The International Steam Pages

Steam in Borneo, January 2001

For other reports see:

The return to steam of Vulcan Foundry 2-6-2s (6-015 and latterly 6-016) on the Keretapi Negeri Sabah (Sabah State Railway) in East Malaysia by the 'North Borneo Railway' has been covered in these pages over the last year or so. Hans Hufnagel was here in July 2000. In January 2001, I joined a group from Enthusiast Holidays for a few days as part of their extended south-east Asian tour. I flew in from Beijing from where I had been in Manchuria for the previous 3 weeks. Going from -50C to 30C in the space of just three days was an interesting experience. First impressions were not favourable, why do tour groups always pick the most expensive (and isolated) hotel in town (well there was a good reason this time - the Sutera hotels are one of the partners in the railway project)? Kota Kinabalu (KK) is of no interest to anyone, no part of it dates from before the second World War and it seems to be intent on converting itself into a concrete jungle.  However, the business centre got my Emails, there was a shuttle bus to town where I could ensure a stock of essentials for the fridge and the railway was only 20 (sticky) minutes walk away. Better still, the hotel/railway laid on a small buffet with 'free' drinks in the evening and I found I was sharing and would avoid a heavy single supplement. The weather which was overcast throughout my first day, gradually improved to give extended periods of sunshine although the pools of water from the recent rains meant that humidity levels were 'Sumatran' - i.e. about 100%. Unlike most of my personal trips which are very definitely of the independent type, the success of this one was thanks to several people and organisations.

Saturday January 20th 2001

The tour group was full of familiar individuals, at least two of whom had been with me to Java. After lengthy negotiations, the tour leader, Hugh Ballantyne, had persuaded the powers that be to let us take 6-015 up the Padas Gorge to Tenom on a mixed train on the Sunday. But today there was the regular tourist train to Papar. I griced the preserved locos at the Sabah Museum (a Sentinel 0-4-0 tram loco, a delightful Hunslet 4-6-4T and another example of the same class which had been rebuilt as a 4-6-0), before opening time. A quick transfer to the station found 6-014 intact but rusty and 6-016 cold but probably serviceable although not properly run in. There were more than a dozen Japanese diesels between 10 and 30 years old, few of which were runners, money and spare parts being a problem. There were also numerous wagons, coaches and railcars, vastly more than the railway would need. The passenger service was surprisingly generous (and cheap) but it had clearly lost out to the buses which ran every few minutes and were not that more expensive. The whole railway  had the atmosphere of a large social service operation. 

Promptly at 10.00, 6-015 left on the tourist train, preceded by a railcar with no more than a dozen passengers. We had no expectations of a master shot nor did we get one, the sun was high and there were poles in front and a busy dual carriageway behind. Time was on my side, so I retired to town to restock body fluids and the fridge, and to rest until the afternoon action.

Tourist train at TT

The tourist train arrived punctually at 13.15, straight out of a near vertical sun. We then had to wait until 15.00 by which time 6-015 had been turned, watered, fueled and a vintage 'mixed train' prepared. We had originally hoped to get Beaufort where the train would stable overnight, but wiser councils prevailed and the group left the train at Papar at 18.00 and boarded a swiftly chartered bus to get back to Kota Kinabalu for 19.00. On the way the light stayed generally good and we had several very pleasant run-pasts, for the most part either side of the stations en route, the vegetation elsewhere generally being of the elephant grass variety. It was an excellent afternoon out - with a train the like of which had scarcely been seen since 1972.

Arriving at Kinarut

Arriving at Kawang

Sunday January 21st 2001

We had a 05.30 start to get to Beaufort for an 08.00 departure up the Padas Gorge, 50km to Tenom - an impressive bit of railway building if ever there was one. The line is never more than 100m from the river which is a permanent raging torrent and usually less than 10m with tropical rain forest towering vertically above the line for 200m or more. It is subject to frequent landslips and its survival owes itself to the fact that no-one in their right mind today would try to put a road up the gorge. Not surprisingly, photography is limited and the weather is fickle. We left the blue sky at the coast, went through Sabah grey-black cloud before the sun broke through at 11.30 when the lighting was harsh and by the time the sun started to drop again and the train was ready to go back, it was pouring with rain. Nevertheless, we had many stops and, if the photographic results were sure to be ordinary (or worse), I was more than happy to see steam on a railway I had read about long ago and resolved to visit one day. The rest of the group vanished at 14.00 at Tenom for the airport for the next part of the tour. Paul Thompson and I hung on for the return journey, which started in the rain at 16.00. We had a long wait at Rayoh for the service train, then rattled on in the twilight with the clouds and mist shrouding the hills above us. As darkness fell, we were treated to fireworks whenever the loco accelerated away from the innumerable cautions caused by the state of the track. By the time we got to Beaufort at 19.00, the loco was out of wood. So we and most of the crew abandoned it and grabbed a railcar out of the shed to return to base. We had to be let out of the locked station at 22.00 but the bar next door was open and served us a beer and a noodle dinner. We ended the long day with an interesting tour of KK before we found our new hotel - anonymous on the voucher unfortunately....

The perils of a group tour

Heading for Haligolat

Passing quarry siding

Arrival at Haligolat

Heading for Rayoh

Arrival at Rayoh

Pangi Station

Monday/Tuesday January 22nd/23rd 2001

For the next two days, Paul and I climbed Mount Kinabalu, at over 4000m the highest peak in south-east Asia. From KK, transport takes you to the park HQ where you are issued with the appropriate permits and allocated a guide (obligatory). Starting from just over 1800m in the late morning you are faced with a stiff climb to the rest house at Laban Rata (3200m). Compared to the typical Javanese volcano I have climbed (9 in the last 5 years), the conditions are better and the rest house has quite acceptable overnight facilities (heated bunk rooms, wash rooms, food and drink etc). After the overnight, the traditional start is at 03.00 for a climb to the summit over mainly open rock with fixed ropes available. Expect to share the climb with dozens of Malaysian students. After the sun rise and obligatory photos, you return to the rest house for a late breakfast and then descend to the HQ again for return to KK. Climbing times will depend on you personal age and fitness - around 4.5 hours from the park gate to Laban Rata, 3 hours from there to the summit, with about 1 hour less for each sector coming down, would be a good average.

Wednesday January 24th 2001

Today I was the guest of the North Borneo Railway on the regular tourist run to Papar and back. The background to the operation is covered elsewhere in these pages. The train has now been running for a year and is an established part of the Sabah tourist trail. Loadings have been variable and although the train more than covers its operating costs, it is still some way from making a good return on the considerable investment in it. Apart from the twice weekly run, there is a growing charter market, mainly for the 'normal' tourist market although several small Japanese enthusiast groups have visited. On both the occasions I saw the train it was about 50% full (capacity is about 180 passengers) which actually made for a very comfortable ride. For once I can say that the performance came up to the standards promised in the marketing material. The rolling stock was comfortable rather than luxurious, but clean and apparently well maintained. The staff worked as a team and clearly enjoyed their job. We had a very pleasant 'tiffin', which was a variety of snacks, and drinks to order. The 3 hour round trip seems about right for the attention span of the average tourist, the scenery is quite pleasant at the far end where the railway leaves the road, although for the first quarter of the journey the main road next door is intrusive. There is a 20 minute stop at Kinarut on the outbound journey to visit a small Chinese temple and it would have helped if there had been something worth seeing in Papar as well. It is definitely a 'premium price' train and listening to the conversations around me it was clear that some of the passengers were the kind of people who would have also travelled on the Bangkok-Singapore E&O service. Quite a change from riding the miners' trains at Hegang a week earlier!

Some concluding thoughts:

The Sabah State Railway must be well up the 'most isolated railway in the world' chart. It is some way from other steam attractions, and few enthusiasts would feel it worth a special trip just to see the tourist train. The Enthusiast Holidays group was going on to Cambodia and Myanmar, it might also be worth considering combining it with a trip to Java. For most of you reading this report, I suspect that the tourist train would be of little interest as it runs in the middle of the day along the least interesting part of the railway. Photographically it would be extremely challenging, apart from the high mid-day sun, there are poles and wires everywhere on the roadside section and away from the road, the vegetation would be a problem.

However, I do think there are real opportunities here for organised groups. The railway is keen to encourage special trains and proved to be very co-operative. I think that the group I joined would agree that not enough time had been allowed. For what it is worth, I would suggest the following as the basis for a good trip, using the kind of rolling stock we had to recreate an authentic North Borneo train Please contact the North Borneo Railway for a quotation etc Email :

Day 1: Leisurely journey from Kota Kinabalu to Beaufort, with an early start, a layover in Papar for several hours at midday, afternoon continue to Beaufort (overnight). This would allow plenty of time to take advantage of the limited photographic opportunities on this section. It would best be done on a Sunday when service level is low on this section.

Day 2: Beaufort to Tenom up the Padas Gorge. Plenty of time needs to be allowed here because of the service trains and the unpredictable weather. Overnight in Tenom.

Day 3: Tenom to Beaufort down the Padas Gorge, return to Kota Kinabalu by bus from Beaufort.

(The Enthusiast Holidays group went back from Tenom by bus because it was not known in advance for certain that the steam locomotive would be allowed that far. In retrospect I am sure they would not have planned for this as the journey took longer than expected and they nearly missed their plane....)


Hugh Ballantyne for making the effort to get a steam train where no-one else had managed since 1972 (Tenom).

Paul Thompson for fixing our two days up the mountain while I was in China and in no position to do anything about it. Adrian Chin (Email at Borneo Eco Tours for facilitating a faultless trip up Mount Kinabalu.

Mr. Siva, the train operation manager, and the whole staff of the North Borneo Railway Company and the Keretapi Negeri Sabah for their help and enthusiasm in dealing with what was, for them, was a totally novel situation.

Rob Dickinson