Singapore's Rail Corridor: The secrets of Singapore's ghost railway line

On a warm Friday afternoon, my Singaporean friend Walter Lim and I walk along a broad green path which once echoed to the clatter of carriages. Now the tracks are gone, and in its place is the Rail Corridor – a walking trail lined by tropical foliage.

For decades after Singapore separated from its larger neighbour in 1965, the Malaysian national rail company, Keretapi Tanah Melayu, retained control of its railway, which crossed the causeway from the Malay Peninsula, snaking south through Singapore to its terminus at Tanjong Pagar.

The two governments finally struck a deal in 2011, by which the long, thin strip of land was returned to Singapore, with the international railway truncated at the northern Woodlands Checkpoint station.

With the rails removed, what remains is a 24-kilometre green corridor. Plans have been slow to develop, but in November 2015, the Singaporean government announced the winner of a design competition for this stretch of land. The triumphant design, jointly created by a Japanese architectural company and a Singaporean landscape firm, envisages cycle paths, event facilities and viewing platforms over rainforest. There's still some distance to go before this vision is turned into reality, and the plan is to be revised further after public feedback.

For now, at least, it's a basic walking trail, and we're taking the opportunity to appreciate its undeveloped simplicity. I met Walter when he was studying in Melbourne a few years ago, and introduced him to some lesser-known sights in my city. Now he has the chance to return the favour.

From an entry point in Bukit Timah Road, we walk up an access path beneath an imposing rail bridge that once carried trains across the thoroughfare. Stepping through a gap between tropical plants, we're suddenly on the old railway reserve.

Although most of the rails have been removed, they're still in place on the bridge, where a few locals are meandering along. Heavy traffic streams along the road below us, but up here it's another, more peaceful world.

After a short walk south, some remnant track and a low concrete platform appears, overgrown with greenery. We've reached the defunct Bukit Timah Railway Station, once an intermediate stop. It was erected in 1932, but passengers only boarded here for a few years, although it remained a signal house until it closed.

Now, the ghosts of railways past are clustered around its dilapidated brick walls and open-air waiting area, where a sloping tiled roof provides shelter from the rain. Through the chain-link fence that surrounds the building, I can see old signs in Malay and English, marking the stationmaster's office.

Further along the platform is the most evocative relic of all – the station's official destination sign, painted letters peeling from its surface. Beneath the words "BUKIT TIMAH" are the names of the next stations in each direction: northerly Woodlands and southerly Singapura, the Malay name for the city.

To my surprise, there are people here. A group of young Singaporeans is lounging around the station, sitting on the platform and the disused rails, absorbed by their phones.

I ask if they hang out here much, and receive a non-committal response, but they look very much at home, sitting around with their mates on a warm day in this chilled-out space.

We're all relaxed, to tell the truth. As Walter and I walk further south, more greenery appears alongside the trail, and we lose sight of residential buildings altogether. All we can hear are the occasional cries of parakeets, the clicking of cicadas and the rustling of leaves thanks to a breeze that's started up.

There may come a time when this hidden stretch of Singapore is busier with passers-by, and, indeed, we pass cyclists and dog walkers as we go, but I hope the powers that be resist the urge to overdevelop the corridor. A city as busy as this needs all the tranquil spaces it can get.

See also: Sydney's Goods Lines and seven other great 'high line' city walks around the world

See also: The world's 10 best cities for walking

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

yoursingapore.com

GETTING THERE

Qantas flies to Singapore regularly from Sydney and Melbourne. Phone 13 13 13. See qantas.com.au.

STAYING THERE

Raffles Singapore is the city-state's most glamorous accommodation, imbued with history and celebrity. 1 Beach Road, suites from $550 a night, see raffles.com/singapore. The Sultan is a stylish, contemporary hotel created from former shophouses in the Kampong Glam district.101 Jalan Sultan, rooms from $145, see thesultan.com.sg. The Hotel ibis Singapore on Bencoolen is affordable and central. 170 Bencoolen Street, rooms from $105, see ibis.com.

SEE + DO

To access the Rail Corridor from Bukit Timah Road, catch a Downtown Line MRT train to King Albert Park station. Access is a short distance west. For developments along the Rail Corridor, see ura.gov.sg/railcorridor.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of the Singapore Tourism Board.

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