The North Borneo Railway: Steaming Back in Time

The fireman throws logs into the already roaring fire, the whistle blows, and in a cloud of steam and smoke, locomotive number 6-016 chuffs out into a sun-drenched North Borneo morning. Behind it rumble five carriages and a kitchen car painted in the green and cream livery of the old North Borneo Railway. A part of Sabah’s colonial past has come back to life.

The locomotive was built at the Vulcan Foundry in Newton-le-Willows, Lancashire, England in 1954. One of a batch of three ordered for the North Borneo Railway, this was one of the last steam locomotives ever made at the foundry before production was converted to diesel.

Another of the three locomotives, number 6-015, is still in good working order and sometimes takes over duties on this twice weekly 76-kilometre journey from Tanjung Aru to Papar and back.

Sutera Harbour Resort is the operator of the service, although non-guests are equally welcome. Passengers are greeted at the station by staff wearing khakis, pith helmets and starched white shirts. But it’s only the shirts that are starchy. The people wearing them are full of smiles and will cheerfully pose for photographs. They are also very well informed and happy to answer questions about the service and the train.

Construction of the railway began in 1896 under the guidance of engineer Arthur J West of the British North Borneo Company. A one-metre gauge line was laid from Beaufort to the port at Weston, and was originally intended for the transport of tobacco.

In 1903 a second line was built from Beaufort north along the coast to Jesselton, the modern-day Kota Kinabalu. The line was extended in 1905 southeast to Tenom and again in 1906 from Tenom to Melalap. West had intended to continue the network as far as Kenningau but he was transferred to Australia before work could commence.

Jesselton station was closed in 1974. Indeed there is little left of old Jesselton save for the remnants of railway track embedded in the old pier at Jesselton Point. Most of the area has since been redeveloped. The journey now starts at Tanjung Aru just to the west of present-day Kota Kinabalu.

The train departs at 10.00am. Passengers start arriving around 9.00am and take turns posing for photos with the engine. The station PA is blasting out Louis Jordan’s Choo Choo Ch’boogie and other classic tunes from the swing era. Finally the last few passengers climb aboard, the guard waves his flag, and we’re off. To the right the main road out of town squeezes between the railway and the sea. On the left, beyond the auto workshops and stilt villages, the distant blue mountains of the Crocker Range National Park form a hazy backdrop.

A light breakfast is served as the train rolls through the countryside, with Danish pastries and croissants, and coffee or a choice of Earl Grey or locally grown Teh Sabah teas. The latter is a worthwhile choice and makes a very pleasant brew.

The carriages are Japanese designed and although they were built in the 1970s they have been refurbished to reflect the golden age of steam, using polished brass and local wood. Passengers sit two per table so everyone gets a window seat.

After passing the village of Putatan the railway line veers away from the road and heads toward the town of Kinarut. This is an old market town with a number of wooden shophouses and the large Tsim Shen Tsui Buddhist temple to explore, with its grounds including 18 statues of monks, a 20-foot tall smiling Buddha and a lotus pond dedicated Kwan Yin, the goddess of mercy.

The stop is a brief one and soon we are rolling along again towards Kawang, past rice paddies, orchards and mangroves. After Kawang we plunge into the 450-metre Pengalat tunnel, the only tunnel on the entire network before crossing a steel trestle bridge over the river and into the town of Papar.

There is a 30-minute stop at Papar and many of the passengers go off to explore the old market while the remainder stay on the platform to watch the locomotive head to the turntable and the water tower to prepare for the return journey.

It is easy to see why these old trains inspire the imagination. With their big wheels, steamy breath and the clanking of the con-rods, they seem almost to be alive, and the fire burning at the heart of the engine sends out a warmth and fragrance that feels welcoming, even in this tropical heat.

Lunch is served on the return journey. Chicken satay, spiced mackerel, stir-fried vegetables with prawns and chicken biryani rice served in old-style tiffin tins and garnished with the occasional whiff of steam drifting in through the open window and the gentle chuff and clank of the locomotive up ahead.

The little train to Tenom

The North Borneo Railway service goes only as far as Papar but there is more to the railway network and it is well worth exploring. For that, though, you will need to use the regular trains of Sabah State Railways. The first of these leaves Tanjung Aru at 7.45am and takes a little under two hours to reach Beaufort.

Beaufort is a charming little town and well worth dallying in for a couple of hours. Saunter along the wooden sidewalks of Jalan Chung, a broad lane flanked on both sides by old wooden shophouses, built on stilts to protect them from periodic flooding of the Padas River. Each row contains half a dozen shops selling everything from mobile phones to mops and brushes, and there is a wonderfully faded kopitiam (a traditional coffee shop) that probably hasn’t changed much since it was built. The chipped and grubby painted wooden walls might not look too appealing but the kopitiam’s patrons are a friendly bunch and the coffee – a potent but mellow brew with chocolaty overtones and a dollop of condensed milk in the bottom of the glass – is enriched with old-fashioned hospitality.

The line from Beaufort to Weston was closed in 1963, so the remaining stretch is from Beaufort to Tenom. There is only one train in each direction per day and this seems to operate mainly for the benefit of schoolchildren making their way home to small villages from their schools in the towns. It is the least comfortable service but it does pass through the most luxuriant scenery on the network.

The afternoon train leaves at 1.30pm. Two disreputable, faded red and cream carriages and a baggage van are pulled by a grubby green diesel. According to the timetable there are only four stops between Beaufort and Tenom but that doesn’t include the many small halts that serve the nearby villages.

The line follows the bank of the Padas River as it cuts across the southern end of the Crocker Range, passing plantations and forests that rise from the far bank of the river and finally arriving in Tenom at around 4.00pm.

Tenom is a modern town with nothing much to see or do but there are hotels and guesthouses, and the cool evenings are refreshing. So stay for the night and tomorrow you can wander up the road to Keninggau from where you can explore the Crocker Range National Park or climb Mount Trus Madi, Malaysia’s second highest peak.

The North Borneo Railway operates on Wednesdays and Saturdays and bookings should be made through the Sutera Harbour Resort.

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