Explore the Sabah countryside by steam locomotive
North Borneo Railway History
The North Borneo Railway’s rich history starts way back in the 1880’s when the North Borneo Charted Company, the administrators of Sabah, then called North Borneo, mooted the idea of a railway for the first time.
Following years of batting around the idea of Borneo’s first train, construction on it finally started in 1896.
The first section stretched from tobacco rich Baku to Beaufort in the north and south to Weston, where a deepsea wharf was planned.
When construction on the railway was already underway, it was discovered Weston was too shallow for such a facility.
The railway line also extended to Kota Kinabalu in the north, and to Tenom in the south with an extension later added to Melalap.
The construction of the network was completed in 1906 and consisted of 193km of railway line, a shot in the arm for Sabah’s economy.
On 1 August 1914 the North Borneo Railway was officially incorporated and crops, mainly tobacco, but also tapioca, rice, silk, sago, sugar, soya beans and pineapples were productively shipped to the port at Jessleton (Kota Kinabalu), for export.
Times were good. The railway’s prosperity, however, was relatively shortlived, as the Great Depression hit in the 1930’s. Hardly had the region started to recover from that when WW2 arrived in 1939.
Between the Japanese occupation and Allied bombings between 1944 and 1945, most of the railway network was paralyzed. Sections of the track provided vital services to the Allieds however, often with converted Jeeps replacing damaged locomotives.
In 1949 an ambitious program to rehabilitate the rail began, with another round in 1960.
Unproductive sections of the rail were closed; the Weston branch in 1963 and the Melalap branch in 1970, both of which had just too little traffic to justify the operating costs.
The section of line between the port of Jessleton and Tanjung Aru was also also cut back in 1974, but remnants of the track remains near the port.
In January 2000 the Sabah State Railway, in conjunction with Sutera Harbour Resort, relaunched the North Borneo Railway as it was in its glory days, operating it as a heritage tourist attraction.
In 2007 most of the rail system was shut down once more for repairs and rehabilitation, then expected to last less than a year. It was, however, discovered that the rails and bridges were in worse shape than previously thought and the shut down ended up lasting for over 3 years.
North Borneo Railway Today
In February 2011 the Sabah State Railway relaunched with fresh tracks and safety features, and shortly after, the North Borneo Railway once again saw the light of day.
A wood-burning, vintage British Vulcan steam locomotive powers the meticulously restored Japanese-designed coaches, which reflect the railway as it was in the early 1900’s.
With 16 passengers per coach, the 5 coaches can accommodate 80 passengers and crew, with a Pullman coach tagging along providing kitchen facilities and a generator.
The train of the North Borneo Railway now plies the route that starts and ends at the Tanjung Aru Train Station near Kota Kinabalu, with Papar, 38.5km down the line, the turning point.
The North Borneo Railway is an historic part of Sabah, Borneo.