Officially the East Coast Railway line, it branches of the West Coast Trunk line at Gemas on the border of Johor and Negeri Sembilan and goes through the forested heart (hence the nickname "Jungle Railway") of Peninsular Malaysia to Tumpat, a small town on the East Coast near Kota Bharu, Kelantan.
The Jungle Railway is an interesting way to get from Kuala Lumpur or Singapore to the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia. It can certainly be used to get overland from Singapore to Bangkok, but it is not a continuous train journey as you will have to catch buses or taxis at the northern end of the line (either from Pasir Mas or Kota Bharu to connect to Thailand's railway network at Sungai Kolok.
Although not an epic train journey like the Trans-Siberian Railway, it nevertheless offers an insight to the life of the hinterland of the more rural East Coast states. For many years, people in little hamlets along the railway relied on the train to get to bigger towns like Pasir Mas or Gua Musang in Kelantan as no roads were able to reach such remote areas. While the name evokes a journey through thick rainforest, the reality is that the forest in many parts of Peninsular Malaysia is disappearing. You will still see stretches of thick jungle and the railway track goes over several impressive rivers, but you will also see many oil palm and rubber plantations along the way. In particular south of Jerantut the influence of man on what was once rainforest is obvious.
Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia's oldest national park, lies along the Jungle Railway. Other attractions include the Kenong Rimba Park in Pahang, Stong waterfalls and limestone caves in Gua Musang, Kelantan.
The Jungle Railway is 526 km. long and runs between Gemas on the Butterworth-Kuala Lumpur-Singapore trunk line, and Tumpat in the northeastern part of Peninsular Malaysia. It passes through the states of Negeri Sembilan, Pahang and Kelantan.
Despite it being called the East Coast Line, it does not go anywhere near the coast except at its terminus in Tumpat. It goes through the center of Peninsular Malaysia.
There are no large cities along its route. Most stations are in remote, jungle-surrounded villages and many stops are nothing more than a platform in the middle of the jungle. The bigger towns along the line are Mentakab (on the Kuala Lumpur-Kuantan main road), Jerantut, Kuala Lipis (former capital of Pahang state), Gua Musang and Kuala Krai.
The East Coast line was developed a little later than the West Coast trunk line, purely because there was just not as much economic activity in the East Coast states. The construction of the line is deemed to be an engineering breakthrough of its time considering the terrain and thick jungle it had to go through.
The first stretch between Gemas and Bahau, both in Negeri Sembilan was opened in 1910, while from the north, the first stretch from Tumpat to Tanah Merah in Kelantan was completed in 1914. The entire length of the railway was opened in 1931. The link to the State Railways of Thailand in Sungai Kolok from Pasir Mas was completed in 1921. About 240km of tracks were removed by the Japanese during World War Two and used in the construction of the Death Railway between Thailand and Myanmar and had to be replaced after the war.
Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTMB or Malayan Railways)  operates several trains along the Jungle Railway. Those seeking speed (well, we are talking in relative terms here) and comfort can opt for the express services which links Tumpat with Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. There is one night express train between Tumpat and Kuala Lumpur called the Ekspres Wau (departing Tumpat 18:45, departing Kuala Lumpur at 20:30) while between Tumpat and Singapore, there are two expresses daily, the daytime Sinaran Timur (departing Tumpat 07:00, departing Singapore 04:30) and sleeper Ekspres Timuran (departing Tumpat 20:30, departing Singapore 18:00). These trains stop only at the bigger (again, relatively speaking) stations.
With the exception of Sinaran Timur, the other express trains unfortunately travel at night, preventing you from seeing the jungle.
The real attraction along the line is of course the Jungle Train. There are in fact four trains and they will give you a true taste of rural Malaysia train travel. All of them only have Third Class coaches and besides passengers, you will possibly be sharing coaches with livestock and tons of merchandise. They stop at almost every station along the way -- and there are many -- and will almost certainly run late. Surprisingly, they usually are A/C, although the system can be down.
The four daily services are: (as in May 2011, see [http://www.ktmb.com.my/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=69&Itemid=55 timetable on the KTM website)
Furthermore, the express and night trains going along the jungle line are as follows:
These express and night trains are all A/C, and equipped with a restaurant car.
Check Keretapi Tanah Melayu's (KTMB or Malayan Railways) website for latest details.
Here are some of the main stations along the line:
The above stations are served by both the mail and express trains.
This is for third class; second class is about double the price. Here is a sample of the fares between some of the main stations. These fares of course do not apply if you catch express trains between these points.
Again, check KTMB's website for latest fares.
For train buffs, the Jungle Railway used to offer the excitement of old-style train travel, although the trains are now quite new. The entire line is a single line, hence the numerous delays when the mail train is moved to a loop to allow express trains to pass. Key tokens are still used and are passed to drivers by station masters without the train stopping by using pouches. Stations are also not interlocked. While the trains are diesel and coaches modern (although a bit short on maintenance), journeys on these trains are still full of atmosphere.
The Jungle Railway may go through thick rainforest but you will be hardly far away from civilization, with stations and settlements coming up regularly. What you will encounter during the journey might be discomfort, certainly not harsh conditions.
Trains depart very early at both ends, and may well run late (but also early, so do arrive earlier to the station). The trains are as well maintained as express trains. Surprisingly, toilets should be particularly clean (with seat and paper!), and cleaned almost after each station.
For the busiest parts of the line (mainly from Singapore to a few station after Johor Bahru and the last few stations before Kota Bharu), you might seat next to big amounts of merchandise and agriculture products (like the smelly durian and the occasional livestock) and crying babies. The trains are however rarely full. If you can handle local food, then sustenance may not be a problem as people may sometimes sell food onboard or from platforms when the train stops at stations, mostly between Gua Musang and Kota Bharu. The express trains have a restaurant car, selling chips, soft drinks and bottled water among local delicacies. However, shuttle trains have only 3 carriages with no restaurant car. Surprisingly, trains are usually equipped with A/C.
The experience is said to be extremely enjoyable and more than makes up for the possible shortcomings.
The Jungle Railway can be accessed at various points. As the line is also served by express trains, you can board the jungle train at the many stations along the way. Federal Route 8 also runs parallel to the railway, allowing road access to many stations. All this allows you to ride the Jungle Train for a portion rather than for the whole journey.
Most people take the Jungle Railway from the north - mostly from Wakaf Bharu station which is near Kota Bharu, Kelantan. The station is 5 km from the city center and can be reached by bus or taxi. As the trains may leave extremely early, please make sure that you have your transportation to the station sorted out the night before.
Tumpat is of course the start of the line and about half an hour north of Wakaf Bharu. It can be reached by bus from Kota Bharu and Pengkalan Kubur on the Thai-Malaysian border across the Golok River from Tak Bai in Narathiwat province. However, there is no accommodation in Tumpat, making it very difficult to catch the 05:00 mail train.
Gua Musang, the frontier town in southern Kelantan, is the end of two jungle trains and is a convenient place to end or start your journey, although the area to the south towards Pahang is also interesting and thickly forested. Gua Musang has accommodation and is easily accessed by road from Kota Bharu and Kuala Lumpur via bus, taxi or express train.
Jerantut in Pahang is another popular access point as it is the station to or from Taman Negara National Park. Jerantut is also a stop for all express trains serving the East Coast Line, and is also served by by bus or taxi from Kuantan and, with a few changes, from Kuala Lumpur.
Kuala Lipis is the starting point of several trains, including the 81/82 heading to Tumpat and 91/92 from Singapore. It is also a stop on all express and night trains. It is a very convenient start or ending point for a jungle line trip. There are several very cheap accommodation and restaurants along the (almost only) main street in the city. Furthermore, its location in the National Park is an interesting starting point for trekking in rainforest. Most guesthouses can organize such tours.
Mentakab is a possible access point as it is on the main road linking Kuala Lumpur and Kuantan. It is however quite a long way from the more interesting parts of the railway which lies further up north in norther Pahang and Kelantan.
Gemas, the southern end of the Jungle Railway, is on the Butterworth-Kuala Lumpur-Singapore railway line and can also be easily accessed by road. Gemas station has benches which afford sleeping, a proper waiting room and an all-night restaurant -- all convenient to those arriving late at night to catch the morning northbound mail train. Although the journey going up north is interesting, it is a long way before you get to the interesting parts in Pahang and Kelantan.
This is probably the most interesting portion of the Jungle Railway and the portion which is most served by trains. The scenery when you leave Tumpat is that of flat rice fields of the Kelantan River Delta. The area is dotted with little villages surrounded by, depending on season, emerald green or brown dried-up ricefields.
At Kusial, the railway crosses the wide Kelantan River. The Guillemard Bridge is the longest railway bridge in Malaysia, built by the British in 1925, destroyed during World War II to hold back the invading Japanese Imperial Army, and rebuilt in 1948. The line now runs through rubber, oil palm plantations and secondary forests and if you are on the local "jungle trains" (shuttle trains), you will be stopping every 10 to 15 minutes at little stations along the way.
After Kuala Krai, the line starts moving into hilly country and into isolated spots far away from Federal Route 8, or the main East Coast inland trunk road, which links Kota Bharu and Bentong in Pahang. You will start seeing the jungle which gave the line its nickname. Still, the stretch is quite heavily populated with little towns located along the line. On the early south-bound train, you may be joined by school children catching the train to school in the larger settlements along the line.
You will know that Gua Musang is drawing near when you start seeing limestone outcrops. Gua Musang station itself is located at the base of a steep limestone cliff. The town, once totally unreachable except via the Jungle Railway, is a convenient place to break the journey as there are several accommodation options. You can also return to Kota Bharu or go directly to Kuala Lumpur by bus from here.
The area immediately south of Gua Musang has the thick jungle for which you may have been looking. The area also has many limestone outcrops and hills, making this area probably the most scenic. The railway line meets Federal Route 8 again at Merapoh, where you can get off the train and try getting to Taman Negara National Park via the less-used Sungai Relau road.
After numerous tiny villages and more jungle, the train draws into Kuala Lipis, the former capital of Pahang. The town is surrounded by hills and is quite charming, containing in particular a very nice main street with traditional Chinese houses. The tracks then run roughly beside the huge Pahang River. The Batu Sembilan halt, about half an hour south of Kuala Lipis is the access point for the Kenong State Park.
You will pass Mela, the nearest scheduled stop to Kuala Tembeling where you can catch boats to Taman Negara National Park. Tembeling halt, which is south of Mela, is nearer Kuala Tembeling but trains do not stop there anymore. Taxis may be available to shuttle you from Mela to the jetty at Kuala Tembeling or vice-versa.
Jerantut, the next stop after Mela, is a more popular getting-off point for Taman Negara, simply because there are more facilities than tiny Mela. Jerantut has many places to stay and eat and public transport to Kuala Tembeling for the boat, or directly to Kuala Tahan opposite the Taman Negara park headquarters can be easily arranged. For those leaving the Jungle Railway, there are buses to Kuantan and Temerloh.
Heading south, the landscape changes from jungle to rubber and oil palm plantations. There are fewer stops but the towns now tend to be much bigger. From being predominantly Malay, the ethnic composition now becomes more mixed, with towns mainly inhabited by the Chinese.
The railway line crosses the main east-west trunk road between Kuala Lumpur and Kuantan at Mentakab, where there are bus and taxi connections to both cities. You can also get to the Kuala Gandah Elephant Rehabilitation Center from Mentakab.
Between Mentakab and Gemas on the Johor-Negeri Sembilan border, plantations dominate the scenery. You can get off at Triang and try (with great difficulty) to reach the Tasik Bera wetlands area, a Ramsar site. Before Gemas, the train passes through Bahau, where there are transport connections to Seremban.
Gemas is the southern end of the Jungle Railway. It is a major railway junction where the East Coast and West Coast railway lines meet. Keretapi Tanah Melayu (Malayan Railways) has a huge yard here and one of its old steam engine is kept here. From Gemas, you can catch trains south to Johor Bahru and Singapore or North to Kuala Lumpur. There are also numerous bus services to other destinations. Gemas also has accommodation for you to break your journey.
Train journeys in Malaysia, including the third-class only jungle trains, are very safe, both in terms of the trains staying on their tracks, and the risk of your luggage disappearing. Nevertheless, as there may be some pushing when boarding trains, do keep an eye on your wallets or bags - there are pickpockets even in these parts, especially in the bigger stations.
Pack some food if you have a sensitive stomach and cannot handle the local stuff sold on trains and at stations. Furthermore, there is not guarantee that food will be sold the day where you take the train. And even if so, it will mostly be drinks and dry snacks.
Going further afield: