PHT Public Talk: Penang Hill Railway by Ric Francis


Penang Hill Railway and Viaducts (Image courtesy of Jaafar Yaacob)
Penang Hill Railway and Viaducts
(Image courtesy of Jaafar Yaacob)

Date: 9th April 2016 (Saturday)

Time: 10am to 12pm

Venue: Penang Heritage Trust Office, 26 Church Street, 10200 George Town

Fees: RM 5 (Members); RM15 (Non-members)

Contact: or +604- 264 2631



Penang Hill, 833 metres (2732 feet) above sea level, is ascended by funicular railway. As one train comes down, another goes up. At the summit, visitors can enjoy the cool, salubrious air and unimpeded views of George Town and the sea.

Early travellers made their way up Penang Hill on foot, by pony or by doolie chair carried by four to eight porters. The British hill station featured a governor’s residence, a signal post and a convalescing centre. Over time, Penang Hill developed into a resort town with a uniquecultural landscape of bungalows linked by walking trails through a forest featuring exquisite flora and fauna. The Crag, which started out as a retreat for Dutch planters from Sumatra, became a famous hotel, giving people more reason to get to the top.

Around 1900 a private syndicate attempted to build the first hill railway, but during an event to convince shareholders to reinvest, the cars refused to budge.

The Federated Malay States Railways then appointed a young railway engineer named Arnold Robert Johnson to the job. Cars, parts and machinery were sourced from England and Switzerland. Johnson chose the alignment after conducting extensive surveys of the difficult hill terrain. Taking into account the costs of construction, time of travel, and operational safety, he designed a solution which earned him a prize from the Institution of Civil Engineering.

Completed in 1923, the Penang Hill Funicular Railway was the first of its kind in Southeast Asia, and its tunnel is one of the steepest in the world. With illustrations, this talk will shed light on a unique and important achievement in Penang’s transport history.


Ric Francis started his career as a tramway engineer at Western Australian Government Tramways. He then joined the Australian Army as a member of the Royal Australian Electrical & Mechanical Engineers for 12 years. He co-founded the Perth Electric Tramways and supervised the laying of the Perway & Overhead line wiring of the system. He is currently vice president of the Perth Electric Tramway Society. In 1981 Ric Francis, together with Lindsay Richardson, built the Perth Electric Tramways’ tourist tramway, servicing the public at Whiteman Park with vintage trams from Australia. He has written a book entitled Kalgoorlie Transport History 1901–2001 (Goldenlines). Ric Francis served as district chairman of Lions International 201W1 and twice as president of the Lions Club of Stirling, of which he has been a member for 30 years. He was awarded the World President’s Award for his leadership.