A ride on the jungle railway

The railway in North Borneo: a short history

Despite Borneo being larger in area than France and Benelux combined, there’s only ever been one significant railway on the island. It’s still operational and harks back to the colonial days when the North Borneo Chartered Company (NBCC) administered what is now Sabah.

The original ‘business case’ for the railway was based on the transportation of tobacco from plantations in the inaccessible interior to port and onward carriage to London and beyond. Construction began in 1896 and the Tenom – Beaufort leg that is the focus of our journey was built between 1903-1905. Later NBCC, and in turn the railway got lucky as the advent of the motor-car industry coupled with World War I resulted in a huge demand for rubber, of course plentiful on Borneo. This was carried on the railway which by then had been extended to the port at Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu). The network was destroyed during the Japanese occupation in World War II however was subsequently rebuilt and was further upgraded between 2006-2011.

Ready for departure on the railway from Tenom

Enough of the history lesson! So why are Michael, a friend visiting from Surrey and I riding the train today? Although the Tenom – Beaufort stretch is only 49km in length, it’s cut through virgin jungle following the Padas river and one of not too many opportunities around the world to take a train ride through the jungle.

Jabatan Keretapi Negeri Sabah (JKNS) - Sabah State Railways Department operate two daily trains from Tenom to Beaufort however only the 7:30 a.m. departure allows a same-day connection to ‘KK’, today’s destination. We arrived at Tenom station just after seven and bought tickets. Prior to boarding and ensuring that our train-spotter acrylic anoraks were properly zipped-up, Michael located a plate on our diesel engine stating that it was built in Kobe in Japan in 1971 by Kawasaki Heavy Industries. The engine is pulling two carriages, older and possibly from the 1950s: the first is what would be termed a ‘combi’ in the airline world as it has a large expanse of floor for cargo as well as a dozen seats whilst we make ourselves comfortable in the second carriage that contains around 70 seats, most of which are occupied. There’s no buffet car but that’s fine as we’ve brought local biskut and kacang (peanuts) with us to nibble on the journey.

Travelling by train through the Borneo jungle

We departed on time with nearly 80 passengers on board and trundled along at a maximum speed of what I would guess would be approaching 25mph. On the outskirts of town, we met up with our partner for the trip, the Padas river and we remained steadfastly on the river’s northern bank for the duration of our journey to Beaufort. At this stage the river is slow and lazy but that would change…

We headed north-westerly towards Beaufort. On our left, the Padas river is close, at times within ten metres of the track and the backdrop behind the river are magnificent tree-covered rainforest hills that rise as high as 2,500 feet above sea level. To our right, there’s dense and seemingly impenetrable jungle. Between the track and the river Banana trees grow wild, many with ripe crop that I suspect will go uneaten, at least by humans. Fifteen minutes on, we saw the Pangi Dam which is powering the nearby hydroelectric plant and the brown waters of the Padas are transformed to raging torrents.

Pangi Dam: looking upstream from the rear of the train

Pangi Dam: looking upstream from the rear of the train

We saw early morning cloud and mist hanging over the rainforest that constantly moved and as it was below the highest point of the treeline it gave a rather ethereal appearance. More hydroelectric related buildings came into view and then just after 8 a.m. we arrived at Stesen Pangi (Pangi Station) and around a dozen children in school uniform alighted to walk the couple of hundred metres to the local school.

Sungai Padas  / River Padas - the mist lingers and in the foreground there are banana trees

Sungai Padas / River Padas - the mist lingers and in the foreground there are banana trees

The next station is Rayoh, around half an hour away and beside the line the Banana trees are joined by ferns and wild purple hibiscus flowers. The sun started to break through and the early morning mist and cloud started to burn off. I took the ride to Rayoh in the ‘goods wagon’ and although it doesn’t have windows the large freight door remains open and provides welcome ventilation and an excellent view of the river and jungle beyond. I scoured the river for crocodiles but alas saw none, not even a large amount of driftwood that I could have tried to convince myself was really a crocodile!

Enjoying the ride…view from the goods wagon and in the foreground growing behind the yellow sign are wild yam (local vegetable)

Enjoying the ride…view from the goods wagon and in the foreground growing behind the yellow sign are wild yam (local vegetable)

Change of trains at Halogilat Station!

After Rayoh, the next stop is Halogilat and the big surprise here was that we were instructed by the guard to change train! The new train is more modern, has air-con and the bonus is that we can sit next to the driver at the front of the carriage that seats around sixty and look forward, straight along the track. We learnt that JKNS had acquired this train from India several years ago and this was confirmed by a plate stating ‘OEPL’ that we spied on the engine (I later learnt that Ovis Equipments Pvt Ltd is a train manufacturer based in Hyderabad).

Arrival at Beaufort

A few minutes later we arrived at Saliwangan, the penultimate station prior to Beaufort. I say penultimate but all along the line there are small unnamed and unmanned platforms that act as ‘request stops’ and we regularly stopped to pick-up / drop-off passengers. The train is now 80% full and there is evidence of produce going to market as the aroma of freshly caught fish and durian fruit pervades the carriage! As we travelled towards Beaufort, the hills became less steep and high as we leave the Crocker Range behind, the jungle less impenetrable and the Padas wider and quieter.

The ‘new’ train provided a great view of the track ahead - here, we’re just about to pick up a couple of passengers at a ‘request’ stop

The ‘new’ train provided a great view of the track ahead - here, we’re just about to pick up a couple of passengers at a ‘request’ stop

The challenges of running this line are not to be underestimated; fallen trees and landslides are regular challenges and remember there are no roads. I imagine the only way to resolve such problems is to send another train…costly and time-consuming. An impressive operation.

We arrived at Beaufort bang on schedule at 0951 which gave us an average travelling speed, including stops of just around 13 mph. But this wasn’t around speed, it was about the joy of travelling through a special landscape with local people going about their daily routine…and if you do want to drive from Tenom to Beaufort then the 49km becomes 126km and takes about the same time!

The price of a ticket? Two Ringgit and seventy-five Sen which works out at just over 50p. A bargain and highly recommended for anyone who wants a very different railway experience to the 0751 to Waterloo.

Michael and I went for a late breakfast / early elevenses in Beaufort prior to returning to travel on the connecting train to Kota Kinabalu however that’s a story for another blog.

Blue Kinabalu Travel Agency, upon request would be delighted to arrange a trip that includes the jungle railway, and other exciting local attractions as part of a bespoke tour.

Arriving at Beaufort station

Arriving at Beaufort station

Top Tip for Visitors:

Arrive at the station at least 20 minutes prior to departure - just to soak up the atmosphere!

Take some nibbles and soft drinks to enjoy on the ride.

About Martin

Martin is a British expat living in Kota Kinabalu who arranges tailored tours within Sabah primarily for British and Western tourists on behalf of Blue Kinabalu Travel Agency. Please help spread the word about beautiful Sabah and share this post using the social share buttons below.