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