North Borneo Railway : Part 1- About & History

Content arranged by @Lan & Edited by @joehairie
(Train ride on Saturday: September 24, 2016)
Photos by team members
Photos copyright belongs to, North Borneo Railway & Sutera Harbour Resort
Special Mention & Credit: North Borneo Railway by Sutera Harbour Resort & Sabah State Railway Department, The Engine Museum (United Kingdom), Our Angels (Tracy, Ana & Clara)


No other experience on other train service is able to beat our experience being on board the North Borneo Railway. The experience will last forever in our thoughts. Yes, this is not the Eastern & Oriental service but this service is in North Borneo, Sabah Malaysia, it’s a ride on a classic train. Not the Shinkansen or bullet train as in Tokyo to all over Japan either but the return trip to Papar from Tanjung Aru station by North Railway Borneo took us to the ‘past’. It made us understand one big thing, the history. It made us ably to appreciate all the elements of a classic train by just being on a single ride! A ride of a lifetime that we strongly recommend to all of you, without any hesitation, not even a second!



This entry is Part 1 of 3. We will be presenting to you a complete experience of the two of us being on board the North Borneo Railway in 3 parts as follows:

Part 1- About & The History
Part 2- The Experience
Part 3- Photo Gallery

We are truly grateful and shall be sharing all our experience so that you will be inspired and hop on the train service by North Borneo Railway soon! If you do, please do contact us and share your experience in this blog! We love guests post anyway! After all, sharing is caring. The ride is not about indulging in luxury, it is about ‘visiting the past’, enjoying that amazing views, making friends with the other passengers, capture all that beautiful landmarks (for photographers), moving at a slower pace as how the older generations did during the British era and perhaps waving hands to all the people outside (they are excited too!)..


Credit: Sutera Harbour Resort & Sabah State Railway Department

going back to the past…

North Borneo Railway is the oldest running steam train in Sabah and Borneo. The nostalgic romance of an old steam train relives memories of a bygone era. Passing through villages and coastal towns, paddy fields, rainforests and plantations of rubber and coffee, a ride on North Borneo Railway is truly a journey of rediscovery into the heart of Borneo.

North Borneo Railway

The North Borneo Railway is a joint venture project between Sutera Harbour Resort and the Sabah State Railway Department (Jabatan Keretapi Negeri Sabah), signifying a historical collaboration between the private sector and the state government. The primary goals of the project are to enhance existing infrastructure as well as help in efforts to promote Sabah as a destination for domestic and international tourism. The North Borneo Railway was officially launched on 22nd January 2000 in honour of Kota Kinabalu achieving city status on 2nd February 2000.

The experience begins even before boarding the train!

The North Borneo Railway offers passengers an opportunity to experience the bygone era of British North Borneo while transporting passengers along the lifeline of Sabah. Refurbished to recreate the nostalgic romance of people travelling by steam train in the days of the Chartered Company and the British Colonial Office, both the exterior and interior provide an environment that would have been typical of stepping onto a train in the 1900s.

The exterior

The exterior utilizes the traditional deep green and cream of the original North Borneo Railway, with carved brass logos showcasing the original design of a tiger holding a rail wheel, standing on the royal crown.

The interior

The interior highlights the natural woods of Sabah and unless the train is fully booked, passengers are offered free seating on one of the five colonial-style passenger train carriages.

The Vulcan’s Origin

Credit: The Engine Museum (United Kingdom) & Sutera Harbour Resort


The steam locomotive from the North Borneo Railway was manufactured by the Vulcan Foundry Ltd in Newton-le-willows in Lanchashire, United Kingdom. As quoted from the Engine Museum in the UK:

“Vulcan Foundry received its final order in 1954 from the North Borneo Railway for three locomotives-the result a neat 2-6-2 tender locomotive of 58′-0″ length, weighing 85 tons.”

Not only do these steam engines represent the last of a fleet that have piled the tracks through Borneo since the late 1880’s, they are also part of the only few functional wood burners in the world.

The History

Credit: North Borneo Railway & Sutera Harbour Resort
Disclaimer: Photos are meant for illustration only


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 as it transports you back in time to the days of yore. The 1880’s had brought about a great change in Borneo. The British administrators who came to Borneo were adventure seekers, entering a country of unexplored forests and untapped resources. It was William Clarke Cowie, Managing Director of the British North Borneo Chartered Company who believed that the building of railways would pave the way for the opening up of land for commercial cultivation. He was responsible for initiating the building of the first railway in Sabah.


Construction started from Bukau to Beaufort and Weston in 1896. An English civil engineer, Arthur J. West, was appointed to build the railway line from Bukau, north to Beaufort and south to Weston. 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 northwards and his ambition to link the East and West remained only an ambition.


In 1903, Arthur J. West extended a 64 km line from Beaufort to Tenom, and to Melalap where labourers, mainly Hakka and Cantonese came from China to undertake what was known to be the most challenging task of construction along the gorge section. In the meantime  the 90 km line from Beaufort to Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu) was also constructed.


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. In 1903, A.J. West continued the laying of the 48 km Beaufort-Tenom rail which was completed two years later. The Tenom-Melalap rail was completed in 1906.


The North Borneo Railway was established on 1 August 1914 and things began to pick up in 1924. However, victory did not last long, for in 1930, the Great Depression spread throughout 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 independence on 16th September 1963 when Malaysia was formed.


After Malaysia was formed, the North Borneo Railway assumed the name of the Sabah State Railway Department and several changes were again made to improve passenger and cargo facilities. By 1971, technological advancement in the form of diesel and petrol-powered locomotives replaced the steam engines. The railway celebrated its centennial anniversary in 1996 as the oldest form of transportation in the state.


On 22 January 2000, the North Borneo Railway was relaunched as a joint venture project between Sutera Harbour Resort and the Sabah State Railway Department, signifying a historical collaboration through common initiatives between the private sector and the state government. Today, the railway leaves a legacy far greater than the English adventurers and planters could have ever imagined. The track piles virtually through villages and small setllements where times seems to be at a standstill.

The Service


Seating arrangement

Each carriage also features a unisex washroom, providing the amenities of a modern bathroom on board the train. Each carriage accommodates 16 passengers, with a tot al train capacity of 80 passengers. Windows remain open throughout the journey to enhance the overall heritage experience, and high-powered fans line the ceilings to ensure maximum comfort. A British Pullman carriage is in tow for the entire journey, functioning as a kitchen car as well as a generator. The kitchen has been customized to cater for the unique Tiffin-style dining concept


Image by North Borneo Railway

The Route

Image result for north borneo railway logo
Image by North Borneo Railway

Tariff & Schedule

The steam train runs every Wednesday and Saturday at a price of:

RM 345.00Nett per adult / per child (Age above 4 Years old)( (Inclusive 10% and 6% GST) Complimentary for children below 3 years old.  The fare is inclusive of Continental breakfast and Tiffin-style lunch. For guests of Sutera Harbour Resort, the fare is also inclusive of complimentary return transfer from the Resort to Tanjung Aru Station.

For further enquiries, contact:

North Borneo Railway
The Magellan Sutera Resort
Level 2, 1 Sutera Harbour Boulevard,
Sutera Harbour, 88100 Kota Kinabalu,
Sabah, Malaysia
Tel : +60 88 308 500
Fax : +60 88 311 136
Email :


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