After having written many articles on the gloomy scenarios of the economy, goddam politics and the antics of our mostly incorrigible politicians, I think I should take a break from those dreary subjects and take a trip down memory lane, a dose of nostalgia that bring back memories of my childhood on what must be, my rendering of it, the slowest train in the world.
It would take almost a whole day of daylight to travel from what was Jesselton then to Tenom in the interior.The scenic beauty of the lust jungle, the Padas Gorge and the backdrop of the Crocker Range is just unforgettable.
The North Borneo Railway re-named Sabah State Railway has ceased operation temporarily for major tracks renewal work. For those who love the past, below is the history of the Railway from the day it started in the then British North Borneo.
In the 1880’s, the so-called “White Rajahs” of the British Crown established the British North Borneo Company by obtaining parts of North Borneo from the Sultan of Sulu. The wild jungles provided grounds for great adventure and potential riches. As the need for larger plantations grew, the question of transportation became a major issue for these young plantation owners. A railway straight into the heart of Borneo was the only viable solution to keep the company afloat.
In 1894, the Chartered Company elected William Clarke Cowie as the Managing Director of the British North Borneo Company. Cowie appointed an English Civil Engineer, Arthur J. West, to build the railway line from Bukau, north to Beaufort and south to Weston. Named after Mr. West, Weston was to be the new port at Brunei Bay. However, upon completion of the railway in 1890, Weston was discovered to be too shallow for a deep-sea wharf. Instead, Arthur J. West extended a 64 km line from Beaufort to Tenom and to Melalap where laborers, mainly Hakka and Cantonese were lured from China to undertake what was known to be the most challenging task of construction along the gorge section. In the meantime, George Pauling & Company was appointed to continue the railway from Beaufort, further 90 km to Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu). The railway was finally on the move!
However, victory did not last long, for in 1930, the Great Depression spread through the world. This threw men out of work everywhere; trade was almost halted; there was no sale of rubber and established companies collapsed. Hardly had the world recovered from this when the Second World War started in 1939. The Japanese 37 Army, under Lt. General Masao Baba occupied North Borneo. WWII and the Japanese Occupation almost paralyzed the whole railway system between 1944 and 1945. Despite severe damages, the railways continued providing its vital service to the state during the war. Locomotives continued running between bridges and “Rail Jeeps” were modified to replace damaged locomotives.
During the Post-War period, immediately after liberation of North Borneo by the 9th Division Australian Imperial Force (AIF), the British North Borneo Company faced the gigantic task of reconstruction and decided to relinquish its ownership of North Borneo to the British Colonial Office. From then on, North Borneo became a Crown Colony until Malaysian independence.
The North Borneo Railway features a British Vulcan steam locomotive, designed and built by the Vulcan Foundry in Newton-le-Willows, England in 1954 as part of the last order before the factory converted to diesel and electric locomotive construction. The Vulcan 6-015, a 2-6-2 carrying a green livery with polished boiler bands and red edging to the running plate and tender frame, was de-commissioned for general use in the early 1970’s by the Sabah State Railway Department. It was proudly re-launched on January 22nd, 2000, in honour of Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s capital, achieving City-Status. Not only does this steam engine represent the last of a fleet of steam engines that have plied the tracks through Borneo since the late 1800’s, it is also one of the only functional wood-burners left in the world.
The North Borneo Railway also features six carriages that have been meticulously restored and renovated to reflect the era of the steam train. The exterior utilizes the traditional deep green and cream of the original North Borneo Railway, with carved brass logos featuring the original British seal. The interior, highlighting the natural woods of Sabah, has comfortable seating and dining facilities. Every carriage provides the amenity of a modern washroom onboard. Seating accommodates 36 passengers per carriage, with a total train capacity of 180 passengers. An exotic bar car and observation deck accompanies the train, providing a comfortable lounge area to heighten the overall journey experience.
Windows remain open throughout the journey, and high-powered fans line the ceilings to ensure maximum comfort along the route. A provision has been made for air-conditioning, though the open windows enhance the entire heritage experience, as passengers are able to lean out the windows and doors to interact with the countryside, rather than merely be observers.
The North Borneo Railway is built and operated to the highest of international standards and is fully compliant with modern safety standards.
The nostalgic romance of an old steam train…passing through villages and coastal towns paddy fields, rainforests and plantations of rubber and coffee…
A ride on the North Borneo Railway is truly a journey of rediscovery into the heart of Borneo, transporting you back into the past; to the days of the Chartered Company…and British Colonial Office…of young Englishmen setting out to be planters in the interiors of Borneo…
The North Borneo Railway runs 36 miles between Kota Kinabalu, the state capital, and Papar, an agricultural town, known as the rice bowl of Sabah. From Tanjung Aru Station, your train, with an open observation car, travels along the main road to Putatan, a small village on the outskirts of the city. Beyond this station, the journey continues along a lovely bay dotted with mangrove swamp, protecting the coast from the South China Sea. View the fishermen waist-high in the waters collecting shrimp and small fish in these safe coastal waters.
As the train rounds the bay, it veers into the interior, leaving the main road behind as it makes its way through the countryside. Kinarut, a small kampong (village in Malay), is our first whistle-stop. Famous for its pre-war shop houses, passengers will de-board here for a quick tour of lovely Tsim Shen Tsui Temple, a temple built in honour of Mainland Chinese by the local community. It features 18 statues of Buddhist monks, a 20-foot giant smiling Buddha, and a lotus-pond in honour of Kwan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy.
Back onboard, enjoy the journey, surrounded by mangrove swamps and acres of Nepa Palm and Screw Pines. This swamp region is vital for the local community, as villagers collect the Nepa fronds to make baskets and mats, as well as the atap roofs for their houses. The area is also rich with fish and prawn, as mangrove regions are tidal. Local villagers travel through the swamps on little dugout canoes, painted in bright greens and blues.
The train then passes through a deep mountain tunnel, the sole tunnel along the entire route from Kota Kinabalu to Tenom, in the heart of the interior. As it emerges on the other side, the landscape changes dramatically from swampland to padi field. Watch as the farmers toil away in the fields, harvesting Sabah’s favorite crop. Water buffalo dot the fields, many with perched egrets on their shoulders, highlighting the pairs symbiotic friendship.
|The train then enters Papar town, crossing a bright yellow trestle bridge over the Papar River. Blue, yellow and red fishing boats dot the river’s edge, docked to bring the day’s catch to the vast fish market in town. The train steams into town, met by waiving locals. In Papar, the Vulcan engine refills with water and utilizes a turn-table to reverse for the return journey into the heart of Borneo.|
A railcar of the Sabah State Railway
Source:North Borneo Railway