10 April 2016: Penang Hill Funicular Railway – Remembering an engineering feat 1923-2010

The tales of the hills of Penang are many. This book by Ric Francis tells the remarkable story of the earliest hill station of its kind in British colonial history, and explains how Penang became home to one of the great engineering feats. It’s a story that the reader will find continuously fascinating. – Dato’ Anwar Fazal

It has undergone several makeovers over the years, suffered several disruptions and even went into temporary hiatus, but there remains an undying charm about Penang Hill’s historic and unique railway. The first of its kind in Southeast Asia, and featuring one of the steepest tunnels in the world, its fame has deservedly spread well beyond the borders of Penang. Much of the railway’s scenic route, dotted with old buildings and surroundings of lush verdant forests, remain relatively undisturbed. The sensation and the excitement of city-stress diminishing with one’s approach towards the cool heights is still evidently felt.

The construction of Penang Hill’s iconic railway is nothing less than an amazing feat of engineering, with an equally fascinating history behind it. A story marked by periods of disappointments, controversies and delays, it all began with an ambitious enterprise in 1892. The Federated Malay States Railways appointed a young railway engineer named Arnold Robert Johnson to carry out the job, an endeavour which ultimately earned him a prize from the Institution of Civil Engineering. Its completion in 1923 brought a sigh a relief to all, but more significantly, marked the culmination of a long-held dream of Penang residents. All of this has been deftly captured by Ric Francis in his new book Penang Hill Funicular Railway – Remembering an engineering feat 1923-2010. Readers can now enjoy the skill with which these accounts – from the very first attempt at construction, the personalities behind the negotiations, the expansion of the Hill Station, the post-war period, upgrading and more – have been worked into the fabric of the story, replete with scores of old photographs and illustrations.

Today, as it was in the past, the funicular railway takes the visitor from Air Itam to the upper station at Strawberry Hill. In 2010, it was completely overhauled, but still retaining the same route and incorporating some of the infrastructure of the older hill railway. Instead of two sections, the railway was modified into a single section system with a more powerful engine. The Swiss coaches have been replaced by higher speed models with added passenger capacity. With the fast new service, millions of visitors will continue to enjoy Penang Hill for years to come.

About the author: Ric Francis started his career at Western Australian Government Tramways in Tramway Engineering. Since then, he has co-founded the Perth Electric Tramways and supervised the laying of the Perway & Overhead line wiring of the system. He is currently a member of Electric Trolleybus Group. Ric’s other books include Penang Trams, Trolleybuses and Railways (2006) and Kalgoorlie Transport History 1901-2001 (Goldenlines). He aims to research and record the histories of tramways in Asia.