Penang to Kuala Lumpur KTM ETS high speed train review

Malaysia is one of many countries rapidly expanding its rail network. One of its recent flagship projects is a new high-speed train service running along the west coast.

This is called the Electric Train Service (ETS) run by the national rail operator, Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM). It runs an impressive 755 kilometres from Padang Besar in the north, near the border with Thailand, to Gemas in the south.

Class 93 ETS 204 train departing Bandar Tasik Selatan (BTS) Railway Station in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The ETS

I was visiting George Town and the rest of the island of Penang. After a few days here I needed to get back to Kuala Lumpur in the south.

The usual way is to catch one of the many coaches that run along this route. It’s about RM35 – RM40 one way and takes 5-6 hours. Even with the generally high quality of intercity buses in this part of the world, it’s a long time, and for not that much less than the cost of a train ticket.

Because of this and the high demand between these two places on the Malaysian Peninsula, the existing West Coast Line was upgraded and converted to carry high speed trains back in 2010. Two classes of train operate five different routes and six different stopping patterns. The standard hourly frequency is pretty impressive for such a long intercity line. There are some extra services at seemingly random times as well.

Getting to the station

If you are unfamiliar with the state of Penang it consists of two halves. One is on the mainland and the other on island of Penang just off the coast. I was staying in George Town, which is on the island.

The only ways to get across the water are to take a bus, taxi or rideshare across one of the two bridges or catch the passenger ferry. I opted for the latter, not only because it’s so cheap (RM2 each way) but because I didn’t want to get stuck in the notorious and unpredictable traffic jams.

I caught a local bus to the ferry terminal in George Town to hop on the very first ferry of the day. It left and arrived right on schedule (departed at 0700 hours and arrived at 0725 hours) which allowed plenty of time to walk through the covered walkways and overpasses that directly connect the Butterworth ferry terminal to the railway station.

It’s an easy 10 minute walk with sometimes patchy signage, but if you follow the crowd it’s pretty straightforward. There are a few little shops along the way serving drinks and snacks but most are closed in the morning.

Covered walkway connecting KTM Butterworth Railway Station with Butterworth Ferry Terminal in Butterworth, Penang

The ferry was new and clean. These are new vessels that recently replaced a fleet of ageing car and passenger ferries that used to ply this route.

Interior of new ferry in George Town, Penang

Since the opening of the second bridge over the straits, the new ferries carry passengers, scooters, motorbikes and bicycles only. There is a dedicated area for these small vehicles which was very well used.

Boarding ferry in George Town, Penang

Apparently there are plans soon to be implemented for a light rail / metro public transport link across the water, linking Penang International Airport all the way to Butterworth Station via central George Town. With the traffic and difficulties getting around the area, this sounds like a terrific idea. It will also make it easier to get to Butterworth Station and connect to ETS and other heavy rail services.

On board

The train was already waiting at the platform. This Class 93 was delivered in October 2015 and built in China by CRRC Zhuzhou, which has the same parent company that partially built Melbourne’s HCMT trains.

Class 93 ETS 204 train at Platform 2 at Butterworth Railway Station, Penang, Malaysia

It is the fastest metre-gauge rail service in the world. These trains can travel up to 160km/h but on my trip I never saw the on-board speedometer read above 148km/h.

On board the seats had generous legroom, a folding tray table, headrest, reclining function, overhead luggage rack and a coat hook for the window seat. They are arranged in a 2-2 configuration in a single seating class. The legroom was decent – not too generous but perfectly comfortable for a four hour journey.

Interior of ETS 204 train at Butterworth Railway Station, Penang, Malaysia

One issue with the tray table is that any bottle or cup you place in the cupholder will be knocked over if the person in the seat in front of you reclines.

Poorly designed tray table on board a ETS 204 train at Butterworth Railway Station, Penang, Malaysia

Half the seats are ‘forward’ facing and the other half ‘backward’ facing. Be aware that ‘forward’ seats are facing backwards if you are travelling towards Kuala Lumpur, which is confusing as this is not specified on the KTM website when you are booking seats.

We departed exactly on time from Butterworth and were quickly underway. The ride quality was very good, especially for such a narrow gauge travelling at these speeds. The acceleration and deceleration was quick and not jarring. The train conductor checks tickets after each station.

Bukit Merah Lake from ETS 204 train on causeway, Malaysia

The train itself was mostly clean. The seats were a bit dirty and had a few crumbs, dirt and other bits on them and the toilet floor was constantly flooded by people using the bidet. But there was a cleaner on board the train for the entire trip who walked up and down the carriages.

Toilet on board ETS 204 train, Malaysia

Despite all of these good points, there was one major problem that I cannot forgive. In each carriage there are four screens – two at either end and two others in the middle. These constantly played the same three ads on a five minute loop for the entire journey. Not satisfied with being visually intrusive all four of these screens blared audio as well. Again, for the entire four hour journey. This absolutely drove me up the wall.

Advertising screens inside Class 93 ETS 204 train in Butterworth, Penang

These ads were all for KTM – the rail operator – including one two minute long patriotic video about Malaysia. So not only were these ads making passengers’ lives a misery, but nobody would even be making money from this setup.

This also meant that important information – like the next station – was relegated to small text at the bottom of the screen, with about 80% of the screen real estate dedicated to the ads.

Advertising screens inside Class 93 ETS 204 train in Butterworth, Penang

In addition, as others have mentioned before, the carriage is freezing cold. It wasn’t too bad for the first hour or so. But as the train continued towards Kuala Lumpur and the doors were closed for long periods of time the temperature began to plummet.

In a country where people are dressed for the 32+ degree heat outside and not Melbourne winter weather it seems completely incongruous to have the thermostat set to what feels like 10 degrees. I wore all the layers I had and was still uncomfortable.

Gangway on board ETS 204 train, Malaysia

To escape the endless cacophony of celebrities singing “I Heart Malaysia” for the 50th time and the Arctic environment, I resorted to using a combination of my noise-cancelling headphones and retreating to the carriage gangway to stand next to the door, away from the noise and the freezing cold (it was slightly warmer there). I did lodge a complaint with KTM afterwards but received a generic response – so don’t hold out hope that anything will change here.

The journey

Four hours is a very competitive length of time to travel most of the length of the country. By bus it takes up to six hours to travel the same distance, although it is cheaper. My train was quite busy, especially as we got closer to Kuala Lumpur, although there was a surprising number of people continuing through towards Gemas further south.

Class 93 ETS 204 train at Butterworth Railway Station, Penang, Malaysia

Passing through towns and cities along the way gave me a glimpse of other stations. They seemed to be clean and mostly well-sheltered. One thing that I did notice was that most platforms only had QR codes for next train departures rather than actual screens. Unfortunately this seems to be a growing trend and not one that I welcome.

The countryside along the way has some interesting views as well. There are lots of mountains, towns and farms to see so book a window seat if you can. Since this is a newly-reconstructed line, I also did not see a single level crossing (although I may have missed some).

Sungai Siput Station with mountains in the background, Malaysia

One useful tip – if you are travelling to the TBS Bus Terminal it is best to catch one of the two ETS trains per day that travel through to BTS Railway Station. This station is right next to the TBS Bus Terminal and is much easier than interchanging at KL Sentral.

View of railways at Bandar Tasik Selatan (BTS) Railway Station in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

And yes – somebody thought it was a good idea to have a station called BTS at TBS.

Overall

If you can stand the advertising screens and freezing cold, then the train is definitely the way to go. It was clean, comfortable, convenient and fast. Definitely the best way to travel.

If KTM can fix these two things – which would be very easy – then it would get a much higher rating from me.

Live departures screen for trains in Butterworth Railway Station, Penang, Malaysia

One final gunzel note. When I alighted the train at BTS, the rear of the train appeared to be pretty badly damaged from something. I could be wrong but something seems to have crashed into the coupler – see for yourself in the photo below.

Class 93 ETS 204 train departing Bandar Tasik Selatan (BTS) Railway Station in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

2 Comments

Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Andrewreply
7 June, 2024 at 10:13 am

It was pretty well a day trip when we travelled from Butterworth to KL in 2012. We could see the new line being built. It was a great trip, although we had the opposite problem. While the train was lovely and cool at the beginning and end of the trip, when we were in the jungle, the air con setting was changed and it was soporifically hot. You would not have wanted to stand between carriages back then as that was where people smoked. I suppose we had food on board, but I can’t remember now.

Bradreply
7 June, 2024 at 11:27 am

What a coincidence! We rode the train from Butterworth to KL on 27/05/2024. Similar experience to you with the cold temperature in the carriage (I resorted to putting on my rain jacket to keep warm) and the advertising loop on the information screens. That tune became embedded in our brains. I was impressed with the ride quality considering the 1 metre gauge. It was much smoother at 140 km/h than 80 km/h in Melbourne on 5’3″ gauge. No mudholes at all and they have a tropical climate with lots of rain. We could learn from them. We did the leg from KL to Johor Bahru a few day later and that was good too, expecially from Gemas in the older diesel powered train with older coaches.

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