The Jungle Railway
The Jungle Railway is one of the great train journeys of Southeast Asia, spanning the length of Peninsula Malaysia through its rugged interior. Officially known as the East Coast Railway Line (ECRL), the Jungle Railway travels from Johor Bahru near the Singapore-Malaysia border in the south, to Tumpat near the Thailand border on the east coast.
The east coast title is something of a misnomer, as technically it doesn’t reach the coast until its last stop at Tumpat. It travels through the east coast states, thus the name. As for its jungle nickname, it requires some planning to see the actual jungle. Some trains travel overnight, which means you miss seeing the jungle.
There is also the matter of the great forests of Malaysia being cleared for palm oil plantations. A good section of jungle remains in the middle of the peninsula, but it’s getting eaten away at either end by the steady encroachment of plantations.
I’ve been wanting to take this trip for years, and I had to put it off one year while the track was being rebuilt after flooding. After studying the train times and taking the journey myself, I’ve worked out what are the best train times for the most scenic sections.
About the jungle railway
While the overnight service begins in Johor Bahru, the East Coast line begins at Gemas Station at the junction for the West Coast line. The first section of the Jungle Railway opened in 1910, and the 526 km route was completed in 1931.
For much of the way the railway follows the rivers through the mountains. Like the water of the rivers, the builders of the railways followed the path of least resistance rather than making straight lines with viaducts and tunnels.
At some points the train deviates far from its north south axis while it follows a flatter path through the valleys.
There are only a few tunnels on the trip, and there are no grand crossings like the Goteik Viaduct in Myanmar. There are lots of bridges crossing big muddy rivers that give a good view of the jungle.
As with many railways in Southeast Asia, the ECRL runs on a single track for most of the way. This means that trains from both directions share the same line, and they are timed to pass each other at certain train stations. Train services are already at irregular hours, and if one train is late then the other can’t continue until the other has passed. This is not the transport to use if you need to be somewhere in a hurry.
There are two types of trains, and it’s possible to mix and match depending on your available time. There is a daily intercity sleeper train that travels in each direction, and three daily local trains which travel about three quarters of the length of the line.
If you want to travel on the jungle railway to see the jungle, the following trains offer the best itineraries.
North to South Itineraries
Starting from the north the trip is best taken with the local services. The sleeper train is not useful if you want to see the jungle as it will be night time during the best section. It’s a useful train if you happen to be in Kota Bharu and you want to get to Singapore the next day. You just won’t see the jungle.
Check for North-South Jungle Railway Tickets.
I did the trip from north to south over two days. You could do it in one day, but I wanted to see all of the line in daylight hours. The first train of the day departs at 4.10, and sunrise is around 7am. If you are pushed for time you could take this one, and the best parts of the trip will begin around sunrise.
If you’re coming from the Perhentian Islands it might be better to start at Tanah Merah.
I took the second train which starts at a more respectable hour of the day and allows sightseeing. Unfortunately the service stops at Dabong and the next train isn’t until the evening. It would have been handy if this train went straight through as Dabong is a village with no hotels. There is a homestay there, so book that in advance if you plan to make this trip.
From Dabong I got the morning train to Kuala Lipis. This is the best section of the trip in terms of seeing the jungle. This train arrives in Kuala Lipis at 12.40pm, and the only train south is not until 1am. I stayed in Kuala Lipis and then went by bus to Taman Negara. Unless you are planning to go to Johor Bahru or Singapore next I wouldn’t bother getting the train from here.
South to North Itineraries
For south to north travel the overnight sleeper works as a sightseeing train. You will sleep through the most boring bits, and by sunrise the landscape gets more interesting after Kuala Lipis.
This can be done in one trip, departing JB at at 20:15 and arriving at Wakaf Bharu (for Kota Bharu) at 14:10.
Check for Johor Bahru-Tumpat Jungle Railway Tickets.
If you want to break the trip up and make it a true jungle adventure, an alternative would be to get off at Jerantut at 6:18. From here you can get a bus to Kuala Tahan for Taman Negara. The bus leaves at 7am, getting to Taman Negara at 8am, and the park opens at 9am. Alternatively you can get a taxi from Jerantut to Kuala Tahan if you can’t be bothered waiting around for the bus.
There’s only one train a day from Jerantut so you’ll need to go back to Jerantut and stay the night if you want to continue the rail journey.
Another option is to stay in Kuala Tahan, and then get back to Jerantut and get a bus to Kuala Lipis. That means breaking up your train journey, but Kuala Lipis is worth a visit, and you can then restart your train journey at a reasonable hour. The best sections of the Jungle Railway are north of Kuala Lipis, so you could even just start your train trip from here after visiting Taman Negara and skip the section from Gemas/Johor Bahru. This is more useful if you are coming from Kuala Lumpur and going to Taman Negara first.
These timetables were correct at the time of my travel. Check the official site for the Intercity East Coast Timetable [PDF]
Trip Review – what to expect onboard and the best sections
I started my trip at Kota Bharu, which doesn’t have its own railway station. The nearest station is at nearby Wakaf Bharu, so I got a grab taxi from KB to WB for 9 MYR. It takes about 20 minutes to get there.
For the local train you just buy your ticket on the day of travel. My ticket from Wakaf Bharu to Dabong was 5 MYR ($1.20) for a 4 hour trip.
With the train originating at Tumpat not far from Wakaf Bharu, the train is most likely going to be on time.
I had read on some older blog posts about how the train carriages on the local trains had open windows and wooden seats. I was mentally prepared for this, so I was surprised to see the old Intercity city trains that have air conditioning. These might be the old trains that were replaced by the electric fast train on the west coast.
Some of the carriages were in bad condition with cracked windows and broken seats.
The train was never full, so make sure to pick a seat that isn’t broken with a clean window.
The carriages have squat and seated toilet options.
Of course they all have bum guns, though it’s advisable to bring your own toilet paper.
There is no snack service onboard, so be sure to bring your own supplies.
Heading south from Wakaf Bharu the landscape is varied, passing through kampungs (villages) and a variety of forest and agricultural lands.
The train arrived at Kuala Krai and we were held there for about half an hour until the opposing train went through.
It gets more hilly and jungle-like after Manek Urai, and from Kuala Gris it feels like it starts earning its name as the Jungle Railway.
After a big bend in the river it arrives at Dabong. It was an interesting trip to travel most of the length of this local railway. It stops at every station on the way, and this subsidised service is used by school kids as well as transporting goods.
This was the last stop on this service, and the next train isn’t until the evening.
I stayed in Dabong so I could see all of the local railway services in the day time. There is not much to do here apart from a national park with a waterfall nearby. I noticed on the map that there is a bridge outside of the town where the train goes underneath. When the next train was going through I went to the bridge to get this picture.
I began my second day in Dabong, departing on the 7:37 to Gua Musang. The tickets for the section Dabong – Gua Musang – Kuala Lipis cost a total of 7 MYR ($1.68 USD).
The best jungle section is between Kuala Gris and Gua Musang so it was a good start to the trip being in the midst of the jungle in Dabong.
Fortunately the mist burnt off early on, so I got a good view.
Most of my travels in Malaysia has been along the busy west coast, so it was good to see this remote and rural side of Malaysia.
It’s mostly hamlets between this section, with stations being little more than a wooden platform.
There are some great limestone formations when approaching Gua Musang.
The local service stops here to allow an express train to pass. The same train is used to continue to Kuala Lipis but it is moved out of the way until the other train has been. There is a cafe at the station in case you didn’t have breakfast.
Once the express train has gone the local train is brought back to the platform.
After Gua Musang there is more open terrain.
And with the open terrain more palm oil plantations appear, including lots of newly-cleared land.
I was using Google Maps to track the journey, and I noticed that the railway runs alongside the western edge of Taman Negara. I imagined that this section would be densely forested, but it appears that this section is not in the national park protected zone.
Palm oil plantations have spread fast across Peninsula and Borneo Malaysia, making Malaysia the second biggest palm oil producer (after Indonesia). It’s practically the national flora now, and it even features on the 50 ringgit banknote.
Throughout the trip I noticed railway maintenance crews at regular intervals, and the track seemed to be in good condition.
New drainage paths were being installed as well, so hopefully the railway isn’t shut down again from another flood.
Major stations were being upgraded during my trip as well. They were just putting the finishing touches on Manek Urai when we went through.
Kuala Lipis marks the end of the local rail service when coming from the north. There is only one service further south on the overnight train to JB Sentral. Kuala Lipis is also getting a new station, replacing the historic old station.
I stayed in Kuala Lipis as it’s a town worth visiting in its own right. It was the capital city of the state of Pahang until 1953, and it has a great collection of heritage buildings from its era as a capital.
Future developments of the east coast railways
While the Jungle railway has been repaired and kept in good maintenance, there wouldn’t be enough demand to double track the railway.
There is a plan for an actual east coast line, known as the East Coast Rail Link (also ECRL). This would run from Port Klang on the west coast to Kuantan the east coast, and then north along the east coast to Kota Bharu.
The new ECRL would junction with the old ECRL at Mentakab, so it could be possible in the future to get to the Jungle Railway from there. This is covered on my map of current and proposed railways of Southeast Asia.
With this new line in planning it would be an opportune time to rebrand the current ECRL. The Jungle Line or Jungle Railway is a good link to its heritage, but it remains to be seen how much of the jungle will survive in the future. In that case it could be renamed the Central Line, Peninsula Line, or more appropriately the Palm Oil Line 🙁
For now though the is still enough jungle to make this a worthy trip and see the interior of peninsula Malaysia.
Book Jungle Railway Tickets
If you are travelling on the local services then you don’t need to book – buy your ticket at the station.
For tickets on the sleeper train it’s advisable to book in advance, especially for a bed.
More Malaysia rail travel links
This is part of the Nomadic Notes train travel series.