The International Steam Pages
A Palm Oil Mill and its Railway
United Plantations operate what are believed to be the last plantation railways in Peninsular Malaysia. Some years back, Norman Drake investigated them in detail and while his findings were not published on the web, they were published by the Narrow Gauge Railway Society in the form of booklet which is still available through Marine and Maritime, publishers of Locomotives International, at just GBP 5.00. You will need a copy of it for a fuller understanding of what follows, it is a most comprehensive account and I have not given any details of the mill operation. .
I am very grateful to United Plantations for agreeing to our visit and putting us up in the Unitata Bungalow at Jendarata, near Teluk Intan, and all the staff who made us so welcome and patiently answered our questions, particularly Assistant Engineer, Mr. Tooyavan who accompanied us throughout. This was much more than an enthusiast visit, in fact for much of it the railway was incidental as we also gained a great insight into the business of running a large oil palm plantation.
Prospective visitors should understand that casual visits to the estate are impossible, the estate entry roads are guarded, and advance permission is absolutely essential.
With more than 100km of track, woven into a complex network of lines, the railway is not an object of sentiment, it exists because the company believes it is the best option for bringing in the oil palm fruits. No one today knows why the gauge is 700mm but it seems likely to me that, when it was first planned, representatives of the company visited North Sumatra where the Dutch already had such systems and for convenience the same gauge was adopted, in fact the gauge is also common in Denmark which is where the company is based. No doubt, steam locomotives were used in the distant past but by the time that Peter Hodge visited here in 1969, they were long history and the railway was totally dieselised.
We had a hire car and came down to Teluk Intan (Teluk Anson as was) on the back roads popping into Lumut (charming) and Sitiawan (less than charming). For most of the journey we were rarely out of sight of oil palms, but near Taiping we were able to feast on a durian and stock up on mangosteens and rambutans. Our overnight stop had little of any great interest save its famous 'leaning tower; our 'boutique hotel' turned out to be a newly opened 'budget hotel' which has somehow been allowed to start operation even though the fire alarm system was no more than wires poking out of the walls and ceilings. Next morning we pitched up at Jendarata where we were treated to post-colonial opulence for a couple of nights.
This board shows the company's plantations. Jendarata is central left and is the one we visited. Particularly the former Socfin estate, Limabelas, which is described in Drake's booklet with its unusual cable railway has had its mill closed and the railway dismantled, its production being shipped our by truck. There are four palm oil mills in total, I believe all are rail served. Two of the plantations are largely given over to the cultivation of coconuts.
The appearance of the locomotives is 'functional' and they are hardly a thing of beauty, they are pure workhorses, which probably explains the standard warning notices.
The driver of this one (15) is well over 60 and told us he had some 50 years service with the company, a not unusual occurrence.
It seems there are over a dozen locomotives here spread out over four divisions and as we only visited two and some will have been in the estate, we saw rather more than half, the uncertainty being caused by the fact that several are dismantled and may or may not be returned to service, for the record they were 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 9, 12, 14, 15 and 16 with one further unnumbered. I think all had started their life as Simplexes (from Motor Rail), all had been re-engined but many (where it was visible) still carried their Simplex gear boxes and some original Simplex radiators. Three carried Simplex plates, we were able to scrape two of them and one carried a RMP agent's plate.
These are four smaller locomotives, respectively 3, 7, 9 and 2, the last was derelict at the Division 1 maintenance area and carried the number 9371 as shown above.
Also at Division 1 were 1 and 16 and 6 under repair, this carries 40 S 297 while 12 was outside the workshop at Division 2,
We had limited opportunities to hunt trains as we had a full programme of visits laid on. The pictures show 3 waiting for road deliveries, 15 bumping an empty cage down an estate line and 14 on a train of full cages just outside the mill.
Drake's booklet covers much of the mill operation which has considerable commonality with the many rice mills and sugar mills we have visited. Of course, the machinery in use is all modern, but for me as a steam enthusiast I was especially interested to see some disused old kit, a series of fire tube boilers and a couple of Weir vertical boiler feedwater pumps.
Surrounded by modern methods in the mill, it was very relaxing to visit the plantation. We saw a fruit bunch cut down traditionally by hand, behind is a nesting box for owls which are encouraged as they catch pests:
Finally, this 'wild animal' is actually a water buffalo used to pull carts of the fruit bunches to the cages for loading.
John Browning has subsequently given me delivery information which shows:
9371 – 1948. Recorded as 20/28hp 600mm gauge, 3½ ton. Ordered by Bolling & Lowe. Shipping mark Teluk Anson via Penang.
40S297 – 1967. Recorded as 40hp 700mm gauge, 4½ ton. Ordered by RMP for Bolling & Lowe. Shipping mark G.R.& Co. Penang.