Thursday, October 30, 2008

Reminiscence:The North Borneo Railway

Hantu Laut

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!

North Borneo Postage StampHowever, 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 The railway remained the only means of transportation into the interior until only half a century ago, playing a vital part in the economic development of Sabah. It helped open up the country and the emergence of towns like Bukau, Weston and Jesselton. It now continues to run through six main stations, namely Tanjung Aru, Papar, Bongawan, Beaufort and Tenom. The smaller stations are Putatan, Kinarut, Kawang, Kimanis, Lumat, Saliwangan, Halogilat, Rayoh and Pangi.

Colonial garb takes you back to yesteryearThe 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.

Coal-powered Vulcan Steam EngineThe 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.

The Vulcan Steam Engine - the last of the greatsWindows 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.

Railcar Train at Beaufort station
A railcar of the Sabah State Railway

Source:North Borneo Railway


chapchai said...

Reading your article reminds me of the rail journey I took from Kota Kinabalu to Keningau to visit a friend. This happened on the very day that Jesselton was renamed Kota Kniabalu, so it was in the 60's. It was a delightful journey, and I would certainly like to revisit it if the railways are still running.

de minimis said...

Hantu Laut

This post brings good memories of my few years of living in Sabah over a decade ago. The rail journey from KK to Papar was fun. But most of the time we drove all over Sabah. Gunung Emas was fun, especially when a car-sick buddy asked me what was for lunch and we had ordered civet cat stir-fried with ginger, wild boar curry and by the time I mentioned that we were having python meat soup my visibly green buddy had rushed off to throw up! Great non-rail memories of Sabah.

joe fernandez said...

good stuff - you should take a break from the usual topics more often!

The pics did not show the one-cab rail cars that were used in the seventies between kk and tenom.

The ride was always very exciting!

Hantu Laut said...

You may have been mistaken.The rail only goes up to Tenom not Keningau.It was probably Tenom that you went to.

Hantu Laut said...

de minimus,
Yes, you are right they used to sell all those exotic meat before.Not anymore, the WWF and Wild Live Dept caught up with them.

Gunung Emas is much cooler than Kundasang because there is still plenty of forest cover unlike Kundasang most have become farmland.

Hantu Laut said...

joe fernandez,
Thanks, will try to add it later.

Those little railcar,sometimes,can go off the tracks or hit a buffalo crossing the tracks.

Hantu Laut said...

You may have been mistaken.The rail only goes up to Tenom not Keningau.It was probably Tenom that you went to.

kittykat46 said...

I took a trip from KK to Tenom, just for the experience of it, years ago, back in the early 1990's. Your post really brings back delightful memories. I loved the scenery along the route.

The Sabah Railway has been featured in a number of international travel magazines before. I was told the railway had closed down - glad to read that its planned to reopen after work on the track.

Anonymous said...

Too bad. What I may have to say will be very disturbing instead. The current project to upgrade the track and stations have been manipulated to the extent we are going to see another BN failure. The recent picketing in Petagas and Putatan saw the Sabah company Suria Capital inability to implement the project deligently. Crossings were improperly programmed, and badly designed. Never was there in any part of the world where the crossing is steep the you don't see the other on coming vehicles. People began to be restleses.
After more than three years tinkering on the project and still unable to complete, Suria Big Boss began to attack KTMB and stated that they should have been given the contract to construct the track overhead. Rather than finding ways on how to complete the project, now blames the government for his own failure. For what I know, they have another portion from Putatan to Papar that has been more or less abandoned.
The following newsclip is also disturbing:
How can Suria made RM 46.9mil profit when it has yet to finish their job?
For the other portion of the contract awarded to Hikmat Asia, the Padas Gorge sector has yet to see much of the track been replaced. Yet the BN Gov't is now negotiaying to award them another RM300 mil to redo the track....
Mimang diurang pandai bikin duit at the expense of Sabah People

Adrienne Zoe said...

Nice pics. Would be nice to have a map of the railway and its stations. I am also interested in a picture of the single cab train of the 60s and 70s and would like to find out the make and model. Were they British? I took one to Beauford and I believe I got onboard at kepayan. Was there a station there? It was such a fun ride. Good memories.