“There are many people to talk to … attendants, people working the dining car or other passengers,” Amirul told This Week in Asia. “Everyone was just fascinated by little cultural exchanges they picked up over the 11-hour journey.”

Long journeys were common for Malaysian rail travellers until 2010, after which the service became less a viable mode of transport for people in a rush, pushing those who could afford it to buy cars, especially after the government launched Proton in the late 1980s, Malaysia’s national car.

The construction of the North-South Expressway linking the entire length of Peninsular Malaysia from Singapore to Thailand slashed road journeys – and boosted safety – and cars and buses quickly became the default mode of transport for most Malaysians.

Since then the railway has seen a resurgence with the government investing in projects to electrify the rail network – parts of which date back to 1885 – leading to the introduction of newer, faster services.

Cars travel on a street in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 2020. Photo: Xinhua

As Malaysia improves its ageing rail infrastructure with electrification and double-tracking projects across the country, nostalgia for the past and the uniqueness of its route continues to draw people, locals and visitors, to the charm of its slower, older rail services.

Australian couple Jay and Jon, who run the Bucket List Travellers YouTube channel, raked up more than 500,000 views for a May 2023 video of their Jungle Train journey.

“Time and time again, Malaysian people have surprised us and humbled us,” said Jon, who was brought to tears as he recounted touching examples of the hospitality he encountered on the train.

Jay, meanwhile, described it as their best train journey in the world.

“This is by far the cheapest and best value experience we’ve ever had,” she said in the YouTube video.

The “Jungle Train” is Malaysia’s last sleeper service. Photo: Amirul Ruslan

‘Old-timey romance’

Laid in the 1910s by the British, the rail was the only land connection between the two coasts of the peninsula.

It meanders along the valley carved by the Titiwangsa range, slowed by twists and turns through thick jungles, limestone hills, across old steel bridges, palm oil plantations and a handful of small towns that mushroomed around the train stations, some of which date back from colonial times.

But the service needed desperate upgrading

In 2010, the Electric Train Service (ETS) was launched and following the upgrade has been popular with the people with more than 4 million rides recorded in 2023 across its route from Gemas to Padang Besar, on Malaysia’s border with Thailand.

In March, Transport Minister Anthony Loke said 10 new six-coach trains would be added to the service, allowing it to double its frequency from 32 daily trips to 64 trips and nearly double its passenger journeys.

But progress carries the potential of losses of older services, beloved by those with time to appreciate rail history, such as the “Jungle Train”.

“I really love sleeper trains and [the Jungle Train] is the last sleeper left in Malaysia,” he said.

“There’s just such a special romance to sleepers: you get to wander to the dining car in the middle of the night, sleep in one city and wake up at sunrise in another.”

A passenger on the “Jungle Train” sleeper service, which starts off from Gemas and trundles north at 80km/h running along the Titiwangsa mountain range before arriving in Tumpat, Kelantan. Photo: Amirul Ruslan

Having successfully electrified and installed parallel tracks along the Gemas to Padang Besar at the Malaysia-Thailand border, KTM is now working on implementing similar upgrades to its southern route to Johor Bahru, overlooking Singapore.

The new East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) connecting Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur to Kelantan’s capital of Kota Bharu, slated to start operation in 2027, will not mean the end of the meandering rails of the Jungle Train for now.

That means tourists will still have the chance to travel one of Asia’s most scenic routes for some years ahead.

“Malaysia’s rail service still captures an old-timey sort of romance that really attracts a lot of people across the world, especially people in Britain who really love that,” Amirul said.

Although lacking in the same nostalgia as the old, slow trains, there is still charm in the new comfortable cabin of the electric trains, known locally as the ETS.

Scenery seen along the “Jungle Train” sleeper service, which runs through the spine of Peninsular Malaysia to the Thai border. Photo: Amirul Ruslan

Aini Hanan, a doctor at the Bukit Mertajam Hospital in Penang, has been relying on the electrified trains to take her home to her husband and five-year-old son in Kuala Lumpur every weekend in a respectable four-hour journey.

“By my count, I have made 130 trips since February 2022,” Aini told This Week in Asia.

While faster and more hectic with commuters shouting into their phones, she says there are personal moments of joy to be grabbed from train travel.

The 3.55pm northbound from Kuala Lumpur’s KL Sentral station is among them, rewarding passengers with a spectacular sunset between the rustic town of Taiping and Parit Buntar, not far from her destination station.

Having travelled by rail across Europe as a student, Aini said the new Malaysian trains were reliable.

“In terms of punctuality and comfort inside the coach, the Malaysian trains are on par,” she said.