North Borneo Railway : Our Experience, Understanding the past and Seeing Places

Featured Article 
Written by @joehairie. Content arranged by @Lan.
(Photos by team members)


Quote of the day: “We have always loved travelling. Whether it be by plane, train or automobile. For a quick weekend or an epic adventure, just say the word and our bags are packed.”-Lauren & Kenin Bassart

It left our beloved civilization, from the concrete jungle into the real green jungle.  It went through some villages, mangroves, jungles and plantations until it reached a small town where the locals were a bit slower in doing things in comparison to those in state capital. They looked pretty happy with what they are doing daily. We both kind of loving that way of life, free from the city’s stress. There’s no massive traffic jam here.


Local kids were excited to see the train coming, waving hands as if they are mates of us. We saw them waved again during the return trip. Did they actually wait? Welcome to North Borneo Railway, Arman said to us and we wish you the same, this is our experience in regard to us being on board North Borneo Railway, a great service by Sutera Harbour Resort & Sabah State Railway Department.

The Concoction


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 that luxurious 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 but the return trip to Papar from Tanjung Aru station by North Railway Borneo took us to the ‘past’. It made us see places and at the same time perfectly understood one big thing, the history a.k.a the past. 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!

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!)..



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.


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.

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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.

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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 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.


Credit: North Borneo Railway & 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.

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 Experience


That beautiful sunny morning we checked-in in for the train ride, a return same day trip to Papar from Tanjung Aru Station. Checking in was easy, thanks to Linda who’s also one of the crew serving passengers. We’re excited like kids getting that passports, a mini booklet actually where a crew will stamp the destination names. During the boarding process, Dg.Sarimah greeted us cheerfully, welcomed us and all the other passengers.

L-R: Linda and Dg.Sarimah 

At the Boarding area there’s Arman, who continuously smiled, sincerely to each arriving passengers! The passengers couldn’t stop smiling as well, a sign that they were pretty pleased with such great attentiveness given to them.



It’s pretty amazing how each crew was able to escort each passenger to the designated unit when actually more passengers coming at the entry point. None of them waited long enough, soon after arriving they were whisked away to their seats in respective carriage, in record time!


We’re amazed with the carriages, both the interior and exterior. Inside our Tanjung Aru carriage, beautiful decorated seats with darker wood panels as the wall pretty much implying the luxury feel, a perfect combination between new and old refurbishing style. The rotating ceiling fans gave cool air to the entire coach. Wall lights cleverly installed at each side of the window panels. The brand’s logo neatly carved on smaller metal pieces, embedded on each seat.

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The exterior has the right colors that resembles the olden days train, green and cream with the logo on each carriage. Inside, the unit we were in was pretty immaculate, there’s not even one microscopic litter can be seen, looks like the crew did their job perfectly, looking after the train cleanliness inside out. Everyone were here and there, inside and outside the train, capturing moments through the camera lenses. Nevertheless, staff managed to assemble all back into the units so that they can start the service with pre- departure safety presentation followed by serving refreshing lemonade.


Overall, pre-departure service was excellent. Staff were very professional in handling passengers arrival. Staff ensured passengers safety and comfort, and they actually did it soulfully, with all their heart, in full smile which in return made the passengers smiled. Not a single complaint heard, at least in our carriage.


Mr.Jual Husin

The Train Master, Mr Jual Husin, went around ticking the boxes in his check list. He ensured each passenger comfort and in full-swing, ready for the journey. Having completed his round in all 5 carriages, he proceeded with the thumbs-up for that harmonious sound of whistle and bells, an indication that the train is ready to leave Tanjung Aru Station.



We were served coffee/tea after that refreshing lemonade. Breakfast items were Toast with Magarine & Coconut Jam, Chicken Curry Puff, local soft cake made out of Rice Flour and coconut milk (Kuih Penjaram), last but not least, Steamed Cassava Parcels (Pais Ubi Kayu). Not that heavy but that serving alone was enough for us as in 2 hours time, we will be having our lunch. Staff were all over, pouring more coffee and tea whenever requested.


The Passport was meant for fun, every time the train was about to reach a station, crew will be stamping the passport with the names of the respective stations. Majority of today’s passengers were adults, but age factor did not stop everyone to get excited whenever there’s stamping needed on that passport.




Kinarut was our first stop. Kinarut is actually a very small town that is located about 20 kilometres south of the state capital, Kota Kinabalu. Passengers were seen happily disembarking from their respective carriages perhaps with much curiosity and anticipation in exploring the nearby temple.


We saw that big temple on the left hand side of the train before it stopped at the Kinarut Station. On the right hand side of the station there are few wooden shop houses. We both have been here before but we did not actually had the real opportunity to go through each of the small shops, this time around we went! Such antique buildings, we hope it stay that way for the years to come. Though some fixes are needed, maybe keeping the traditional elements of the building is wise.


Buddhist Tien Nam Shi Temple

Kinarut is under the administration of the Papar district. It is said that Kinarut originally belonged to the Sultanate of Brunei. Sultan Abdul Hakkul Mubin had to withdraw from Pulau Chermin (Chermin Island) during the Brunei Civil War in the late 17th century. He then built a base in Kinarut at a strategic location protected by two rivers. He was the Sultan of Kinarut for 10 years and during his reign incidents of piracy in the surrounding seas decreased significantly. Back to that temple, most of us opted to visit the temple after some short visit to the wooden shop houses.


We were all guided by an official from the North Borneo Railway and we crossed the rail track to get to the other side. It was at this place that many took some photos from different angles as the symmetrical rail track is one definite good subject in photography! 5 minutes walking and we reached the Buddhist Tien Nam Shi Temple.


Buddhist Tien Nam Shi Temple was built in honor of the Mainland Chinese by the local community over 40 year ago. It features 18 statues of Buddhist Monks, a lotus pond to commemorate Kwan Yin the Goddess of Mercy and a 20 foot smiling Buddha.


It was Saturday and we’re so lucky as on that day the Tamu or Open Market was there, right at the center of the town. After the temple, we quickly went to this Tamu and had such a wonderful time looking at all that produce by the locals. There were some sea weed, dried shrimps, anchovies, local fruits, vegetables and even fresh fish. Overall, we were quite happy to be here as we’ve seen 3 things namely the traditional wooden shophouses, magnificent temple and Tamu, the local market. After seeing all that, we went back to our carriage and were surprise by ‘something’.



We were surprised to see that all tables were already being set-up for lunch. Indeed we were hungry at that time. The setting was kind of what you get in high end restaurants with clean and shiny utensils. Napkins were properly folded by the crew.



Linda came to each table and properly placing the mini green towels onto its holder. That was very thoughtful as the towel was very fragrant, kind of lemon grass or something and most importantly, it’s icy cold! What better way to end the tour in Kinarut, sweating we all were, resulted from that sunny but beautiful day.

Lunch started with this mini serving of Hinava. Hinava is a local dish normally consumed as main but at times it’s good as starter as well. Raw mackerel were marinated in Lime Juice, Shallots and Ginger. Cooked by the acidity from the ingredients, it needed few minutes before serving.


Hinava (Starter)

The Hinava that was presented to us, perfect! It was delicious but we wish we get more than what was served to us. The portion was small, suited as starter but it will be nicer if it’s presented in larger portion. For vegetarians, you need to advise the sales person (your meal preferences) when purchasing train ticket(s).



…and our Tiffin Set Lunch…Opening the layers of the Tiffin was like opening gifts during Christmas. We were pretty excited to know what’s inside.

The first 2 layers were the BBQ Spiced boneless Chicken served with Sabah Brown Hill Rice followed by Fish Curry with Okra. The rice was all right, not that great but quite generous serving we say. The BBQ Chicken was amazingly delicious and but the size was quite small, only if it’s slightly bigger, that will be awesome. Fish Curry was awesome! Not that spicy and went well with the rice. The fish meat, tender, delicious and of generous portion, most importantly, deboned. Okra was fresh and crunchy, tomatoes added the acidity into that curry gravy. What’s not to like about this Fish Curry? Among the best that we have ever had.

The next 2 layers were the Stir-Fried Fern Shoots with prawns and sliced fresh fruits as dessert. The vegetable option, the Fern Shoots were cooked perfectly though a little bit salt might enhance the overall taste. Prawns were fresh and went well with that Fern Shoots. Generous portion though, that we did not finish eating this particular dish. Fruits are fruits but it was fresh and we appreciate it being served as dessert.


Overall, we think that the Fish Curry with Okra was the best dish of all four served to us. It really made us polished the rice served to us, both curry and rice blended well, harmoniously. The gravy was extremely delicious that we can’t actually stop consuming it until the last drop. Whoever cooked this dish must had infused some ‘thoughts’ into the cooking process, gained from many years of experience. Such an excellent dish.

Optional Beverages menu


Passenger in need to have more beverages may choose from the optional beverages menu as shown below. We did not order anything from this optional menu as the complimentary serving of Coffee/Tea and Lemonade were sufficient already.



The journey continued while passengers were having that awesome Tiffin Set Lunch. The Train took us through the 450 meters Pengalat Tunnel, which was built in the early 1900’s by the British. We reached Papar soon after and again passengers were excited to see part of this town. At this stop, there were 2 things that passengers were able to see. The first was the steam train turn table and second the colorful Papar Tamu/Market.


It was nice having the opportunity to take photo in front of the station, a proof that we were here recently! Papar is a town and a district located in the West Coast Division of the state of Sabah, Malaysia. It is 38 kilometres south of the state capital, Kota Kinabalu. It is located along the main federal highway linking the south of Sabah to Kota Kinabalu. The name ‘Papar’ comes from a Bruneian word meaning ‘flat or open land’. As with most of the west coast of Sabah, it was originally ruled by the Bruneian Sultanate.


Its first local leader was Datu Amir Bahar, of Bajau descent.It was then handed to the Overbeck and Dent brothers in 1877. The first British officer to serve in Papar was H.L. Leicester who took office in February 1878 aiming to increase Papar’s revenues.  He was replaced by Alfred Hart Everett after failing to improve Papar’s economic outlook.


Our train was in the further track and all passengers had to use the overhead bridge to get to the station side. A bit walking but worth it as we get to viewed the train from an elevated platform via the overhead bridge. Took some photos and straight we went to see that said turn table.


A railway turntable or wheelhouse is a device for turning railroad rolling strock , usually locomotives, so that they can be moved back in the direction from which they came. This needed in areas where economic considerations or a lack of sufficient space have served to weigh against the construction of a turnaround wye.

For the steam locomotives of North Borneo Railway (our train), railroads needed a way to turn the locomotives around for return trips as their controls were often not configured for extended periods of running in reverse and in many locomotives the top speed was lower in reverse motion. There’s a YouTube video by Gert-Jan Rejinders, showing that North Borneo Railway on Turn Table in Papar Railway Station.


We proceeded to Papar Central Market. As in other local markets around Sabah, this particular market is colorful and vibrant as well, full of produce from the locals themselves. There are also souvenirs here for you to purchase for your loved ones back home. Local snacks were pretty amazing when we had a closer look and we’re almost tempted to buy some. We did not as we were quite full! Prices are negotiable, the sellers are all polite and friendly.

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..back to Tanjung Aru


We went back to our carriage for the return journey to Tanjung Aru Station. Soon after the train started to run on the track, coffee was served. Thoughtful service we must say! Soon after, one crew came with his red basket.

He’s selling the souvenirs from North Borneo Railway, some postcards and cigarettes holder. We did not buy anything but our new friend, Frank from Melbourne, Australia shared with us his purchase, for us to take photos, thank you so much!


What better way to capture the great moments? Taking photo of me clinging to that exit while the train was moving!

On the way to Tanjung Aru, passengers were served Local Popsicle. Thoughtful service!


Soon after arrival, the crew lined up at the station’s exit to bid farewell to disembarking passengers. Everyone were in jovial mood, having completed a ride of a lifetime, on board North Borneo Railway. We were amazed with the high level of service given to us by the attentive crew. They were amazing in doing their things, most importantly they served us from within their soul. They worked from their heart, never stop smiling, from start to end.


Our thoughts

Worth paying for the experience

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Personally, we think that the North Borneo Railway is one great activity for not only the visitors to Sabah but for the locals as well. The price might be a bit high for some, but for us it is totally worth it to ‘invest’ purchasing that ticket(s) as the experience on board North Borneo Railway is truly amazing. We learnt so many new things. Although we are locals, there were some new things that we didn’t know about before going for this train ride. We felt the ‘soul & thoughts’ of those in British Era, be it the brits or the locals. The ride itself produced some amazing photos that we will be using in future photography competition(s).

The staff/crew

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All staff were truly amazing as they were all polite, friendly, smiled genuinely and professional in handling passengers. They worked since morning and they never got tired smiling all the time to all passengers. Of all,  we would like to nominate Arman as the best crew in North Borneo Railway. He’s energetic, moving around, quickly but maintaining his politeness, never stop smiling. He truly work from his heart. He was there whenever we needed someone to get things done.

The food


While the Stir Fried Fern Shoots needed some improvement in taste, the other dishes were amazingly delicious. We rated the Fish Curry with Okra as the best dish of all, a perfect score of 10 out of 10. The Hinava was great as well, though we were a bit greedy, wanting bigger portion of it. The complimentary coffee/tea and lemonade was good enough for us, the lemonade was truly refreshing especially it was sunny day when we were on the ride.

The train


The ambiance, exterior and interior are amazing, still are! Whoever re-designed and refurbished that carriages must have done his/her homework! Such a fine design with careful considerations towards the British influences decades ago. Passengers will be able to feel that ‘presence’ of the bygone era, something that you don’t have access to, everyday. It’s the North Borneo Railway that will help passenger to re connect the present to the past.

The delay

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Yes, there was a slight delay. People complaint about that in online platforms such as TripAdvisor. They forgot one thing though that this is Wood Burners they were talking (writing) about, a steam locomotive that they went on board to. This was a norm during the British era, things were slower, at an incredible slow pace during that olden days. The common people actually walked from one point to another, those with privilege certainly had that opportunity to be on board that slower train. Wood needs time to be burnt to produce that steam needed for the journey. You are about to go on board a train made decades ago, it is not the Shinkansen in Japan. Don’t expect things were faster 70 years ago. Don’t expect it either in the present North Borneo Railway.

Our Rating

Though we highlighted the Stir Fried Fern Shoots as the sole weakness (that need some improvement), overall, we were extremely satisfied with the experience on board the North Borneo Railway. A ride that we will never ever forget. A ride of a lifetime that we can tell our future kids, we went on that train, the train that has many stories link to it. Is that RM345 worth the experience? Absolutely yes. A BIG YES.

Rating: Excellent

Reading this article is never the same as experiencing the ride yourself. We therefore strongly recommend this service to all of you. 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 :


Photos copyright belongs to, North Borneo Railway & Sutera Harbour Resort
 Mention & Credit: North Borneo Railway by Sutera Harbour Resort & Sabah State Railway Department, The Engine Museum (United Kingdom), Our Angels (Tracy, Ana & Clara)