The North Borneo Railway Project
Published on Nil | by internationalsteam.co.uk
The following information was provided by Victoria Hilley in Sabah.
A Brief Introduction
The romance of an old steam train…. A ride on the North Borneo Railway is truly a journey of rediscovery into the heart of Borneo. Transporting you back into the days of yore, to the days of the Chartered Company and the British Colonial Office, when young Englishmen set out to be planters and plantation owners, cutting into the wilds of untrodden jungle in search of adventure and riches beyond their wildest imaginations. Passengers stepping aboard the Plantation Express are conveyed back through time along a century of track, the lifeline of the state, on which the entire history of 20th Century Sabah is played out amongst the villages and coastal towns, the paddy fields and the jungles. Flanked by the mighty Crocker Range and the lapping of the South China Sea, the railroad was tenaciously built in 1896 to transport the wealth of Sabah to vessels waiting to carry the riches back to England. Today it leaves a legacy far greater than even the young English adventurers could have counted upon.
The rail line runs from Tanjung Aru through the major towns of Kinarut, Papar, and Beaufort, the old capital of British North Borneo. Along the way, the train plies virtually through the backyards of the inhabitants of the minor kampongs, or villages; through plantations of rubber and palm; through rice paddies and through wild mangrove swamps. An approaching tunnel sends a herd of buffaloes scattering across the tracks as they lumber away from the oncoming railway and settle in the ever-present paddy fields, happy to have a quick bite as the engine rolls by. Roads are few and far between, the train being the main source of transportation for the farmers and traders nestled into the countryside. Children stand waist deep in fishponds, laughing as they attempt to catch taliapa, stopping only to wave wildly at the passing trains. Modern time seems to have missed this precious corner of the world, and we are grateful for the moment of peace brought by the smiling laughing children as they stare wide-eyed at the monster steam engine rolling past their front yards, reminding them, too, of their history and the stories of their grandparents.
After Beaufort, the tracks veer away from the dramatic coastline and follow the path of the Padas River. The train hangs almost precariously on the side of the gorge overlooking the wild river, as the jungle seems to push the train closer to the edge of the great white water. One cannot help but reach out for the green fronds and wild vines careening up the steep cliff of dense jungle that creates a natural wall along the entire line all the way to Tenom, straight into the heart of the interior. It is here that vast coffee plantations were hewn into the landscape, along the banks of the mighty river. A cup of the strong local java is a must-have experience for anyone who has traveled this far; the process hasn’t changed from the 1900s and, after all, a good cup of coffee will always be a good cup of coffee.
Seven kilometers of new track is being added to stretch out to a newly founded agricultural park, highlighting the rich variety of flora found many times only on the island of Borneo. Tracks are also being laid towards a cultural village, which is being established to showcase the major indigenous tribal groups found throughout the state. Both projects are being targeted for the end of 2000, and will provide greater insight into the cultural riches and heritage of Sabah.
As the train gently rattles past farms and fields, beaches and rivers, the journey becomes an intimate discovery of how time stands still in Sabah, and one realizes that the scene today is the same scene viewed by the original so-called “White Rajas” over one hundred years ago, when the tracks were originally laid.
A Brief History
The 1880’s had brought about a great change in Borneo under the British Government. The British administrators who came to Borneo were gamblers and adventurers, entering a capricious country of unexplored virgin forests, fatal diseases, pirates and headhunters in which they were to search for riches in its vast natural resources. With the establishment of the British North Borneo Company, these so-called ‘White Rajahs’ as known by locals, were enabled to obtain parts of North Borneo from the Sultan of Sulu. Soon, experimental land cultivation for coffee, coconuts, tobacco, ramin and cocoa received full support from the Company and this prompted the development of better infrastructure facilities.
The success of the tobacco industry between 1880 and early 1890 created a high demand for land. The earlier plantations transported their harvests on foot or animal and which fetched good prices at nearby towns. But as the British sold acres and acres of interior land to planters, many found their plot of land in the middle of a tropical jungle with no possible form of communication or transportation available; too far for viable trade and profitability. A stir arose among the shareholders in London, for without the means of transporting harvests out of the fields, they would not be getting the profit they had hoped for. It meant that more financial support had to be given to improve transportation into the interior. But then, what transportation was most suitable? In 1894, they elected a Director of the British North Borneo Company as Managing Director. William Clarke Cowie was a whistle in the distance that was about to solve their problems.
Within twelve months, Cowie had commenced work on the telegraph line and railway. The late 19th Century was the era of railway construction. Inspired by the success of the railway line which boosted trades and exports in Malaya, Cowie had a vision to link the east and west of North Borneo through undulating mountain ranges, rivers, forests and swampland. An English civil engineer, Arthur J. West, was appointed to build the railway line from Bukau, north to Beaufort and south to Weston. A ferry service between Beaufort North to Beaufort South was established to carry passengers and cargo across the Padas River. 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. He came to a decision to extend the line north and his ambition to link the East and West remained only an ambition. 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).
However, the railway construction required a large sum of money to be wholly financed by the Company and this was not greeted with enthusiasm by all the Company officials. Known as an adventurer and improviser, Cowie persisted and raised a further £200,000 in 1901 through the issue of debenture stock. A year later, the Company rejected Cowie’s request to borrow £500,000 more. By then, the directors of the British North Borneo Chartered Company were positive that Cowie’s ambitions would cause them bankruptcy. Therefore, after the completion of the Tenom to Melalap line, the railway could proceed no further.
More serious was the problem of maintenance, for the line was constantly being damaged by storms and fallen trees or stolen by natives who related this man-made machine with evil spirits. Repairs alone took weeks to complete and moreover, it could not find the traffic to transport, as commented by one dissatisfied shareholder, “Where was the traffic to support the railway? A railway through dense forests with nothing but monkeys as passengers.” Ironically, it was this very abused railway that enabled the development of plantations on the coastal strip between Jesselton and Beaufort. The great demand for rubber after the turn of the century saved the Company and along with it, Cowie’s reputation.
The collapse of the Company and of Cowie’s career, which had been predicted by so many, suddenly took a turn with the unforeseen rubber boom. Since 1899, experimental gardens planted in Tenom had been proven successful. By 1905, the year the line was completed, the Company was able to guarantee a 4% dividend for six years on all estates formed to plant rubber and a tax exemption on rubber exports for the next fifty years. There was an immediate response, and by 1907, 3226 acres of rubber had been planted, and, in that year, 2,300 kgs were exported. In the following years, the expansion of the United States motor industries and the demand for tyres caused by WWI created a booming rubber industry. In 1917, 34,828 acres had been planted and 2.5 million kg of rubber was exported.
Now, the main bulk of the railway haulage, which was rubber, had an immediate effect on trade and export and this prompted more development along its trail. The line constructed for the intention of tapping the natural wealth of the interiors ran through land of rich resources and soon, land between Jesselton and Beaufort was cleared of forests for the cultivation of paddy. Tobacco estates also sprang up around Tenom and sago mills appeared in Beaufort and Papar. Sugar, tapioca, silk, soya beans, pineapples and rice began to be hauled to the port at Jesselton for export. Sawmills were under construction, in anticipation of the thriving timber industry. The railway was finally on the move!
For many years, steam engines traveled to and fro, one day from Jesselton to Tenom, carrying rubber, timber, and jungle produces and the next day, returning to the interior with food stuff, daily necessities, clothes and other merchandise. The railway remained the only means of transportation into the interior until only half a century ago.
In the beginning, the locomotives used were steam-powered and only light pioneer tracks were laid. But in 1912, booming economy in the rubber industry required a safer and more reliable form of transportation. The railway service upgraded the rails and tunnels were constructed along several parts of the line. The ‘North Borneo Railways’ was established on 1st August, 1914 and things began to pick up in 1924. 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.
On January 1, devastation and famine spread over the country. The Japanese 37 Army, under Lt. General Masao Baba occupied North Borneo. The local constabulary and local people hardly gave any resistance for they were aware of the strength of the invaders who were well organized, well armed, and ruthless. WWII and the Japanese Occupation almost paralyzed the whole railway system between 1944 and 1945. Locomotives, rolling stock, machines, tools and general equipment sustained severe damages caused by allied bombings. Bridges were blown up, tunnels were blocked and the twenty-one functioning locomotives in 1944 were reduced to only four in 1949. However, 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 Administration took charge of the state. 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. A program of reconstruction and rehabilitation was planned and implemented between 1949 and 1960. It was a slow but gradual process. Eight major bridges along the railway had been destroyed including the longest bridge at mile 22 ½ next to Papar town. The reconstruction of railway tracks was a simple task compared to the rebuilding of broken bridges. Temporary Bailey Bridges were built to overcome the problem.
Efforts were made to obtain power units from the United Kingdom, Malaya and India while suitable artisans from Hong Kong were brought in to improve the position of the railways in 1951. One advantage after the war was the sudden demand in the passenger and goods service. Everyone began looking toward the railway for help in rebuilding the country into the present state.
After Malaysia was formed, the North Borneo Railway assumed the name of Sabah State Railway Department and several changes were made to improve passenger and cargo facilities. By 1971, technological advancement in the form of diesel and petrol-powered locomotives replaced the steam engines. They were cheaper, faster and easier to operate as they did not utilize firewood. The Sabah State Railway Department also purchased new made-in-England train sets as well as locomotives manufactured in Japan. 60-lb. rails replaced the light 30 lb. and 35 lb. ones.
To encourage the public to utilize the railway, student and weekend travel concessions were included in the services. Special trains were operated during tamus (markets), estate holidays, festivals and race meetings. The annual tamu in Papar saw the involvement of the railway in transporting some 2,500 passengers to and fro for the occasion. Special trains and railcars could be hired for very reasonable rates. Commercial advertising and catering services were also made available in all railway stations.
Even within the railway department, changes took place as posts for Pupil Civil and Mechanical Engineers and Pupil Traffic Officers were created to provide for the recruitment and training of local candidates with the objective of filling the senior posts in the Department. The Malayan Railway conducted local training schemes for the Permanent Way Inspectors while those who were capable were also sent to Australia and New Zealand under the auspices of the Colombo Plan Scholarship. Since the 1950’s, 250 units of staff quarters were built in Tanjung Aru, Kinarut, Beaufort and Tenom to accommodate the growing departmental staff.
In the words of a volunteer consultant undertaking research for SSRD, ‘A trip by railway from Kota Kinabalu to Tenom and back through green paddy country, healthy towns, along beaches, through the forest and up the Padas Gorge is an excellent tourist attraction still awaiting development.’ With the development and reintroduction of the new steam train operation under the guise of the North Borneo Railway, this journey through time will be complete.
North Borneo Railway – The Concept and Vision
The North Borneo Railway aims to give the experience of the bygone era of British North Borneo by transporting passengers back through time along the life line of Sabah. The passenger carriages have been meticulously designed and appointed to recreate the décor and ambiance of first class carriages of yore. The materials are all locally produced, and would have been available at the turn of the century. The seven redesigned carriages are pulled by a 90-ton mid-century British Vulcan steam locomotive, that has been lovingly maintained by the State Government, in the hopes that one day, steam could be reintroduced as a viable form of transportation and a valuable piece of Sabah heritage.
The train will commence its run twice weekly, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, from Kota Kinabalu to Papar Town at 11:30am. The journey is estimated at two hours and thirty minutes. Onboard, passengers will be treated to meticulous service, unique cuisine, narrated historical and local information and music, and various stop for photo opportunities and exploration. Charter trains will be available seven days a week for groups, private parties and incentives. The charter trains will be flexible, allowing the planners to custom design each journey to the specifications and needs of each group. These charters will also offer the option of a KK to Papar return or a KK to Beaufort return. Tenom is also a potential destination, however the steam engine would have to be replaced with diesel in Beaufort and the length and potential risk of the journey may be a serious detractor for sales.
The North Borneo Railway aims to offer an interesting alternative tourist activity for Kota Kinabalu, enhancing what is already one of the world’s most complete destinations. The joy of the train is its strong colonial and historical ties, an aspect of Sabah tourism that is sorely lacking in most tourist activities. This journey will compliment vacations that would traditionally only focus on nature and recreation with an interesting and exciting heritage twist. Research into the vast history of the train will be constantly on going, culminating in the writing of a historical book. Various historical societies, government agencies and locals are willing to assist to gather this important archival information to ensure that this important piece of heritage is not lost. Passengers will gain a complete understanding of the social and economic development of Sabah, as the train and its lengthy tracks can be utilized to symbolize the entire development of this region.
Another goal of the North Borneo Railway is to work with the various communities along the tracks to assist in the development and potential economic regeneration of the area. Community involvement will evolve over time to ensure that the project is constantly ‘giving back’ to society. Locals will be asked to participate in developing and ‘acting out’ the concept of the train, to ensure the feel of the days of yore is consistently maintained at the forefront. Various social projects will be undertaken by the train staff to develop community relations and involvement. Working together with the communities will ensure the success of the train and the ultimate protection of this valuable heritage piece.
North Borneo Railway – The Train
The North Borneo Railway features a British ‘Vulcan’ steam locomotive, built and designed by the Vulcan Foundry in England in 1954. The Vulcan is the last of a fleet of steam engines that have plied the tracks through Borneo since the late 1800’s. The engine weighs 90 tons and is finished in traditional dark green and black, with a red stripe to highlight the brass detailing. The wheels are fabricated of iron, with a molded NBR acronym, standing for the North Borneo Railway. The engine is designed for wood burning, a costly yet more environmental form of steam. Stepping into the engine is an opportunity to jump back into the shoes of a child, bringing back childhood dreams of pulling on the whistle as the massive train rolls through the countryside.
The train also features 6 Japanese-designed carriages that have been meticulously restored and renovated to reflect the era of the steam train. While only built in the 1970s, both the exterior and interior provide an environment that would have been typical of stepping onto a train in 1900. The exterior utilizes the traditional deep green and cream of the original North Borneo Railway, with carved brass logos on the sides measuring 3′ by 2′ on each carriage. The interior highlights the natural woods of Sabah. Benches have been economically designed to maximize space, yet provide the comfort required for the journey. Each set will seat four passengers, with a table in between to facilitate the dining experience. Every carriage also features a unisex washroom, providing the amenities of a modern bathroom onboard the train. Each carriage will accommodate a maximum of 36 passengers, with a total train capacity of 216.
Windows will remain open throughout the journey, and high-powered fans will line the ceilings to ensure maximum comfort during the journey. A provision has been made for air-conditioning, but it is the strong opinion of the operator that the open windows will enhance the entire heritage experience, as passengers will be able to lean out the windows and doors to interact with the countryside, rather than merely be observers.
A British Pullman carriage will be in tow for the entire journey. The Pullman carriage was selected for its size, which was necessary to accommodate a functional kitchen car, as well as a powerful generator to provide for all electrical and power requirements of the North Borneo Railway. The kitchen has been customized to cater for the interesting dining concept of the train. While most food will be prepared in advance by the Sutera Harbour Catering division, the tiffin concept will only come alive on the train.