KTM Rolling Stock: The Railbus

The railbus, as a generic and widely accepted term, is as the name implies, a bus that runs on the rails. Well, not literally a road bus, but in most cases, it is a rail vehicle that is configured to resemble a bus on the interior, and perhaps exterior. The main takeaway is it is a cheap and fast-to-construct rail vehicle, much like a bus, and economical to run where railway lines have sparse passenger traffic and the railway is trying to keep them open. Two of the most renowned railbus manufacturers also happen to have collaboration with road bus manufacturers, that their products are often thought of as a rail vehicle with a road bus body – Ganz MAVAG with Ikarus bus, and BRE (British Railways Engineering) with Leyland National bus.

An artist illustration of a Railbus by Commonwealth Engineering (Comeng) of Australia.

Such is the case with the two railbuses that KTM trialled in the mid 1980s. Railbuses are of course technically a diesel-multiple unit (DMU). The two railbuses came from the two aforementioned manufacturers – BREL in 1984 and Ganz MAVAG in 1985. By this time KTM had stopped using independently-powered cars (DMUs) – the final Class 27 and 28 railcars (DMUs that are more popularly known as DRCs) were converted to conventional trailer coaches some six years earlier (1978). According to Hj Shamsuddin Murphy in his 1985 book, “Locomotive Centennial”, this was the mostly due to unfamiliarity of end depots which were tasked with handling the displaced DRCs once new coaches hauled by locomotives began taking over the principal rapid services between Penang and Singapore in 1976. Why the sudden interest again in DMUs after all that is a mystery to us thus far. Both railbus demonstrators, as well as the eventual production series, are DMUs with hydraulic transmission (DHMU).

The BRE-Leyland Railbus

The (standard gauge) British Rail Class 141 “Pacer” DMU

The BRE-Leyland railbus is a meter gauge version of the Pacer Class 141 DMU railbus introduced for regional railway use in the UK in 1980. It was built in Workington in the UK with a bus body built by Leyland National. The two-car unit first arrived in Thailand and underwent a demonstration run on the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) in 1983, before finding its way to Malaysia a year later (it was launched by the Malaysian Minister of Transport at the (now old) Kuala Lumpur station on 23 July 1984.

The metre gauge version of the BREL railbus demonstrator being officiated on the 23rd of July 1984

The BREL railbus demonstrator remained in trial service with KTMB from there on until after 1985. At the same time, KTM also trialled the railbus built by Ganz MAVAG (See below) until 1986. KTM ultimately went with and placed an order with the latter. The BREL railbus was spotted abandoned at the yard behind Sentul workshops in 1995, and later at the Ulu Yam (or was it Serendah) stabling yard in 2001. Its final fate is unknown, but very likely it had met its end with a cutter’s torch.

Unfortunately there isn’t much else we can add to the story of this BREL railbus demonstrator, especially for the technical-savvy, as details of the unit is rather thin on the ground. We can only assume that the specifications (engines, speed, etc.) match the Class 141 in operation in the UK.

This is purely speculation on our part, but we feel that given the then-PM Dr Mahathir’s strong anti-British stance in the form of “Buy British Last” culminating in his “Look East Policy”, which he fiercely enforced in the 1980s during the first few years of his reign, this had a hand in the choice of railbus which KTM ultimately went with. KTM had a long history with railways from the UK – even from the days of GWR (pre-BR in 1948), but unfortunately KTM being a government entity then was subject to policies of the government of the day. This speculation of ours is strengthened by the circumstantial video documentary evidence in the Ganz MAVAG paragraph below where Dr Mahathir is seen visiting Ganz MAVAG’s plant in Budapest, and later officiating the arrival of the production version of the railbus in Malaysia. Another verbal source sort of confirmed our speculation to an extent – the Hungarians were chosen on basis of palm oil barter trade. Essentially, the railbuses were bought under a Counter Trade Agreement (CTA) where Hungary buys Malaysian palm oil, and in return, Malaysia buys the railbus from Hungary. This is not an unsubstantiated rumour, as the 2003 purchase of Class 29 locomotives from China (CNR – later CRRC – Dalian) was done on the same basis.

The BREL railbus demonstrator standing at the Butterworth railway station in 1985. Photo (C) M.W. Jones

The Ganz-MAVAG Railbus

Like the BREL railbus demonstrator, the Ganz MAVAG railbus body was built by a bus manufacturer, Ikarus of Budapest, and was also a two-car unit. The Ganz MAVAG railbus demonstrator unit was equipped with buffers, which differs significantly from the final production version eventually supplied to KTM. Trials with the demonstrator took place in 1985 – 1986, at the end of which period the unit had racked up almost 180,000km in service mileage. There is no information as to what was the ultimate fate of this demonstrator unit, but given that order for production version went ahead, we speculate that it remained in service for some time before finally being stored due to any number of issues and ultimately getting cut up.

The Ganz MAVAG demonstrator railbus standing at what is probably the Paloh railway station in Johor during its trial service with KTM. Note the buffers.
The demonstrator interior. The production series didn’t deviate much except its moquette was green in colour and the seatback was beige.
Owing the near-ground-level of most KTM station platforms, stairs to board the train was necessary, as amply illustrated by this picture. Accessibility wasn’t high on the railway industry agenda in the 1980s.

The contract to supply ten (10) units of railbuses, equal numbers 3-car units and 5-car units was signed in 1986, with arrival commencing in 1988.

The production series Ganz Mavag Railbuses in Ipoh. Notice the slightly neater design of the cab face and absence of the buffers which were present on the demonstrator.

Specifications (Production series)

The following is an excerpt from Ganz MAVAG’s documentation describing the supplied production railbuses:

“The underframe and the superstructure form a monocoque load bearing shell. The members of the frame structure and the body sheathing arc joined by welding.

There is a special semi permanent connection between the cars. The construction of the drawgear makes possible the independent vertical displacement or rolling around the longitudinal axis of the cars.

Each cab end of the railbus is provided with an automatic buckeye coupler. (
By this time KTM was still using the old Multi-Couple Adaptor – MCA – coupler for its other rolling stock, though conversion to buckeye would be started shortly after – Ed.).

Cars A,B,C and E are supported on one end by a driving wheelset , and trailer wheelset on the other, with the exception of the D-car which ahs driving wheelset on both ends. The wheelsets with TBU (double row) are flexibly connected to the carbody by means of a longitudinal traction rods. Longitudinal forces are transmitted by the rods through wear-resistant rubber which enables vertical and lateral displacing movements of the car. The arrangement of the welded axle boxes provide adequate space for the steel coil springs located on both sides of the axle.

Lateral flexible displacement between the wheelsets and the carbody is provided by the flexicoil springs and by the laminated rubber spring series connected to the former ones. The vertical and transverse vibrations of the carbody are damped by means of hydraulic shock absorbers.

All wheelsets are braked, performed by tread brake unit mounted on the running gear, and is not mechanically connected to the underframe. On one side of the axle box is suspended a tread brake unit with automatic slack adjuster – braking force is directly transmitted to it. Braking is effected by brake blocks. Onto the trailer wheelsets below the driver’s cab, a spring applied brake unit functions as the parking brake.

The following table summarises the technical details of the production series, with the demonstrator 2-car unit specs thrown in where available.

TransmissionDiesel-Hydraulic (DHMU)
EngineCummins NTA855R (Four stroke, six-cylinder horizontal, turbocharged, charge air cooled, water cooled)
140mm bore, 152mm stroke
Engine power (per unit)254kW
GearboxTwin-Disc TAC22-1304 (2-gear speeds with gear ratio of 1:3,126)
Generator28V 5kW V-belt CAV 203R/180
BatteryLead acid AMCO 3×4 KML 17/19D 400AH @ 24V
Maximum operational speed100km/h
Composition / configuration3-car units:
5-car units:


RBC – Power car with end cab, RBT – trailer car, RBP – power car
Numbers3-car units:
Set 1: RBC5001-RBT5201-RBC5002
Set 2: RBC5003-RBT5203-RBC5004
Set 3: RBC5005-RBT5205-RBC5006
Set 4: RBC5007-RBT5207-RBC5008
Set 5: RBC5009-RBT5209-RBC5010

5-car units:
Set 6: RBC5011-RBT5211-RBP5101-RBT5202-RBC5012
Set 7: RBC5013-RBT5213-RBP5103-RBT5204-RBC5014
Set 8: RBC5015-RBT5215-RBP5105-RBT5206-RBC5016
Set 9: RBC5017-RBT5217-RBP5107-RBT5208-RBC5018
Set 10: RBC5019-RBT5219-RBP5109-RBT5210-RBC5020
Weight2-car unit: 32t
3-car units: (Not specified – 43t was stated in the demonstrator brochure)
5-car units: (Not specified)
3-car units: 36,100mm
5-car units: 57,400mm

Width: 2600mm
Wheelbase of sections: 8,500mm
Base of driven wheelsets: 2,200m
Height over railhead: 3,505mm (3,600mm in the demonstrator brochure)
Coupler height: 850mm
Floor height over railhead: 1,200mm
Wheel diameter (new): 850mm
Passenger capacity (Seating)2-car unit: 86
3-car units: 123 (120 in the demonstrator brochure)
5-car units: 198
MU WorkingTwo (2) sets
Wheel configuration2-car unit: 1-B-1
3-car units: 1-B-B-1
5-car units: 1-B-B-1-1-B-1
Fuel tank capacity3-car units: 1x 1,000l (diesel)
5-car units: 2x 1,000l (diesel)
Maximum range per tank fill800km
Toilets3-car unit: 1 (direct discharge, with 600l water tank)
5-car unit: 2 (direct discharge, with 600l water tank)
Door typeSingle leaf slide plug door
Brake type & performanceTread brake with spring-applied parking brake;

Maximum stopping distance:
3-car unit: 460m empty, 590m loaded
5-car unit: 470m empty, 580m loaded
A Ganz MAVAG promotional video. Note that it features both the demonstrator and production versions. Check out PM Mahathir’s visit to the Ganz MAVAG plant in Hungary.
2-car set (demonstrator) layout
3-car set (production) layout
5-car set (production) layout

The railbuses served many corridors of the network, starting in Johor (between Kulai and Singapore) in 1988. This was followed by services between KL – Ipoh, Ipoh Butterworth, Butterworth – Arau, and even on the East Coast. On 24 April 1989 the railbuses were used to run what would later be the Komuter service operated with EMUs, between Sentul and Port Klang. While the services run with the buses were popular, what was not quite so was the fact that the units were not air-conditioned – they didn’t even have fans! Given the sultry Malaysian daytime heat and humidity, it made for a very uncomfortable ride experience, especially during long layovers at stations or loops waiting to cross with another train. At least the windows were openable, though one would have to be standing in order to get any degree of cooling as the opening part was signficantly high, at the head level.

Launching of the Port Klang – Sentul railbus service on 24 April 1989

Later Years

Not so late, but barely five years in fact. By late 1993 or thereabouts, the railbuses were withdrawn from service and were spotted derelict in the grounds of the Sentul workshop as well as the old yard in Tapah Road. They were struck off the register in 1998. Some individual cars eventually found their way to Thailand, having been sold to a British firm, Barclay Mowlem, which was involved in track rehabilitation works there on the SRT network. It was apparently used as crew transport and accommodation.

The Palm Resort Special Railbus
The Palm Resort special railbus functioned as a rail shuttle service between Singapore Tanjung Pagar and Senai for golfers teeing off at the resort not far from Senai in Johor, and consequently sported the livery of the same. We do not know of its origins – was it bought together when KTM placed its order in 1986, or was it ordered separately, or was it even a rebranded railbus bought from KTMB? One three-car set (Set No. 2) was struck off the register very soon after service. KTM’s records of 1993 shows only 9 sets in its registry, with set no. 2 ostensibly missing. We initially thought it was sold off to the Palm Resort in Johor, but this is something we now cannot confirm. While the rest of its siblings were decomissioned after a relatively short bout of service, the Palm Resort railbus could still be seen lying idle at the Singapore Tanjung Pagar station as late as the year 2000. Its current whereabouts is unknown, but very likely it has been scrapped.

UPDATE MAY 2024: Based on a 1996 Ganz Hunslet brochure, this was ordered separately by a company in Singapore, which ordered two (2) 2-car units in 1992.

The Palm Resort special railbus at the Singapore Tanjung Pagar station in 2000. We initially thought it was set no. 2 from KTM which was missing from its registry since 1993. But the headlight configuration is different (twin bulbs close together) from the ones used by KTM, and these sets appear to be air-conditioned (Note the AC unit on the roof). Another photo, below, shows there are two 2-car sets bearing the same livery. KTMB only had 3- and 5-car sets. We have since gained information that these sets were ordered separately later by a private company in Singapore, to run on the KTMB rail network. Photo (C) M.W. Jones

Railbus Demise: Speculation
Why were the sets withdrawn after a very short stint with KTM? Again, another speculation from our side: Following KTM’s corporatisation in 1992, which saw KTM becoming a limited company (KTMB Berhad – KTMB), there was reportedly a massive resignation of a lot of maintenance engineers from the company. Ganz MAVAG itself was acquired by a British company (Telfos) in 1989, and it became known as Ganz Hunslet. Shortly thereafter in 1992 Ganz Hunslet itself was acquired by the Jenbacher Transport Systeme (JTS) of Austria. During these parallel turbulences experienced by both the operator KTMB and the manufacturer, we imagine spares procurement became a problem as was maintenance management. Things must have come to a head that eventually after all that can be done was done, there was left no set in serviceable condition. As the double tracking construction project in the Klang Valley (KVDT) was in full force and not far from completion (which became eventual in 1994), and the arrival of brand new EMUs for running of commuter service imminent (which were, ironically, manufactured by Ganz Hunslet’s parent company, the aforementioned JTS, in the form of what became the Class 81 EMU), it must have been thought that there was little sense to be made from trying to keep the poorly railbus fleet running.

And there we have the history of the KTM railbuses. KTMB would not return to the use of DMUs until the 2021 introduction of the Class 61 DMU from CRRC Zhuzhou.

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