Minutes of Malaysia

‘The railway of Sabah’

In 1988 when I visited the overseas parts of Malaysia: the states Sabah and Sarawak both situated on the isle of Borneo shared with Brunei and Indonesia, it was a real adventure. Entering the town of Kota Kinabalu – under British rule called Jesselton – gave you the impression being far away from everything, a locality with a special atmosphere and yet not developed into a multi million city though the signs where there. It was not before the beginning of this century that I would see the things again in 2000 and 2003.
As usual I came for the railway and this could have welcomed me if by chance I had left the airport on foot to the main road in front of it and catching a local minibus heading for the city. Sometimes taxi’s are a nuisance and quit expensive especially if they do have a monopoly. The airport turned out to be and so the first glimpse of a rail enterprise including the station (Tanjong Aru) on the way to the city was seen from the back of a car with chauffeur.
A bit history. In 1894 the director of the British North Borneo Company was given the responsibility of solving the matter of transportation the produce of tobacco plantations. Inspired by the railways already build and its success on the peninsular mainland of Malaysia he decided for rail and thus in 1896 the construction of the first line (32 kilometres) from Beaufort till Weston was started. In 1903 the extension till Tenom was undertaken, in 1905 this was finished. In 1906 a further 16 kilometres were added till Melalap. Meanwhile another company completed the line from Beaufort to Jesselton in 1902.
The NBR = North Borneo Railway as it was called run till today however as the KNS = (Jabatan) Keretapi Negeri Sabah – Sabah State Railway (Department) and separate from the KTM = Keretapi Tanayu Malaya. In the course of time the network shrunk by 59 kilometres till 134. The Beaufort – Weston section was closed in 1963 followed by Tenom – Melalap in 1970. In 1974 due to growing pains of the city and building broader roads, the connection between Jesselton and Tanjung Aru (six kilometres) was given up. In 1988 there were no traces left only slightly the alignment like seen on the postcard below but without any rail. The station is pictured on a stamp and vaguely seen on a photograph taken in 1904.

It was in 2003 along the point of exit till the airport and beyond to Papar, under a tree that I discovered a tiny turntable and last existing piece of track once entering the city, not far from where the yard of Tanjung Aru begins and by that time in use for a peculiar form of weekend railway amusement named: ‘the family train’. A short ride with special coaches and small locomotive (Hunslet) over the yard to the turntable and after reversing the engine back to the station. Like a heritage line and way of promoting Sabah’s own rail.
The same year wherein the real legacy of the old days could be tasted but this time in combination with a hostelry entrepreneur. A half day excursion by steam train under the former name: North Borneo Railway with an old style lunch (Tiffin) on board. Two engines (wood burners) build by the Vulcan Foundry in England number 6-015 / 016 underwent renovation and made fit for the twice weekly scheduled trip. There’s also a third machine left Nº 6-014. I spotted this engine in 1988 in a rather dilapidated condition.
A pure tourist thing and although bound to rail not exactly I am looking for. It was a nice ride, very nice indeed, but can’t be compared with running a railway as it’s working on daily base, the ordinary so to speak, the run of the mill and the wind of her wings.
To encounter this in 1988 was an overwhelming experience more-over while tourism in this part of Malaysia was still in her infancy and not visited by the thousands. As an ‘Orang Asing’ (Malay for stranger) for sure outside the main city one almost became the realm to himself. Those where the days in which the characteristic two axle Wickham railcars – two sizes: 6 and 15 seater – provided a first class ride between Beaufort and Tenom. An extra ordinary trip over the so called ‘Gorge line’ along a wild river (Padas) and through parts of almost pristine rain forest, a sort of jungle tour like the adventures of Tin Tin in Africa transferred to Asia.
The end station Tenom by that time I have only seen from a railway perspective because the railway men were more than happy to see a rail enthusiast and invited me on a trip back to Beaufort with the once a month running pay train.
A Wickham car with a vault, a guard with a riffle and two clerks going from station to station to hand out the wages at the local staff. It sounds strange but isn’t keeping in mind that there were no roads on this part of the network only trains and stations not only literarily hidden far from a civilized world.
The most memorable ride I ever made though there we no payments to make on the way back only going home. Tenom I did in later years and even organize a trip to Melalap to see the remains of a station overgrown by weeds and wishful dreams. Those were the days and also these days a railway minded traveller will find some fish that comes to his net. Parts of the track are upgraded or in progress being improved in order to meet a better standard. In other words there’s a certain interest and the people of Sabah do not have forgotten there’s a railway, a charming venture in a hidden corner of the world.

A train enters the Beaufort station on its way from Tenom.


About Robert von Hirschhorn

Author / Performer or in Dutch: schrijver / dichter
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