The Singapore rail corridor

This post has been a few weeks in the drafting – It’s that time of the year again when our family makes our annual visit to Singapore, the tiny little dot on the world map that J and I know as our first home, and in between visiting relatives, catching up with old friends, it’s been hard to find the time and energy to pen things down.

Anyway, for the past couple of years now, I have always wanted to have a crack at running along the Rail Corridor – a 24km walking trail that follows the route of the old railway track that, until 2011, ran more or less from the southern coast of Singapore to the north and over the causeway to our neighbouring country, Malaysia.

Much of the track has since been removed, save for the track at the now closed terminus station, Tanjong Pagar. There are also a few metres of rail left for cosmetic and sentimental purposes in front of the old Bukit Timah railway station and a along the two rail bridges. The rest of the route has been, to this date, preserved as a “green corridor” providing an almost uninterrupted line of nature through the centre of a bustling city-state.

The morning after we touched down in Singapore’s Changi International airport, I was out of bed by 4:30am. This was one of the rare occasions where jet lag was actually a welcome thing, as this meant that I would be able to start my run during pretty much the only time of the day when Singapore’s horrendous equatorial weather can be considered “cool” and “pleasant”.

It was a quick cab ride (in a country the size of Singapore, a cab ride in smooth traffic rarely lasts any longer than fifteen minutes) to the old Tanjong Pagar station, and I was all set to go. Except, as I soon discovered, the trail wasn’t ready for me. I spent a good twenty minutes walking around the station and was disappointed to find that most of the trailhead had been unceremoniously fenced off, with no clear way in. I then expanded my search to some of the nearby streets which, at least on Google Maps, indicated that there might be access points to the trail, but to no avail – all of the paths had been closed off or replaced by construction sites for upcoming developments. As my frustration with the search hit a cap, I ended up just bashing through some of the bush behind one of the HDB apartment blocks and made my way on to the quiet dirt track.

It was still early in the morning, and I plodded along the trail in the little bubble of light cast by my headlamp. There was not a soul in sight, and this combined with my earlier struggle with finding an access point to the trail left me wondering if perhaps the trail had been closed to public access. It also left me with a slight nagging worry around the possibility that I could be mugged, murdered and dumped in the bushes, and wouldn’t be found for another ten years. Thankfully though, the odds of that occurring in the relative safety of Singapore were pretty low.

The first couple of kilometres ran alongside the Ayer Rajar Expressway. The high vegetation on the side of the corridor shielded me from the busy expressway visually, but the telltale sounds of speeding cars and the engine braking of heavy vehicles was a constant reminder that I was a mere metres from urban development.

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As the glow of dawn began to spread across the sky, I had my first human encounter since the start of the trail, a pair of runners slowly heading in the opposite direction. I couldn’t help but wonder if they had started from the other end and had run the entire thing in the dark – having run the full thing now, I can certainly say that is something I would rather not try.

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From that point on, the trail turned northwards slightly, heading towards Buona Vista. Traffic increased slightly, and I passed the odd person walking their dog or taking a stroll every five to ten minutes. It was at this point that I noticed that my tube of electrolyte tablets was missing from its usual spot in my pack. I doubled back around 500m or so but with no sign of it anywhere. This was my first run back in the hot and humid tropics in almost a year, and to try and complete something of this duration without replacing my electrolytes was just asking for a case of hyponaetremia. I decided to make a detour to one of the food centres at Buona Vista to pick up some isotonic drink as a replacement, having written off any hopes of locating the pills.

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Back on the trail, the sun was now up in full, and though for the most part the thick tropical canopy provided shade from the direct rays, the ambient temperature was slowly but surely rising. I took a grateful sip of the cold isotonic fluid in my bottle, and as I returned it to the pouch on my shoulder strap, I couldn’t help but notice that something was not quite right,and after several minutes of prodding and fumbling, the answer stopped me dead in my tracks: my mobile phone was missing! There was only one place I could have left it – back at the food centre, and I had covered almost 3km since. I wheeled around and hot footed it back all the way, desperately praying that it would still be there. Hopped up the rickety stairs at the trail exit, and dashed across the car park, almost getting run over by a reversing flatbed truck. Thankfully, the drinks stall owner had picked it up and kept it aside for me. She chided me for my carelessness, and after my 3km dash all I could think to do was repeatedly thank her in between gasps for air. While there was no doubt I needed the electrolytes, the quick stop proved costly, adding another 6 or so km to my journey. Still, relieved at having my phone back, I set off once again in reasonably good spirits.

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The middle third of the run between Buona Vista and Upper Bukit Timah was packed with mountain bikers, hikers and the odd other runner – a stark contrast to the previous section of the trail. The horde of traffic also meant that the waterlogged, muddy trail was well and truly trodden into a buttery mess, particularly around the Bukit Timah nature reserve area. Very little sustained running happened over this stretch, it was mostly gingerly picking my way across the long stretches of slick mud. This part of the trail also contained some interesting features, including the old Bukit Timah rail station, and two rail bridges.

A couple hundred metres after the second rail bridge crossing Upper Bukit Timah road, the trail came to an abrupt end at Hillview Road. There clearly looked like there used to be a bridge over the road which had since been removed. I could see the rail corridor continue over the other side of the road, but it was all fenced off, and deserted, and there was no clear access to it, save for a very steep climb up the side of a grassy slope. A mountain biker who had just joined the trail kindly clarified that I was indeed meant to clamber down the equally steep slope on this side of the crossing, and up the other side, and that the rest of the trail was indeed open to public traffic. And so, without much ado, I was on my way once again.

The trail continued alongside Upper Bukit Timah road, offering limited (with good reason!) glimpses into the outer areas of the Ministry of Defence. Another two kilometres down the trail, just after crossing Bukit Panjang Road, the trail was once again interrupted, this time by a large canal around 25 metres across and about three metres deep. I could see the corridor continuing over the other side of the canal, but there was no clear way over or around it. After a bit of pondering, I decided to loop back around and continue in the same direction along Woodlands Road.

I was able to rejoin the trail without much fuss. Just past the Ten Mile  Junction shopping centre, at the back of an outdoor carpark for heavy vehicles, there was a gate through the rear barriers and a small, innocuous bridge that crossed over a large drain, which allowed me to cross back on to the trail.

The final third of my journey was undeniably the least interesting and most torturous. The rest of the trail was essentially deserted, and my only human interaction on the trail itself (not counting road crossings) was a bunch of mountain bikers who were making their way southwards.  The sun was now well and truly high in the sky, and there was no overhead protection from the scorching rays.

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As I approached the KJE overpass, I could see to the west, just across the same large canal that had earlier cut me off, the Pang Sua park connector, with a fair few joggers and cyclists happily trotting down the tarmac. I got the odd glance, and could only imagine that they must have been wondering why someone would be running through the old, uneven, long grass of the rail corridor when there was a spiffy, paved park connector essentially going in the same direction. Exposed to the sun and with fatigued legs, that very question floated through my own head more than once.

Eventually though, the park connector and canal peeled off to the east, and along with them went most of the signs of residential civilisation.  I continued on my northward journey, now well and truly sick of the tall tropical shrubbery and the cowgrass underfoot, that had essentially been the trails main offering in terms of scenery for much of the morning. To make matters worse, my stomach was now growling, complaining about the inadequacy of the two bananas I had consumed for breakfast over four hours ago.

There isn’t much else to write about the rest of the trail – There wasn’t much of a view for the rest of the trip, essentially the ten or so metres of grass that was the width of the track, and as far forward and backward as I could care to look. Not long after crossing Kranji road, just past the rear of the Kranji Lodge, the trail came to a rather abrupt and anticlimactic end:

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Yep. That’s it. This is the end of the accessible portion of the rail corridor. The rest of the corridor follows in to the Woodlands immigration and customs checkpoint and is closed to public access for obvious reasons.

DSC_0430It’s an odd thing for me to say, but I cannot begin to tell you how happy I was to get off that trail. It was hands down the flattest, least scenic, most boring trail run I have been on, and the weather certainly did not help at all either. Glad to have put that behind me, I crossed the Mandai river via a rather colourful bridge, and eventually made my way down to the nearby Kranji MRT station for a much desired local breakfast of toast and eggs (the Singapore version!):

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Visually understated, but certainly the most delicious way to enjoy toast, eggs and tea.

While this trail run probably ranks near the bottom of my running experiences in terms of enjoyment, the sentimental side of me is still glad that I did it. Starting this year, the corridor will be closed and redeveloped over the next few decades into a spanking new series of community recreation areas and parks, and so this was my last chance to see most of the length of this green corridor in its more or less original state (sans railway tracks), as dull and uninteresting as most of it was!

A map of the morning’s run on Strava. The trail itself is only around 24-25km long – the additional distance was due to the couple of mishaps along the way and the little extension at the end down to Kranji MRT. 

 

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