powered locomotive built by Peckett, a United Kingdom company, while the present-day Bulan is the world’s first hydrogen-powered ART smart tram built in China.

The idea of introducing ART in Kuching is to meet the need for an efficient mass transport system in the state’s capital, while the idea of building a railway line in the state was sown in 1907 when Sarawak was introduced to the latest mode of road transport at that time.

That year, the manager of the Borneo Company, J.M. Bryan, brought in the first motorcar to Kuching, causing a great stir and wonder among the people.

The vehicle was a two-seater 10-12 HP Coventry Humber that had a platform at the back for luggage.

Not to be outdone, Vyner Brooke who was then the ‘Raja Muda’ and heir to the throne of the Rajah Sarawak, brought in the first motorcycle six months later.

The second Rajah, Sir Charles Brooke who was the ruler then, was not enthusiastic about these new modes of transport as he loved horse-riding. He even built a road in Kuching specially for him to go riding.

Because the road was built through a sparsely-populated verdant area, it was named Green Road after its surrounding greenery. The road retains that name to this day, but it is a far cry from the road that Charles Brooke built for him to go horse-riding.

Sir Charles Brooke (Aug 3, 1868-May 17, 1915), the second Rajah of Sarawak.

Despite his initial disdain for the motorised vehicles, their introduction inspired the second Rajah to bring his people abreast with modern development in transportation.

He decided to build a railway in Sarawak, for a train to carry freight and passengers from Kuching to its outskirts.

It was a decision made more from the heart than from head for the population then in Sarawak was so sparse that starting rail service was an ill-conceived idea, but Charles Brooke bullheadedly went ahead with his plan.

It was a puny project compared to the great railways that crisscrossed the continents at that time. The railway would run from the terminal near the town’s mosque directly opposite the Brooke Dockyard, which ironically is next to Padang Pasir, the proposed main ART station, to its terminus at quarry near the Mile 10 Bazaar – a distance of 16km.

The line was to be extended by another 37km to Serian, but it was never built.

It is said that when Charles Brooke went back to England to consult a railway engineer about his plan, he was told to seek advice from a toyshop in London!

Unfazed by that insult, he pressed ahead and formed the Sarawak Government Railways (SGR) to implement the project, and track-laying began in 1911.

It was completed in 1915, and SGR went into business with three locomotives bought second-hand from Burma and the Federated States of Malaya, which were named ‘Bintang’, ‘Bulan’ and ‘Jean’.

Archive photo shows the locomotive Bintang, pulling in at the Mile 3 railway station.

The train had seven passenger coaches, five open eight-ton wagons, five covered five-ton wagons and two break vans. The train service started with five trips from Kuching to Mile 10 Bazaar a day, a journey that took just 35 minutes.

The train service was very popular with the people and in 1922, a night service was even introduced with the last train leaving Kuching at 9pm.

However, stark business reality could not be ignored for too long as the railway service was a losing concern.

By 1931, SGR had recorded a cumulative loss of 1,063,760 dollars, an astronomical sum back then, and the third Rajah Sir Vyner Brooke ordered its closure for public transport in 1931.

After that, the train was only occasionally used to haul stones from the quarry near the terminus.

The Kuching Railway Terminus building seen in this archive photo taken many years ago. The structure has since been demolished.

The railway service was briefly taken over by the Japanese occupiers during World War II, mainly to transport prisoners to the camps.

Nonetheless, the fate of SGR had been sealed and it was consigned to the forgotten pages of Sarawak’s annals of history after the war.

In 1959, the tracks were stripped and sold as scrap metal to Singapore.

There is no record of what happened to the locomotives. They would have made excellent museum displays if they were preserved.

The railway station was turned into an open store, but if you look on the ground of the enclosure, you can still see the remnants of the rails without the ties.

Part of the rail could also be seen on the surface of a lane opposite the Brooke Dockyard that leads to the former Cathay Cinema.

When you board Bulan the ART tram, spare a thought for its namesake ‘Bulan’, and her sister locomotives ‘Bintang’ and ‘Jean’ that once powered the first train in Sarawak.

Workers put special markings along Jalan Keruing near the Borneo Convention Centre Kuching as part of works to prepare the road for the ART’s engineering run. — Bernama photo