The International Steam Pages

A Visit to the Sabah State Railway

For other reports see:

Andrew Robinson reports on his visit to Sabah in September 2008 - Andrew has since returned:

The first stop of the day was the Sabah State Musuem, housed in a large concrete building that is in the shape of a traditional longhouse. Inside the museum there is a fascinating history of the Malay tribal culture, costume and social history. There is also an impressive display relating to Jesselton (the old name for Kota Kinabalu) before and during the second world war. The town was totally destroyed by allied bombing to prevent it falling into Japanese hands. This sad part of the city’s history almost seems to be a source of pride as there are a number of reminders of the destruction of the old town, both at the museum and around this district.

Outside the museum are several British-built steam locomotives from the North Borneo Railway, including a steam tram.

Across the stream (spanned by a particularly bouncy swing bridge) is a replica traditional Malay village. It is landscaped with ponds and surrounded by bush, creating the impression that you are in a remote part of the jungle even though the tops of high rise buildings were just visible in the distance. The design of the houses is particularly suited to the climate with the breeze blowing through the long stilts beneath the floor keeping the interior cool and large eaves keeping the hot sun out.

During our visit the Sabah State Railway was nominally closed for rebuilding. However we were aware that a portion of the route through the Beaufort Gorge was open to serve residents who would otherwise be isolated in this roadless part of the world.

At the bus terminal we quickly found where the minibus for Beaufort departed from. There wasn’t any sign of anything happening so we wandered over to the waters edge to admire the old wooden boats that carry people and goods to the many islands. The minibus turned out to be a rusty old Toyota van that was instantly mobbed by locals. I was initially disappointed that there wasn’t room for us to squeeze into the hot cramped van, but when it drove away a baby started to scream so I was grateful to have avoided that. On the other side of the bus terminal a full sized bus was going to make the same journey in an hours time so we booked on and went to stock up on provisions from the nearby shopping mall.

There were two bakeries facing each other, each with cakes, buns and rolls all laughably cheap prices. After stocking up on these and a small selection of the bizarre range of cold drinks from the nearby supermarket, we commenced the journey.

The reconstruction of the railway is very extensive with new sub-base ballast having been laid over much of the coastal route and strategically placed new concrete sleepers piled up along the formation. It looked as though the original rails were being re-used as wear on this line would only be moderate. The bridges had also been refurbished.

The rehabilitation is being managed to KTMB (the government railway company from Peninsular Malaysia and the work to date seems to have been done to a high standard although the project is running behind schedule. This has meant the steam hauled tourist train that runs from Tanjung Aru to Papar hasn’t operated for a couple of years. Just south of Papar, there was an impressive collection of ballast regulators, tamper and other track machines presumably making their way north to re-unify the railway.

Beaufort is quite a reasonable sized town although seemed a bit sleepy on the day we visited. The bus delivered us to the railway station which was also the taxi station and bus terminal. We soon came to the realisation that the train was running but would return us to Beaufort after the bus had left for Kota Kinabalu. A quick chat with the taxi drivers resulted in a fairly dubious response as to whether they would get us back to the capital. The travel guide also noted the less than palatial options travellers faced if they missed the last connection north. But we had travelled a long way to take this train so the costs of the consequences of proceeding at this stage were less than the cost of coming back on another occasion. The manager of the ESSO service station had been watching us exploring the options and said we should call back to see him after the train journey and he would see what he could come up with.

There is quite an extensive depot at Beaufort and it is home to several Japanese diesel-hydraulic locomotives, British built railcars and carriages. The collection extends to some very early outside-frame wagons and a colourful selection of motorised jiggers, a couple of which had numerous components from an old car.

Since the depot was wide-open we figured they were not too averse to visitors checking out the collection. I suspect there are a few museums that would enjoy having some of the older vehicles in their collection. Presumably because of the railway's isolation and relatively short length (less than 150 km) the vehicles have not worn out or faced obsolescence to the degree that they would have on other networks. One of the staff noticed that we were taking an interest and invited us to open the engine covers on a diesel locomotive as well as clamber into the cab. He also checked out the schedule for us, the 4.30 pm departure that we were planning to catch had been cancelled, but there was a charter booked for 4.00 pm that we were welcome to join.

The North Borneo Railway now known as the Sabah State Railway must be one of the few National Railway systems in the world never to have operated diesel-electric locomotives. The most recent addition to the fleet (excluding the equipment bought across from Peninsular Malaysia for reconstruction work) seemed to be an Italian Railcar. It was a sizable machine and quite impressive in its spotless orange and blue livery, although it was a bit box-like.

In the lead-up to 4.00 a reasonable number of locals arrived and sat down on the platform at the extremely clean, expansive and modern station. The building seemed at odds with the half-closed railway it serves. We eventually managed to coax a staff member to the ticket window who told us to buy a ticket on the train. After enquiring how much the fare was for this rare and wonderful journey into the jungle we discovered that it was amazingly cheap; the 40km round trip costing about a half a packet of crisps. This was all reassuring but there was a distinct lack of action from the depot adjacent to the station. No one seemed perturbed and everyone happily stared into space. The morning train had consisted of one of the diesel hydraulic locomotives, a carriage and a dead railcar, but that had been stabled back in the depot with some enthusiasm. A few minutes before 4.45 promising sounds came from the depot and an old rail car timidly emerged into the daylight and meandered its way through the yard and over to the platform. In true Rev Awdry fashion everyone “got on quickly, and guard blew his whistle and the train sped away”.

During our visit this section of the line was a mix of refurbished and unrefurbished track. As we made our way through the outskirts of town we passed a work train with some quite impressive ballast wagons on it and a road crossing with its own crossing keeper. Before long the railcar entered the Padas River Gorge. The gorge must have been extremely imposing for the railway construction workers as the broad milk-chocolate coloured river has carved a winding path through the mountainous terrain. The many tributaries joining the river from the side of the gorge have had to be bridged by the railway company. On several of the tight bends erosion has been a major issue and a massive amount of work is being undertaken to create large rock embankments to protect the railway.

The guard was smartly dressed in his freshly pressed uniform and while taking his role seriously was happily smiling and chatting with passengers as he collected the fares, although he was a bit perturbed when a passenger presented a RM5 note that almost wiped out his float. By this stage, the old railcar was bounding along at quite a pace, rolling and pitching as if followed the tortuous route. The stations along the line varied considerably from very simple and rather dilapidated shelters to grand and modern structures which seemed a little out of place in the roadless gorge, with only a couple of houses or a small school nearby.

The aisle of the railcar extends right to the front of the vehicle, so that you can move between railcars coupled in multiple. It also mean that you can get a driver’s eye view as well as check out what the driver is up to. The driver’s compartment is very small and our driver occupied every inch of it. The controls and instruments were fairly original but in keeping with the rest of the machine.

Despite reports I had heard to the contrary, the track was in pretty good order including the older sections. The bouncing and pitching was due to the narrow gauge (metre) of the line, the many tight curves of the snaking track and the 50 year old design of the suspension. Although well within the railcars limits the journey was an exciting one for us although the locals all took it in their stride. Passengers were dropped off at the various stations and halts along the line, quickly vanishing down the paths into the jungle, often giving us a final smile and wave. Alongside the track were a couple of homemade trolleys that must be used for moving goods between houses, farms and villages. They worked on the basis of the Lady Barclay principle with separate wheels for vertical and horizontal gradients; in this instance the “wheels” were strategically placed bearings.

Haligolat was the last stop where the remaining passengers disembarked and the charter group joined the train. They had been on a commercial rafting adventure through the gorge and the train was an ideal means of getting them back to their bus. They were in high spirits and added some colour to the spartan interior of the railcar with its green vinyl seats and dark cream paintwork. We retraced our journey through the gorge and all too soon were back at the Beaufort station. It had been a thoroughly enjoyable journey. Once the railway is open in its entirety, it must surely have the diversity of scenery, geography and equipment to make it one of the “must do” rail journeys of the world. Currently there are plans to extend the railway over track bed long surrendered, which will be an exciting development. I only hope that the charm of this railway will be preserved and it won’t be modernised or made touristy at the expense of being the affordable transport mode for locals that has ensured its survival to date.

We quickly discovered that we had two transport options for the trip north to Kota Kinabalu. The ESSO man had contacted a friend in the Sabah 4 wheel drive club (this must be a brilliant club to belong to as there will be hundreds of trails to remote and exotic places) who was happy to take us north; and a taxi that had one passenger to take north but decided to wait to see if we wanted to join him. After a quick discussion between all parties we were soon speeding north in the taxi. The journey time and distance is similar to Dunedin to Oamaru and cost around $8 each, great value for money. The journey was uneventful apart from some slightly dodgy overtaking by other vehicles leaving us very little of the well-maintained carriageway to drive on. Fireworks and large community gatherings also suggested that the day was of special significance, as did the heavy traffic encountered earlier in the day.

The following day it soon became apparent that airline rescheduling was in danger of disrupting our journey. This was the third instance that a confirmed booking had been altered by 24 hours on this trip. The first two had been resolved before we left but this one was more complex, and to make things more interesting, the accommodation broker had collapsed, taking with it our money. The others set sail with a fast-talking man in a small boat to one of the many tropical islands on the horizon while I made phone calls and sent emails to try and sort out the muddle. This was more difficult than it seemed as we were clashing with an event or festival in the next destination, with sky-high prices being quoted. Eventually I made cancellations and reservations that would hopefully work and limit the financial damage while still making for plenty of fun over the next couple of days. Once back in the daylight I found the fast-talking man with the boat. He proudly told me that my friends had moved to a different island and the next boat was going there tomorrow.

Having passed the Tanjung Aru station the previous day and seen a number of old wagons parked nearby I decided to check this out. It was a bit of a gamble as this section of railway had been closed for many months due to most of the track having been removed so getting access could be tricky.

Guarding the station entrance is an old Hunslet diesel, a chain drive affair that had been powered by a Gardner 8LW. The immaculately presented “North Borneo Railway” tourist train was parked at the platform, the delays to the track refurbishment must be causing immense frustration to this private company. I exchanged pleasantries with a railway official who did not speak English but seemed pleased that I was taking an interest in their endeavours.

In the distance, on the other side of high chain mesh fence I could see more equipment and a number of sizable buildings. Despite the railway having almost no serviceable track, I had no trouble attracting someone to the ticket window. He said that I could go through the “staff only” gate provided the “other men” were happy. He had seemed pretty happy to me so I wandered through into the yard. The northernmost buildings were the State Railways workshops. I don’t think I have ever encountered a more intriguing complex. The locomotives, carriages and railcars are being refurbished in anticipation for the re-opening of the line. In some instances the refurbishment seemed to consist of a quick paint job while some of the large diesel hydraulic locomotives were receiving an extensive overhaul. A few of the older examples seemed to be long-term projects and had accumulated a reasonable amount of grime. Like most modern depots, the main building has elevated rails and walkways. At the back of the depot was an old grey open platform outside frame wooden 4 wheeled guards van. Its English ancestry was clear and it seemed in excellent order for its age. On close examination I discovered that I had been built as a 3’ 6” vehicle and re gauged, the alterations being clearly visible.

There was some weird and wonderful old machinery in the machine shop, some of it powered by overhead shafts. However, because of the railway’s remoteness, being fully equipped for the engineering requirements for the fleet is essential. Retaining the old machines is probably doubly important as the workshop also looks after the overhaul and maintenance needs of the two Vulcan Steam locomotives that operate the tourist services.

These large wood-burning tender locomotives are the very last steam locomotives that Vulcan built. There is a third identical locomotive in the workshop, although its condition is described as “no good’. The two that are “good” are very tidily presented and it will be great to see them re-emerge onto the refurbished railway.

The depot is also home to a large number of motorised rail trolleys, some of which are brightly coloured and seemed tourist friendly. Two more of the small Gardner-powered Hunslets were lurking in the shadows and in the distance were a number of 4 wheel tank wagons of different shapes and sizes.

Having exhausted the workshop possibilities I followed the disused railway back toward the city. Despite carrying its last train in 1973 a reasonable portion of the track remains.

After dinner we set about exploring the down town area, with its wide well-ordered streets. The water-front area is particularly attractive by night and we could see small fish swimming beneath the sea wall. The old jetty has had a make-over to make it tourist friendly with an entertainment complex occupying the old freight shed. This is also one of the departure points for the many nearby islands. There are still rails in the wharf left over from when the railway used to run through the city to the wharf.

This is Andrew's April 2011 update.

At the tail end of my last set of notes, I hinted that I'd be curious to hear of any Developments on the Sabah State Railways. Unsurprisingly, even rumours from the rail scene in East Malaysia are almost non-existent, so I parted with a surprisingly small amount of money and deviated from the shortest route from the United Kingdom and returned to Kota Kinabalu. The Sabah Tourism board advised me that the line re-opened from Tanjung Aru at the start of March 2011. This is great news as the reconstruction of the line has been lengthy and seemed to have potential to go on for ever.

The most useful train leaves at 7:45am. I asked for a return trip to the end of the line and was issued with a handwritten docket for RM 9.50 which would take me to Beaufort, which was the best they could offer. The train was entirely made up of the new Chinese stock which was still pristine, right down to the white tyres. As is so common with modern trains, tinted double glazed windows, modern bogies, air conditioning and sound insulation causes you to feel quite detached from the world outside the carriage. The departure was punctual and the train seemed relatively popular, with significant numbers of passengers boarding or alighting at each of the major stops. By Papar, nearly every seat was occupied. At Papar, a new (or reconditioned?) turntable was in the process of being installed for the recommencement of the North Borneo Railway steam service.

To me, Beaufort has a kind of frontier town feel about it. It's a bit rough around the edges but seems to be home to hard working and welcoming folk. After making good use of the coffee and cake cafe opposite the station, I took myself on the customary self-guide tour of the locomotive depot. The depot is in the process of being upgraded and has a raised roof and new concrete floor, with further improvements pending. But alarmingly, the depot was almost devoid of trains. The restored 4 wheel box wagon was there, along with one Wickham railcar having brake repairs, and the Hitachi diesel hydraulic with its usual rake of carriages. But the bogie cattle wagon, Indian railcars, balance of the Wickhams and the other rabble of inspection cars and carriages were absent. I quizzed a few of the staff but they didn't seem to think anything was missing. Also, details of trains bound for the Beaufort Gorge were almost non-existent, although the consensus was either that there were none, or that it ran very early in the morning and I had missed it. The railway is quite departmentalised and no one wanted to guess at what another department was doing, so I returned to the ticket window for a wide-ranging chat about onward trains. Eventually the ticket seller confessed that the train at Platform 2 was actually going to depart at 1:30 bound for Haligolat. Success! But when I offered to purchase a ticket, I was denied one as sales only start at 1pm for that service despite the ticket window being attended all day.

So I set about exploring the town. There is one store that buys grain and other goods in bulk and sells them by the kilo. I was particularly pleased and amused to see that a moderately skinny local cat found the large open bag of cat biscuits and took a self-service approach. None of the locals seemed perturbed at the diminishing stock.

The scenery in the Beaufort Gorge is very attractive, with the sizable winding river being hemmed in by large and imposing hills. There are numerous tight curves and bridges. The track in this portion is unrefurbished, as are the short light weight carriages, which makes for quite a lively ride. One of the locals had ideas of using the on-board wash-room, but after a quick glance inside, he just couldn't face it and fortuously closed the door quickly.

After the locomotive “ran around” the train at Haligolat, I went to have a closer look at the locomotive and was very pleasantly surprised that they'd anticipated this and the usual 2 seats for the crew had been supplemented with a 3rd seat for me. The crew's skill was excellent as they handled the train very well despite a number of things not being in their favour. They were a bit embarrassed by the age and condition of the locomotive and the track, both of which they felt were passed their use-by date. At Saliwangan, we “crossed” the Wickham railcar which was going in the opposite direction. I was pleased to see it on the move and somehow wonder if I'll see it running again, it really is looking like it's nearing the end of its career.

Train Control seems to be via Train Operating Instructions, presumably communicated by phone between the stations which are attended. Once we had our new instructions, we had an uneventful journey back to Beaufort. Just before boarding the sleek express bound for Tanjung Aru, I noticed that all three trains were at their respective platforms, which made Beaufort look quite busy and industrious. Beaufort isn't a big place so a 3 platform station always seemed excessive, although there are always people milling around.

Inside the new trains, there are signs prohibiting Durians (a particularly objectional smelling fruit), pets and raw fish. These seem quite specialist items to ban and the accompanying pictures appealed to my warped sense of humour. Also onboard is a route map that shows a station at each end of the line lying beyond the extent of the current railway. Even on the Beaufort Tanjung Aru portion of the line, there are some extremely tight curves that are subject to speed restrictions. It's a little hard to visualise these new trains tackling the extreme curves and gradients of the Beaufort Gorge and beyond. The 90km journey back to the starting point was accomplished in 3 hours, you don't have to be terribly good at maths to work out that the newly refurbished track and sleek trains aren't going to challenge the bullet trains any time soon. 20 minutes of the delay was incurred at Papar, waiting for a south-bound service. From this point on, we traveled in darkness.

After disembarking at Tanjung Aru, I discovered that there weren't any onward travel options, and the locals just seemed to melt away into the darkness. Closer investigation revealed that passengers took their life in their hands and dashed across the busy four lane motorway and walked for 100m to a long distance bus stop. An English lady could be heard complaining loudly about how utterly mad the whole highway crossing drama was. I clambered into a Toyota Hiace “bus” for the journey back to the city and headed for a well earned Indian Curry.

Historically, this railway has been hard to get to and airfares have been expensive. However, flights from several SE Asian destinations are now laughably cheap and Hotels are great value, there are plenty of other things to do like snorkeling from the offshore islands, exploring markets and checking out the museum. The railway is very cheap to travel on, it is just a shame that it is getting harder to travel on the older stock.

This is Andrew's 2010 update.

Rather unexpectedly, I received the opportunity to revisit the Sabah State Railway in March 2010, as Kota Kinabalu is a hub for both Air Asia and Royal Brunei, meaning I could visit Taiwan cheaply on the way to Europe.

I'd been looking forward to travelling the full length of the line in the rattly old railcars, as the web site indicated that the line had reopened following extended refurbishment. A quick check revealed that all was not well and that we should proceed to Papar to board and that the line was only open as far as Beaufort. On arrival at Papar we were pleased to see a smartly attired station attendant and a large array of tickets looking suspiciously as though they were left over from British Colonial days. After a rather circuitous conversation, we eventually discovered that the freshly laid railway wasn't open and that all the trains operating left from Beaufort. So we left him to his job, surely amongst the world's most boring, and waited in the increasingly intense heat for a south-bound bus. Eventually a youth in a small locally made car pulled up and offered to take us to Beaufort for an extremely fair fare.

The ticket seller at Beaufort then told us that there were no trains today and that we should come back at 5am tomorrow. This wasn't the answer I was looking for so I continued the discussion on what no trains meant. Seemingly his definition excluded 2 trains that were departing for Haligolat in a few hours time. While travelling on this section was really just repeating an earlier journey, it was good to be going somewhere, especially since it was over a line that was officially closed and on a train that didn't run.

To fill in time, we went over to the depot and once again found that the staff were friendly and keen to show us around. The depot manager explained that the problem with the newly laid track was that the new trains (and possibly track bed) were higher than the original and there was insufficient clearance between the top of the trains and cables that crossed the line. This had lead to the sudden postponement of the recommencement of services. Looking around at the old locos, carriages and railcars, I asked what was to become of those. He proudly said "we make them ... scrap metal". Disaster! One of the world's last classic rattly remote railways was being ruined. He confessed to some sentiment for the railcars, remembering having up to 4 multiplied for express runs up the coastal section of the line. On the rare occasions they're now used, I think they are used individually or in 2's as the control system is too leaky for anything more ambitious to be attempted.

The day's train was powered by one of the Japanese diesel hydraulics hauling 2 smallish carriages. The locomotive is seemingly difficult to get parts for, the last shipment coming from Africa despite the locomotive being from Japan. The vacuum brake gear on the loco is unserviceable which meant that the air brakes on the loco braked the whole train, which was adequate although coupling slack created some spectacular jolts for the passengers.

The journey was a little more sedate that it had been by railcar 18 months earlier and was patronized by locals, especially children rather than tourists. The views were even better than I remembered them. I'm told the track is in poor condition between Tenom and Haligolat but a chartered railcar did disappear in that direction during our visit. Seemingly charters are quite cheap and small groups can charter the small Wickham inspection car and explore the line on their own terms.

We also visited the Workshop at Tanjung Aru (near Kota Kinabalu Airport). There, we came face to face with the new Chinese trains. It is the first time I've ever seen a brand new train, these really looked as though they'd never been used. They present quite well but seem grossly excessive for this line, given that few people seem to have been inconvenienced by the lengthy closure of large portions of the line and that fares are very cheap; large air conditioned trainsets featuring new locomotives and driving trailers just seems wrong. The process of tidying up the old trains that we'd seen last time has continued and a lot of the older carriages, locomotives and railcars were looking quite smart. I'm not sure what the future holds for them. The Vulcan steam locos were unchanged from my last visit, with 2 seemingly ready for action and the unrestored one still "no good".

I'd be delighted to hear from anyone who visits this area to hear whether the old trains survive and what portion of the line is open. On the official website, there is mention of plans to reinstate 2 portions of line that were closed and lifted many years ago. I'm guessing that the upgrade of the line to Tenom won't be a fast process either. The Tourism Sabah people are very good at checking on what the railway company is up to and replying to emails in nice English, although it seems things can change very quickly on this line. Everyone encountered was friendly but sometimes getting an answer you can use takes a bit of diplomacy.

Rob Dickinson