The International Steam Pages

Steam in North Borneo, 2006

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James Waite gives an account of the steam operation in Sabah, Malaysia as it was when the railway closed for rebuilding in 2006. For the background to the project please read the official account produced in 2000.

(As an experiment I have used clickable thumbnails for the pictures which allows a slightly larger image size. Comments please! RD)

The recent (2011) revival of the tourist steam operation on the metre gauge Sabah State Railway after the line’s refurbishment was a most welcome event. We visited the island on holiday in May 2006, the last year the steam train ran before the reconstruction began, and what follows reflects what we found then.

The steam train is staffed by the operators of a hotel complex on the coast near Tanjung Aru who are also responsible for underwriting the costs of its operation. The staff dress in colonial-era uniforms and lunch, in the form of a traditional colonial tiffin box, is prepared and served en route. The out- and back- trip lasts about four hours including a one-hour layover at Papar.

During its overhaul no. 16 was converted from coal to wood firing. Mangrove wood has always been used as the fuel for the woodburners and a large dump of it is now kept at Tanjung Aru. No. 14 survives at the back of the engine shed – more or less intact but unrestored. By 2006 the train was running three times a week but it’s reported now to be back to twice a week. We were told that it’s possible to charter it on other days and that Japanese groups quite often do so, sometimes taking in the gorge section east of Beaufort.

6-015 and 6-016 6-016 6-016 6-016
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Today Tanjung Aru is the operating headquarters of the railway and the location of the principal engine sheds and repair shops which were set up there in 1912. The station is a concrete structure, the original having been destroyed during the Second World War as were many buildings throughout the province. The first few miles of line south of Tanjung Aru run through the southern outskirts of Kota Kinabalu, past the airport and, further south, a large army depot. Throughout this stretch it runs close to the shore and crosses the estuaries of several small rivers.

At the approach to Kinarut the line turns inland. The village is inhabited largely by ethnic Chinese people, the name deriving from the Malay word for China. Close to the station there’s a sizeable Chinese temple which was undergoing considerable enlargement in 2006. There’s a large statue of a very fat Buddha which looks out over the railway line. The outward steam train stops at Kinarut station for 20 minutes or so to allow a brief visit to the temple. The village consists mostly of wooden terraced housing. One of the villagers was very keen to show us around and to recount the history of the village during one of our visits there.

Leaving KK Approaching Papar Approaching the Tunnel Kawang Mangroves
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After leaving Kinarut the line runs through a palm forest and climbs through a low ridge of hills. Kawang, the next station, is located on a horseshoe curve as the line drops down from the hills. Soon after there’s a causeway through a mangrove swamp. The line then climbs through another ridge of hills and through the railway’s only tunnel at Pengalat before dropping back down to sea level. The floor of the tunnel had to be lowered and its width increased from 10 to 13 feet in the early 1950’s to accommodate the Vulcan Foundry 2-6-2’s. After running through paddy fields for a couple of miles the line crosses the River Papar on a four-span girder bridge and enters Papar station.

Here there’s a sizeable yard. In 2006 the station building was a delightful colonial structure. Across the tracks was a curious Heath Robinson-looking turntable which had been installed for the tourist train’s locos and managed to dispense with a pit. Now all this has been swept away. The new building lacks the character of the old one but on the plus side there’s a spanking new turntable of much more conventional design with a proper pit. Is this the world’s newest table built specifically for use by steam locos?!

Approaching Papar Approaching Papar Papar Papar
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These pictures show the returning train:

Leaving Kinarut KK Outskirts KK Outskirts Near Journey's End
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South of Papar the line reaches the coast again at Benoni where there is a popular beach. At Bangawan there’s a rubber estate. The line runs through swamps for the last stretch before Beaufort. The swamps extend to the coast some miles to the west and here it’s possible to see Proboscis monkeys which are endemic to Borneo. The Padas gorge begins shortly after leaving Beaufort. and continues all the way to the terminus at Tenom. This is wild, spectacular country. There’s no road in the gorge and the railway provides additional services to the villages there. The area is popular with white water rafting enthusiasts. All this was unfamiliar territory to us as no steam trains ran south of Papar during our visit.

The province is rich in oil and so is a major contributor to the island’s economy. This is traditionally a Christian community and rule by the increasingly assertive Muslim government in Kuala Lumpur is by no means universally popular. The huge army base beside the line in Kota Kinabalu is said to be the largest in the country. Many people there suspect that the base is there to forestall any possible local uprising more than to see off any external threat.

To my eyes the train is very photogenic. The locos carry their old NBR livery. The coaches were built in the early 1970’s in Japan, after the end of the steam era but they’re of traditional design and painted in the railway’s traditional green and cream colour scheme. In 2006 there were quite a number of British-looking freight wagon and vans around. I hope they’re still there.

In 2006 much of the remainder of the route was rural, interspersed only by a few traditional-looking villages. A look at Google Maps today suggests that there’s been quite a lot development since then, particularly around Kinarut, Kawang and alongside the last two miles or so of the route into Papar. The road layout has changed as well.

There should still be some good photo spots here and there in the suburbs of the city, near the temple at Kinarut, at Kawang station and the mangrove swamp to its south and at Pengalat tunnel. By car all of these can be reached by side roads off the main coastal route between Kota Kinabalu. These were dirt tracks in 2006 but the large amount of development since then perhaps means that they have now been paved. Don’t be lured into using the inland route to Papar which runs a long way to the east of the railway south of Kinarut.

In 2006 signposting was haphazard to say the least, obvious destinations such as the airport and large towns often being omitted and small places being named instead. We never managed to find a reliable map and navigation was very much on a suck it and see basis! Despite this it’s well worth persevering. We’d been told by at least one previous visitor that there weren’t any good photo spots away from the gorge beyond Beaufort but this just wasn’t so as I hope will come across from the photos.

If you make the trip to Borneo don’t miss out on the Sabah Museum. The locos are well looked-after and in good positions for photography and there are many other fascinating displays related to the differing lifestyles of the peoples from various parts parts of the province. Highly recommended. (There are pictures of the three locos in the museum in Chris Yapp's 2011 report, RD.)

Borneo is well known as the main home of the orangutan and large numbers of these iconic creatures used to live in Sabah. Today their numbers are declining rapidly on account of the destruction of their forest habitat and the pernicious effects of poaching. The province’s principal home for orphaned baby orangutans is at Sepilok. More than 100 of them live here and are being taught the life skills they would have learned from their mothers. The place is a major tourist draw though it’s very crowded and, being on the east coast near Sandakan, is a long way away from Kota Kinabalu.

An alternative is a trip to the nature reserve at the Rasa Ria hotel complex on the west coast about 20 miles (32km) or so north of Kota Kinabalu. The residents include some very young and recently orphaned orangutans which are looked after here in their early days of learning to cope without their mothers until they’re ready to move to Sepilok. It’s run on a much smaller-scale. Only a few visitors are allowed in at a time and a visit there is a hugely rewarding experience.

Other places to visit on non-train days include the Orchid de Villa farm around 12 miles (20km) to the east of Kota Kinabalu city centre. This is mostly a commercial orchid-growing farm but the owner, Mr. Ng Ten Sung, is a knowledgeable and enthusiastic botanist and has created a forest and hillside environment in which to conserve many of the island’s endemic and threatened orchid species. It’s not easy to find but there’s a map at (link broken by December 2021). The drive there takes you through the coastal jungle and past traditional kampung houses which seem a world away from the city centre. Back at Tanjung Aru you won't be hungry if you've just arrived on the train as a tiffin-style lunch is served onboard but if you've just been looking around or chasing the train and need a good meal check out the Garden Restaurant. It's a huge and bustling Chinese establishment immediately north of the old goods station and I should think it must stand on old railway land. It's purpose is clearly to serve KK's sizeable Chinese community so you won't find much western script anywhere. When we called in we were immensely well looked after and guided through the enormous menu. The meal was much the best of its kind we've ever experienced anywhere and not just outside China.

Our thanks go to Christoclay Tan at the NBR who was most helpful with info when we were setting up the trip and who went out of her way to look after us on the train. The railway sweat shirt she gave me as a parting gift still is still in good shape and continues to draw inquiries about the railway in places as far afield as San Salvador and Nairobi! Finally a huge thank you to Diassin Sidan, the shedmaster at Tanjug Aru. He greeted us with a warm welcome from the first day of the trip, gave us all sorts of advice ranging from the best time to be there to see the loco coming off shed (well before most people's breakfast time!) to road access for potential phot spots all along the line and gave us the freedom of the shed and works for the duration of our stay - and even stayed on late at work one evening until it was dark enough for some night shots. He's a great enthusiast for the British connection in Sabah and used to arrive for work in his pride and joy - a Mark 1 Ford Escort. There must be something about the Dagenham factory's products amongst the shedmasters of South East Asia. His opposite number at La Carlota in the Philippines was equally fond of his Mark 2 Escort and I put the two of them in contact with each other during a Philippines visit the following year. I hope their vehicles are still giving good service!

Rob Dickinson