Chu-A-Lug in Sabah: The North Borneo Railways

by Ee Lin Wan, Dec 20, 2002 | Destinations: Malaysia / Sabah

The Only Passenger Train Service in Borneo

In the rough and hilly terrain of Borneo, only one passenger train service exists. Despite undergoing more than a century of trials and tribulations -- almost closing down at several stages, trains are still running today. The history of the North Borneo Railway begins in 1880, when the British North Borneo Chartered Company obtained large plots of land from the Sultan or Brunei and the Sulu Sultanate. Gradually, as tobacco became an important crop around 1880 till 1890, the need for an efficient transport system to transport tobacco from the inlands to the factories and ports became essential. The earlier plantations transported their harvests on foot or animal and which fetched good prices at nearby towns. But as the British sold acres and acres of interior land to planters, many found their plot of land in the middle of a tropical jungle with no possible form of communication or transportation available; too far for viable trade and profitability.

Inspired by the efficient railway system in West Malaysia, the British North Borneo Company soon begin the ambitious railway project to link east and west Borneo through the dense jungle, undulating mountain ranges, rivers and swampland. However, the cost to clear the jungle to make way for the railway soon became far too much, even for the rich British North Borneo Company. The railway was diverted from its original route and a line was built from Beaufort to Tenom and Melalap. On the other end, another line was built from Beaufort to Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu and capital of Sabah), which was a major port.

Problems, More Problems

Still, more problems were encountered: the cost of maintaining the railway became another major issue, as it was constantly damaged by fallen trees and locals who look upon the railway as a man-made machine with evil spirits. (And no wonder, as the trains disrupted the peace in the jungle!)

But things changed when rubber became an important commodity. Following the high demand for car tires during the World War I, rubber planted around the Tenom area became an important bulk of the train haulage. Later on, the timber industry benefited from the railroad.

A New Beginning

Today, some 30 years after the steam locomotive trains were replaced by diesel and petrol ones, Sutera Harbour Resort and the Sabah Tourism Association have joined forces to repair and refurbish a 40-year-old steam locomotive to be used as a tourist train.

The original Vulcan 15 steam locomotive, manufactured by Lancashire-based Vulcan Foundry Limited in the United Kingdom, was first brought to Sabah by the colonial-administered North Borneo Railway in 1954. The Vulcan 6-015, a 2-6-2 carrying a green livery with polished boiler bands and red edging to the running plate and tender frame, was de-commissioned for general use in the early 1970?s by the Sabah State Railway Department. It is also the only functional wood-burner trains left in the world today.

Going Back In Time

Tourists to Sabah can once again experience the steam powered locomotive used during the British North Borneo era. The North Borneo Railway steam train has five fully refurbished colonial-style passenger carriages which could each accommodate 36 people. A sixth carriage complements the train with a stylish colonial-era bar car and an observation deck. Both the exterior and interior have been refurnished provide an environment that would have been typical of a train in the 1900s.

The exterior have been repainted with the traditional deep green and cream of the original North Borneo Railway trains, complete with carved brass logos showcasing the original design of a tiger holding a rail wheel standing on a royal crown. The interior is a blend of Victorian-era architecture but the main structures are built using the natural woods of Sabah. Each carriage has a unisex washroom providing the amenities of the modern bathroom. Windows remain open throughout the relaxing trip into the interiors of Sabah and fans lined the ceilings to ensure maximum comfort. A British Pullman carriage is used as a functional kitchen car as well as a powerful generator which provides all electricity requirements.

The Route

The trains run along the Kota Kinabalu - Papar route and travelers can choose from trips between Tanjung Aru and Papar (66km), Tanjung Aru and Beaufort (170km) and Tanjung Aru and Tenom (268km). It transports travelers back into the days of the North Borneo Chartered Company and the British Colonial Office, when colonials from England came out to be planters and plantation owners, cutting into the wilds of unexplored jungle in search of adventure and riches beyond their wildest imaginations.

Passengers on the North Borneo Railway today can also experience a similar adventure, seeing parts of Sabah that are so different from the well-trodden tourist spots in other parts of the states. Here, the entire history of 20th Century Sabah is played out amongst the villages and coastal towns, the paddy fields and the jungles.

Along the way, the railway line is flanked by the mighty Crocker Range which is also home to Mount Kinabalu on one side and the lapping of the South China Sea on the other. The North Borneo Railway of 2002 leaves a legacy far greater than even the young English adventurers could have counted upon. Passengers can see how the indigenous people of Sabah still live. Bright reds of hibiscus run into the oranges of flame trees, while the purple morning-glory wraps itself around the base of the sturdy mangrove. Buffaloes meander along the track or wallow in the mud, in a lazy bucolic world so reminiscent of times gone by.

Peaceful Life

Here, in the undeveloped regions of Borneo, time seems to move at a snail's pace. Proper roads are few and far between, and the people living in the area still rely on the railway as a way to get to larger towns like Kota Kinabalu. As the train moves past Beaufort, the tracks follow the Padas River path, hanging precariously on the gorge overlooking the great river. At one point, the train seems almost gliding on the white water of Padas River.

As it passes through the Lok Kawi Bay, the train slows down to enable passengers to take photographs of the scenery. Passengers will be able to see Kampung Air or the water village, where houses stand precariously on stilts, linked to one other with wooden walkways. Shrimpers and fishermen stand waist-deep in the muddy waters, hard at work on the day's catch.

From the beach, the train speeds through the countryside towards Bongawan and the rivers that flow into Kimanis Bay. The train also passes through Membakut and Lumat before reaching Beaufort. Beaufort is slightly larger than Papar. Its buildings are built on stilts to protect them from the overflowing Padas River during the rainy seasons. Named after one of the Governors of North Borneo, Beaufort is an important collection point for jungle produce from the interior.

At the Beaufort Station, the Vulcan steam engine will be replaced with a diesel engine for the remainder of the journey to Tenom. The train will then leave Beaufort for Saliwangan and onwards to Pangi. After Pangi, Tenom looms just ahead in its strategic position at the junction of the Padas and Pagalan rivers, known as the "Gate to the Interior". The dense jungle foliage creates a natural green wall all along the rest of the line to Tenom. Tenom is the heartland of the Murut community and is known for its coffee and tobacco plantations. In Tenom, the landscape changes once more. Now, passengers can see acres of coffee plantations along the Padas River. By the way, if you are stopping near Tenom, remember to get a cup of authentic Sabah coffee!

Nature Rules!

Along the journey, passengers will be treated to some of the most unique and interesting views of Sabah. On the return leg, passengers will be able to savor "tiffin-styled" meals, a typical railway meal of the turn-of-the-century. Served in tiffin boxes, this unique culinary experience highlights the exotic blend of Asian and continental cuisine.

A return trip to Papar including food costs RM160 per adult passenger and RM80 per child. Services are available twice weekly on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The return journey takes about four hours. Special charter runs to Kimanis Bay or even "the gate of the interior" Tenom, which formed the heart of British North Borneo, cost between RM250 to RM350, including transfers, per person. The special charter must be arranged at least 48 hours before the journey.

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Fact File

For more information and prior reservations, contact the North Borneo Railway at: Tanjung Aru Railway Station, P. O. Box 2047, 88999 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. Tel: +6088-263-933, Fax: +6088-263-933 or

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