The International Steam Pages

North Borneo Railway, December 2011

For other reports see:

Chris Yapp writes about his visit:

The North Borneo Railway

This metre gauge railway runs in a generally southwards direction from the terminus at Tanjung Aru next to the International Airport on the southern outskirts of Kota Kinabalu to Papar, Beaufort and Tenom. The line was closed for a period of reconstruction of about five years and re-opened for business early in 2011 – the ordinary diesel services resumed in February and the steam tourist services to Papar resumed on 4 July 2011. My observations are based on visits to the line with the primary objective of photographing the steam workings on Wednesday 21st and Saturday 24th December 2011.

The reconstruction project was comprehensive – many of the stations have been completely rebuilt, the track has been relayed using continuous welded rail, new level crossings with full width barriers have been installed at all significant road crossings and all the old minor level crossings have been blocked off with Armco-style barriers. Work is continuing to replace wooden sleepers with concrete ones.

The minor wayside stations all now have a short platform with a simple shelter. The larger stations visited at Tanjung Aru, Kinarut and Papar all have substantial station buildings and high platforms capable of accommodating 4-6 coaches. The station, yard and workshops at Tanjung Aru and the stations at Kinarut and Papar are surrounded by fencing topped with barbed wire. From photographs found on the internet, it seems that the same approach has been adopted at Beaufort.

A 4-car diesel multiple unit operates 2 round trips a day between Tanjung Aru and Beaufort on Mondays to Saturdays and a single round trip on Sundays. Weekday and Saturday services depart from Tanjung Aru at 07:45 and 14:00 and depart Beaufort on the return journey at 11:01 and 16:30 – the one-way journey takes 2 hours and 15 minutes. The multiple unit observed in service consisted of a power car at the Beaufort end, 2 open salon coaches and an unpowered driving vehicle trailer (see below). The sound of the power unit was not dissimilar to that made by the old British ‘Thumper’ multiple units that are now just a memory. 

Although I did not travel to Beaufort, I understand that there is still a service between Beaufort and Tenom. There is an early morning departure from Beaufort at 07:50 which necessitates an overnight stop in Beaufort to travel by train from Tanjung Aru through to Tenom. There may also still be a 13:30 short working from Beaufort to Heligolat. From a discussion with my taxi driver (Mr Pan), I learned that the whole project had been undertaken by a Chinese contracting company that had relayed the track, built the stations and supplied the new rolling stock. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, the ‘North Borneo Railway’ steam service operates between Tanjung Aru and Papar with a stop at Kinarut on the outbound journey to enable passengers to visit the nearby Chinese Tien Shi Temple. On the 2 days in December that I visited the line, the working locomotive was 6.015 Vulcan VF6275 2-6-2 built in 1955 – and not 1895 as the ‘North Borneo Railway’ publicity suggests. The train consists of 5 short bogie carriages in green and white livery plus a slightly longer and lower car in the same livery where the food and drink are prepared. The capacity of the train is 80 passengers, but the ‘Railway’ publicity suggests that up to 160 can be carried on charters – presumably the tables are removed for this purpose. 

At Papar, 6.015 used the new turntable and hence the return trip was also smokebox first.

Locomotives turn using a triangle in an area north of the workshop at Tanjung Aru. I was able to gain access to the workshop and yard for a quick visit in the morning on 24th December. I did not find the second working locomotive, there was no-one around to ask, and there was not enough time to explore the building at the far north end of the yard. I did find the third Vulcan 2-6-2 that is being used as a source of spares – it was in a shed with 7 of the Kawasaki Bo-Bo diesels and several small track inspection vehicles. Two older railcars were present – 3013 in red and white livery and an un-numbered railcar in red. 

In the depot yard there were two new Chinese Co-Co diesels – 15101 and 15102 (also bearing Chinese numbers SDD120001 and SDD120002 – together with 4 wheel diesel 4201 and another dumped Kawasaki Bo-Bo. The yard also contained the second diesel multiple unit – the power car and first coach were damaged by a collision with a petrol tanker at a level crossing and the subsequent fire. The level crossing has since been closed and the petrol station is also expected to close.

The ‘North Borneo Railway’ steam service is operated by the Magellan Sutera Harbour Resort. It is necessary to go to the Magellan Sutera Hotel to book and pay – the ticket is collected on the day at Tanjung Aru Station. It is possible to make a booking via the internet, but payment must still be made at the hotel. The price is high – 250 Ringit for an adult return equates to about £GBP52. That buys you a snack and drink on arrival at Tanjung Aru and a light lunch (described as ‘tiffin’) during the return journey. Despite the high price, the train seemed to be well-filled with 50-60 passengers on each of the two days.

The schedule is leisurely. On the 21st 6.015 left Tanjung Aru on time at 10:00, but was 10 minutes early arriving at Kinarut. The departure from Kinarut was also on time at 11:00 and, by the time we arrived at Papar Station after spending a few minutes at the Chinese temple at Kinarut, 6.015 had already been turned and was taking water. The return departure from Papar was on time at 12:30. On the 24th the train left Tanjung Aru a few minutes early (presumably all of the booked passengers had checked in) and took about 25 minutes to reach Kinarut. Departures from Kinarut and Papar were both 10 minutes early – 6.015 was only five minutes behind the diesel multiple unit at Kawang on the return trip and arrived at Tanjung Aru at 13:15 – 30 minutes early! Clearly the advertised timetable is the one that was used between 2001 and 2006 – before the track was upgraded and many of the minor level crossings were closed. We were able to pace 6.015 at one location where we ‘clocked’ it at 60 km/hour.

The pictures show respectively the train outbound at Tanjung Aru and Kinarut and then near Kawang in opposite directions under contrasting conditions: 

The line runs beside the main road to Papar, Beaufort and Sipitang for a considerable distance south of Tanjung Aru before diverging from the main road – as the morning sun is on the east side of the train, the vehicles on the road are always in the photograph. Beware also of the considerable super-elevation on curves on this stretch of line. There is a road on the east (sunny) side of the railway providing access for photographing the train leaving Kinarut. There is not a really satisfactory departure shot at Papar for the return departure to Tanjung Aru – there is fencing, signs and a pile of concrete sleepers obstructing the view at the level crossing and the approach to the river bridge is hemmed in by trees. There are several locations around Kawang that are best accessed by using Papar Old Road.

Sabah State Museum

There are three steam locomotives on display in the grounds of Sabah State Museum in Kota Kinabalu. No. 7 is located at a lower level on the left side of the main museum building as you approach from the entrance and car park. No. 13 and 3.006 are located beyond the main building. There is also a Simplex 4-wheel diesel loco on display. 

· No. 7 Sir H. Ralph Hone 4-6-4T: Information from the internet indicates it to be a Hunslet loco built in 1912. · No. 13 4wVBT: Information from the internet indicates it to be a Sentinel built in 1927. · 3.006 / No. 6 Gaya 4-6-0 with a coach: There is a cabside plate stating it to be Hunslet 1110 built in 1913 and rebuilt at Tanjung Aru in 1954.

Getting around and weather

My taxi driver, Mr Pan (, is highly recommended. He speaks very good English (and Chinese) and, once he understood that I wanted to photograph the train, was very helpful. He also drove me around the area to see temples, waterfalls and a variety of cultural and other visitor attractions. Note that a Kota Kinabalu taxi driver cannot take you to Beaufort or Tenom as their licenses are restricted to the administrative area centred on Kota Kinabalu. 

December is one of the wetter months of the year, the usual pattern being a dry morning and showers or heavier spells of rain in the afternoon. I was lucky on the 21st as the sun shone until early afternoon. I was not so lucky on the 24th – the day was cloudy and I encountered heavy rain in the hilly area around Kawang as I waited for the steam to return from Papar.

Rob Dickinson