The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 9 (January 1, 1934)
To the Top of Penang Hill — A Notable Railway
The eyes of humanity have always been lifted unto the hills, either in reverence, in fear, or in awe. Throughout the ages the mountainous places have harboured the robber and the saint. A menace—and a guard; barriers preventing the spread of civilization—and the “land-bridges” which made it possible for Homo Sapiens to spread over the face of the earth.
To the dweller in the plains, near-by hills have formed the romping ground, and to-day multitudes of jaded city folk find their relaxation among the beauties of such mountain resorts as Tongariro and the Southern Alps, Switzerland and the Adirondacks, the Blue Mountains, or the plateau of Ooty in Southern India. The Europeans, resident in the tropics, are more in need of such playgrounds than those living in the temperate zone, and the quick translation of those suffering from malarial fevers or debility from the sweltering flat lands to cooler climates has saved hundreds of useful lives. The appreciation of hill stations like Simla is no recent idea. We read that Marco Polo, at the end of the fourteenth century, when resident in Central Asia, beyond the Hindoo Kush, travelled to a sanitorium in the mountains of Balashan, where “the air is so pure and salubrious, that, having been confined by sickness in the country for nearly a year, he was advised to change the air by ascending the hills; where he presently became convalescent.”
The Dutch colonists in Sumatra take great pride in the wonders of Brastagi; a real Rotorua in the tropics, with lakes, geysers, hotels and thermal baths, but all at an elevation of above four thousand feet. In Malaya, the English have cut roads into the mountains behind Kuala Lumpur and there laid out a garden city, nearly six thousand feet high; while in the north, the hills of Penang have been popular with convalescents and holiday-makers since the days of Wellington.
However enticing the hills may look, they have to be climbed before their pleasures can be enjoyed. Some, as the result of great engineering skill, can be approached by train, but others can only be attained by the expenditure of much energy. Until recently Penang Hill was in the latter category, everything having to be carried up the three thousand odd feet on the backs of coolies; chairs swung on long poles and borne by relays of Chinese bearers being the common form of transport for those unable to walk. Now all this is changed and one of the most wonderful railways in the world carries the visitors from the foot to the bungalows at the top, in only twenty-four minutes.
Attempts to build a cable-car system, similar to the one at Matlock, were made as far back as the “90's” but abandoned as the task proved too much for the slender means at command. The old embankments are still in existence, signs of much wasted capital. But at the beginning of the last decade the job was undertaken seriously, and after much consideration the scheme adopted was that known as the funicular plan, whereby one car is balanced against another at either end of a cable wound over a drum, one descending as the other rises. The method, on a small scale, has been in common use for many years, at numerous seaside resorts, as an easy means of getting down to the beach from a higher level; there is an example at Sospel, in the south of France, nearly 800 feet in length, and another up to the Church of Notre Dame at Marseilles.
The railway at Penang was to be a bigger thing than any so far attempted, and great care had to be taken in the planning. It was eventually decided to make the track in two sections, one a replica of the other, and both together rising to a height of 2,381 feet. To withstand the severity of the tropical rains the track was based on solid granite set in cement throughout its whole length, while the deep ravines and rocky spurs, making very irregular the chosen spot, necessitated the building of eleven viaducts, the longest with a span of 775 page 63 feet and 50 feet high at the highest point. Numerous cuttings pierce the solid rock, the deepest being 68 feet below the original surface, and a tunnel 258 feet from end to end, and said to be the steepest in the world, was blasted through the granite.
The track is of only one set of rails instead of the usual two, and cars pass at a loop at the centre of each section, the cable passing over pulleys inclined at an angle. Every precaution has been taken to ensure absolute safety, the breaking and signal systems being interlocked and of very efficient types, and every possible source of trouble has been anticipated and overcome. The engine houses are at the top of each section, and each contains a 75 h.p. motor, running at 300 revolutions per minute. Breaks are provided to come into automatic operation in the event of engine failure. The steel cable, 1¼in. in diameter and weighing 11 lbs. to the yard, is wound over two driving sheaves, each set weighing 17 tons and fixed on steel shafts nearly a foot in diameter. The breaking strain of the cable is 75 tons, and the car is carried upwards at a speed of 4 miles per hour.
The trip to the top, which costs the equivalent of 3/6, is one of great beauty as the panorama of land and sea opens out before one. The cars are open-ended and allow full advantage of the view to be taken. On clear days the hills behind Taiping, 60 miles away, can be seen, and the vista of forest-clad peaks forming the backbone of the peninsula is one not easily forgotten. Nearer at hand, the town of Penang lies extended like a map, embosked in bright green coconut and areca-nut plantations. Temples and bungalows dot the slope while huge liners lying in the roadstead look like toy steamers.
Huge boulders strew the sides of the track, some estimated to weigh as much as 12,000 tons. During the rains the water tumbles over these massive rocks in turgid fury, and unusual care has had to be taken to allow the flood-water free egress through the railway's foundations, otherwise severe damage would be inevitable.
As a sign of the times, it is interesting to note that the whole system is operated by natives, either Indians or Chinese; even the engine houses are in charge of Asiatic engineers. The white man has taught thoroughly, and by his teaching has signed his own discharge notice.
The Manager of the Otago Iron Rolling Mills Co. Ltd., Dunedin, writes to the General Manager of Railways, Wellington, as follows:—
We desire to express our appreciation of the services rendered by your Department in connection with the shipment of 1000 tons of scrap steel from our works to Port Chalmers by the s.s. “Ryoka Maru:” It would have been impossible for us to load this material at short notice, but the generous action of your Department in supplying us speedily with the necessary wagons enabled us to have the scrap loaded up in ample time.
We should also like to refer to the services rendered by Mr. S. Clark, Stationmaster, Green Island, the Transport Officials and the guard of the shunt, Mr. G. Lawrence, all of whom gave every possible assistance.page 64