Prai railway depot and its surroundings
Silent echoes of a railway hub’s bustling heyday
It is perhaps ironic that one of Malaysia’s most historic and important centres for transportation, which once lifted the stature and powered the economy of Prai in the past, should now be among the least known and forgotten enclaves of the area.
Isolated at the far end of the Jalan Besar artery, behind a dusty and often raucous hub for industrial lorries, is the site of a former railway depot that is now a pale shadow of its former glory. It is here that the train coaches of the Federated Malay States Railway authority gathered, having brought people and wares from the southern parts of the Malay peninsula, from the early part of the 1900s onwards. Prai was then connected by rail to major towns that included Port Dickson, Seremban and Johor Baru to the south, and Padang Besar and Bangkok to the north.
So busy was this railway centre that there was even a special “railway ferry” which took train passengers across the Penang Channel, from Prai to Weld Quay on Penang island and vice-versa.
The heyday of the railway hub in Prai is long gone, thanks in a large part to the emergence of good road and highway network, as well as air freight services. The construction of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Bridge over the Prai River in 1965 allowed the public to circumvent Prai in order to go towards Butterworth on the other side of the river. And when the new Butterworth Railway Station started operations in 1967, it effectively displaced the old Prai centre as the northern region’s main railway hub.
The remnants of the Prai hub, however, remain today, though in a very depraved state. The site of the former railway depot is now owned by KTM (Keretapi Tanah Melayu). A huge manual gear to switch railway lines – perhaps the only one to be seen in Malaysia today – lies unused in an area frequented mostly by cargo lorries and heavy vehicles along the western end of Jalan Baru.
There are also other ancillary reminders of how the railway hub helped to enliven and energise the social economy of Prai in the past. The old Prai Post Office building complex which was used heavily in the colonial era and up till the 60s still lies here, captivating with its nostalgic and stately appearance despite the overgrowth of shrubs all around it. Its use was ended soon after the railway line in Prai lost its shine after the 60s.
Another remnant of the past community of Prai is the Prai Market whose structure was demolished under controversial circumstances in 2015. The Penang state government had gazetted the buildings surrounding the Prai market, which had been identified as a building with heritage value. However, the market’s structure was illegally torn down by a developer.
The arch at the market entrance with the year “1938’ engraved on it was also brought down. It is believed that Prai market existed even earlier than 1938, the year the market building was built.
The market’s activity dissipated after the railway centre lost its prominence and as people were lured to shop at the much larger Chai Leng Park market which was built in the 70s.
There is, however, one industrial icon in this area that still remains prominent as it was some fifty years ago. The Malayan Sugar factory stands tall near the railway depot, and is visible with its turret-like refineries from a good distance away. A pioneer of the modern sugar refining industry in Malaysia, it is now the largest sugar refinery in the country, producing an output of almost a million tonnes of sugar for the domestic and world markets annually.