Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth (Penang) with the ETS – the fastest train in Southeast Asia

Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth (Penang) with the ETS - the fastest train in Southeast Asia

In 2015 the electrification of the train line between Kuala Lumpur and Butterworth was completed. On this modernised track the ETS (Electric Train Service) reaches a speed of 160kmh.

The ETS is the fastest intercity train in Southeast Asia, and is tied at equal first with two airport trains (Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur). The Bangkok airport train has been suspended, so now the two fastest trains in Southeast Asia are in Malaysia.

The remarkable thing about the ETS is that it runs on a metre gauge track, while the two airport trains run on standard gauge (which is 1435 mm wide). This appears to be the fastest train in the world running on metre gauge. By comparison railways of Europe and China run on standard gauge.

Trip Review

The ETS begins in Gemas (southeast of KL) and ends in Padang Besar on the Malaysia-Thailand border. The service I was on runs between KL and Butterworth.

The train doesn’t go to Penang Island but stops at Butterworth, on the mainland opposite the island. Butterworth is in the state of Penang though, so technically you can say it’s the train to Penang.

ETS Services

The ticket says to get to the station 15 minutes before departure. This is good advice if you are beginning from KL Sentral and you have never been there before. The station is a confusing mess with a separate metro platform, airport line, commuter train, and long distance trains at different parts of the station.

There was a big crowd in a small waiting space, but the when the gates opened it was orderly and the train departed at the scheduled time.

ETS at KL Sentral

Getting back to the track gauge, the wider the gauge the wider you can make the train. With only one metre of gauge the carriage was noticeably skinnier than the intercity trains I have travelled on in Europe.

A wider track also means a smoother ride. Having spent a month on European trains last year I could feel the difference. It feels just a bit more rickety.

Having said that it’s a comfortable journey and still much better than getting the bus.

ETS Seats
[ETS seats – comfortable but skinny.]

I’ve been in Southeast Asia long enough to know how to dress for public transport. As with bus travel, the trains have the air conditioning set for a level suitable for transporting lettuce. Wear jeans and long sleeves because you will freeze.

Food section

There is a snack bar onboard which offers a limited selection of meals and snacks. It didn’t look very appealing but it is cheap and there if you need to eat.

On-board menu
[On-board menu.]

I got a 3-in-1 coffee for 2.70 MYR (.70c USD).

Coffee
[Try getting a hot coffee on a bus.]

A train is always better than a bus, because onboard toilets. On the ETS they have merged the best of west and east by having a western toilet with a bum gun. My friends in Southeast Asia know what I’m talking about here.

Western toilet
[When I become Prime Minister every house in Australia will have a bum gun.]

There is onboard entertainment, or perhaps better described as onboard torture. There are screens at the end of each cabin and in the middle. You can’t escape it unless you have headphones, and I forgot to charge my iPod (rookie mistake.) To make matters worse on this trip the TV was playing a loop of Transformers and Kung Fu Panda previews. I was waiting for the movie to begin only to realise after half an hour that there will be no movie service; the previews were stuck on repeat. I asked an attendant to fix it but he said he couldn’t reset the TV.

Entertainment
[“Entertainment.”]

The train arrived almost to the minute on-time at Butterworth. The ferry pier to Georgetown is next to the train station, though it is not well set up for pedestrians so you have to have to walk over a couple of overpasses.

Arriving at Butterworth

At 3 hours and 52 minutes this is a great improvement on the bus which used to take 5, sometimes 6 hours. Hopefully more services are added as there is already demand for it. Turn down the air-conditioning and play an actual movie and this is a great service.

Booking Online

It occurred to me two weeks before the trip that I should see if you can book tickets online as I wasn’t going to have much time to buy tickets in KL. It turned out to be a good move as the train was nearly booked by the time I bought a ticket.

The ticket from KL Sentral to Butterworth cost 59 MYR + 2 MYR internet banking charge ($15.50 USD total).

I booked on the official site at ktmb.com.my but it is not the most user-friendly site and I had to print out a ticket. A more user-friendly site is 12go.asia, which sells tickets at the same price.


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Comments

  1. Thanks for the report. This is very good to know. I’m with you on the bum guns. We are so backwards in the west it is unfathomable how we can not see this as a plus. Seems like the trend here is to westernize in the newer hotels an mals. I pretty much stopped using Ibis because of this. Next time your in northern Thailand come stay for a while in Chiang Rai have plenty of space and decent coffee.

  2. Bum guns rule..

  3. NIRIENDER KUMAR says:

    How about parking our vehicle at parking lot at the train station in butterworth for one @ two days.Is it safe .

  4. John Dickinson says:

    Very informative ad well observed. I have been travelling to Malaysia for 30 years and keep meaning to write something helpful for travellers so many thanks James. Yes the train air con is absolutely freezing. We have used the train and bus many times and have flown back to KL on the odd occasion. The last time was with Malindo Air and cost £8.40 single with 30kgs of luggage (amazing).

    The bus is no place to be if you’ve got Delhi Belly from eating at the hawker stalls at Gurney Drive or Batu Ferringhi. I can personally vouch for that. We will probably take the train on our next visit in a couple of months time. Will stay at the Rasa Sayang or Park Royal as a treat.

    Anyone going to Penang should spend at least one night in a decent hotel as a treat even as a backpacker. They are relatively inexpensive and make sure you book “with breakfast” as the food is usually fantastic and you will keep you going all day. A must if you have children. Please dont head for the western food, omelettes, beef sausages etc. Try some Nazi Lemak with Roti or noodles. It never fails to amaze me that people will head for the western dishes. Why bother to go on holiday if your not going to try something different.

    The food on board the Train is usually ok. Maybe not as good as on Air Asia but passable and unlikely to give you an upset tummy. It can be spicy though.

    • amit shri says:

      You make me laugh with ur words”[When I become Prime Minister every house in Australia will have a bum gun.]

  5. Mutahir Waheed says:

    Very useful information, thank you very much! It helped me plan the trip so much better. Cheers!

  6. Hell yes on the bum gun – got really used to having those during my 2 years in Penang.

    Glad to see they finished the train. It was still under construction when I left in 2013. The really crazy thing is that RM 59 is hardly any more than the expressway tolls. I don’t recall exactly how much it was, but I recall it being something like RM 50 each way. I’ll definitely try out that train next trip.

  7. Thanks. Just bought my return ETS ticket from KL to Butterworth (to then take the ferry to George Town) in December. I am set to go!

    • Asha Female Shetty says:

      Hey through which site you.booked the tickets as I unable to book it through the site mentioned above

  8. Very detailed article James. Am right now on train i.e. etc from Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth.
    Very interesting poster at Buffet corner advertising Christmas specials and my grandchildren were excited. Only to be told its not available…only light snacks displayed in counter.

  9. I just tried to book the ETS online, KL Sentral to Butterworth, but it seems fully booked all the way through March 2017 (and beyond, perhaps). Not much use if you can’t actually get a seat… Or am I missing something?

  10. Just a tip on booking online… when I tried to book from ‘Kuala Lumpur’, there were no tickets. When I revised my search to KL Sentral, suddenly there were many options. Same might be the same if you put Penang instead of Butterworth.

  11. Oh this is great news as I always prefer a train to a bus.

  12. Very informative article, totally what I was looking for.

  13. Magdeline says:

    Took the ETS 9203 from Butterworth to KL Sentral. The trip was a total disaster. The cable broke down further along the track was stuck at Ipoh for over 2.5 hrs waiting for a shunt. No apologies or updates from KTM. Arrived in Kl after 9pm after departing at 1.30pm. Train master signed ticket for token refund, however KTM ticket office refused to provide refund due to ticket being purchased online as a foreigner. Bad service for a platinum seat. Get a bus or hire a car, you will be better off

  14. Rajendra B. Aklekar says:

    India now has a train that runs at 160kmph. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gatimaan_Express

  15. Paul Ott says:

    We are considering this train for a trip in late August. When looking at the fares they only ask how many persons .We have two children, one adult, one infant and a senior. Are there different rates for children, infants and seniors?

    We will probably have 5 pieces of luggage and a baby stroller. Can this be put in the overhead shelf or will need to check our items? If so, how is this done?

    Thanks for the article and info.

  16. Thanks so much for your great review of the train. We usually fly from KL to Penang but by the time you get to the airport (2 hours) wait in the airport (2 hours) fly (1/2 hour) wait for luggage (1/2 hr) and take the taxi to Georgetown (1 hour) it’s much faster and more interesting to take the train and the same amount of time and less money in the long run.

  17. Izzat Yazin says:

    as a malaysian, bum gun is part of everyday life because of its useful cleanliness. what shocked me though some malaysian malls prefers not to have bum gun in the toilets. i really want to ask those mall managers about the cleanliness of their butt

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