The International Steam Pages

A Garland of Islands, Part 10. Asia 1

Robert Hall writes about island railways of the world in a series of articles:

Click here for the other parts:

Starting this essay about various – overall, I feel, lesser-known – Asian islands served nowadays or in the past, by public railways, at furthest point northward; and working basically south. Grateful acknowledgements for information to Harvey Smith re Sakhalin, and Ian Simpson re Hainan.

C.S. Small’s musing on the connoisseur’s envisaged bragging about having “done” a railway in a place which no-one ever visits -- high on the list of such challenging targets, must come the island of Sakhalin. One of the world’s many islands briefly-describable as “long (in this case, 1000 km or so north-to-south) and thin”. Russian territory, just east of the Siberian mainland, on the same basic latitude (50 degrees North) as Brussels and Kiev, but – pace global warming – climatically colder and more forbidding. A place which rightly or wrongly, long ticked my personal boxes in the “ultimate foul hell-holes” department. Ascribable to my first having learnt of it, in childhood, in one of the “boys’ / young adult” novels by W.E. Johns about his RAF heroes, “Biggles” and his devoted sidekicks. This was in the 1950s, latish in the author’s career: Cold War time, where the USSR were the bad guys – they were for sure, no prize; but partisans in that quarrel did not strive to be objective. More than half a century on, I forget nearly all of the tale: recall only that it involved a good guy of some kind, who had been incarcerated by the Soviets in a prison camp on Sakhalin; and for whatever reason of crucial advantage for the West, he had to be rescued from there. Biggles & Co. got the rescuing job. Mr. Johns relays discussion between them as to how to set about it; in which Sakhalin is characterised as one of the most horrible parts – climatically, and in many other ways – of horrible and sinister Russia. Mention is made of the body of water separating it from the mainland – the Strait of Tartary, which struck me aged nine, as a name redolent of menacing creepiness. (See link dead by 25th August 2015 RD.)

Sakhalin has indeed long had grim associations; was a favourite location for penal settlements in Tsarist times – that tradition was enthusiastically followed by those in charge after the Revolution. In fact, the island was long something of a political “football” between Russia and Japan (its southernmost tip is only a short way across the La Perouse Strait, from Japan proper’s furthest-north island of Hokkaido); through much of the nineteenth century, Sakhalin was rather a free-for-all, with on the whole Russia doing her thing further north, and Japan further south. A treaty in 1875 awarded the whole island to Russia; another in 1905, after the Russo-Japanese War, partitioned the island, with Russia keeping the northern half, and Japan getting the other sector, south of the abovementioned 50th parallel of latitude. Soon afterward, the Japanese began to develop railways on their “standard” 1067mm gauge, in their portion of the island (which they called Karafuto). Russian place-names hereafter used exclusively: the island’s “Japanese” system finally comprised over 700km, with a basic north-south main line between Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (the island’s chief city, in its far south) and a point just short of the 50th-parallel border; and subsidiary lines in the south of the island, featuring among other routes, one from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk to Kholmsk on the island’s west coast, thence some 150km northward along that coast. (For a map showing the railways of the island see dead by October 2014

In areas akin to the thriller for juvenile readership, mentioned above: near the very end of the Second World War World and near the end of southern Sakhalin’s time as Japanese territory, there occurred an episode which was a real-life piece of warlike derring-do, the very stuff of old-fashioned exciting reading material for boys. The US submarine “Barb” with her famously audacious skipper and crew, was patrolling along south Sakhalin’s eastern coast. The sub’s personnel developed an “itch” to do a bit of token damage to the busy railway route which closely hugged that coast. A scheme was worked out to accomplish that, involving landing a small volunteer shore party under cover of night, to lay right beneath the rail track, an improvised explosive charge which, via an electric battery, should detonate under the weight of the first train which passed over it. The deed was done in the early hours of July 23rd 1945 – with great success: as the party was returning in their canoe to the submarine, they were treated to the sight of their device spectacularly wrecking a train: the locomotive’s boiler exploded, and the hauled vehicles concertina-ed into each other and burst into flame.

The submariners were elated at their exploit – the more so, for the sheer cheekiness of it, and the great rarity and oddity of a railway train’s featuring in a naval craft’s “kill” list; the “Barb” ‘s already legendary reputation was thus added to. One could wonder whether there were perhaps among the crew, a gricer or two who might have felt miserable and guilty about their vessel’s feat, rather than triumphant; but “they’d signed up for the bad, as well as the good”. (See for the detials of this cracking yarn which happens to be true.)

Immediately after World War II, southern Sakhalin was annexed by the USSR; with the oddity thus coming about, of the Soviet Railways acquiring a certain kilometrage of 1067mm gauge lines – a gauge which they possessed nowhere else (though there had been some incidence of 1067mm for public lines in European Russia, in the earlier days of railways in that country – all converted to Russian standard 1524mm gauge before the Revolution). “Cape gauge” remained the norm on Sakhalin for a very long time; and post-1945, Soviet Railways considerably extended the island’s public rail system; biggest achievement in this, was pushing the south-to-north main line northward to Nogliki, on the east coast and some two-thirds of the way between Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and the island’s northern tip. The system totalled just over 1,000km at its post-WWII peak. In the early 1970s, a rail ferry – with appropriate adaptations for the 1524mm / 1067mm break of gauge – was introduced between Kholmsk, and the mainland rail terminus of Sovyetskaya Gavan; some 300km, and taking approximately ten hours for the crossing.

As is apt to be the way when politics tantalisingly prevent access to, or reliable information out of, a place of perceived rail interest; enthusiasts entertained themselves by fantasising about Sakhalin as a possible railway Shangri-La of a bleak kind, with presumably Japanese steam types, “inherited” in 1945, busily at work in a Soviet setting. For many decades, Sakhalin was totally off-limits to Western visitors, who were confined to giving their imaginations free rein. Fragments of info, at first often vague and contradictory, began to filter out in the 1980s. Initial slight tendencies toward confirming the “Shangri-La” image, were replaced by a more realistic consensus; that whilst steam on Sakhalin had lasted longer than on many sectors of the Soviet Railways, it finished much earlier than the absolute end of Soviet / Russian commercial steam. Per apparently best available sources, dieselisation began on Sakhalin in 1967, with the introduction of 1067mm versions of the TG16 diesel loco class; followed by class TG21 ditto. By the late 1970s, regular-service steam had been eliminated in favour of diesel traction.

It would appear that what the TG16 / TG21 replaced, were a fair number of the modern Japanese mixed-traffic class D51 2-8-2, slightly adapted for arduous Sakhalin conditions – taken over in 1945, and / or supplied as war reparations by Japan to the USSR in the late 1940s; and sixty USA Transportation Corps type S160 2-8-0s, originally built to 1524mm gauge and supplied to the Soviet Union in the Second World War, regauged to 1067mm in 1958, and assigned to Sakhalin. 1524mm gauge S160 were classified Ша, the converted 1067mm ones Шу. One of these latter is understood to have long survived on the island, after withdrawal; its restoration and preservation were earnestly hoped for, because of its having been believed the last of its class extant in the former USSR – all 1524mm gauge Ша had been scrapped. Tragically, this final example of the Cape-gauge version followed them into oblivion; it was observed being cut up in 2000.

It would appear that the Japanese 2-8-2s were classified by the Soviet Railways as – D51 (Roman alphabet !) “Go figure !” as they say – especially in this general part of the world: the Chinese and Japanese railways seem always to have opted for the Roman alphabet for their locomotive class-designations. From a Westerner’s point of view: Cyrillic writing is maybe less daunting than rocket science – but as regards sheer practicality, China and Japan’s using Roman characters for locos, is something for which to “thank God fasting”. Examples of class D51 are still extant on Sakhalin; but face a problem, in that the Russian railways are in the process of converting the island’s rail system to the country’s standard 1524mm gauge. D51-4 is kept in working order for use on tourist / enthusiast specials; but her scope for routes on which to run, is becoming progressively less, and is seen as dwindling in the end, to nothing. D51-22 is preserved static, in fine condition, at Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk railway station. A couple more of the Mikados exist in ruinous condition, not far from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Several ex-Sakhalin D51 have been acquired for preservation in Japan; it could be that anyhow some members of the class now on Sakhalin, could go southwards likewise – even the derelicts could be of use as a source of spare parts. There are indications that Russia may well wish to keep at least one D51, in view of historical considerations; one hopes for the matter to be amicably worked out.

Regauging of Sakhalin’s railways is largely prompted by strong hopes of there coming to be a physical rail link with the mainland. Gauge conversion began in 2003; completion of the project is forecast for a variety of dates, 2017 looking to be the favourite. The method chiefly used for regauging, involves resleepering; then a spell of the track being three-rail, accommodating both gauges; after which the middle rail is done away with, and the line is thereafter 1524mm only.

As has been in years gone by: in these times during which the 1067mm gauge still obtains, albeit ever-lessening -- tourist-oriented / gricer-chartered steam specials run on occasion, hauled as mentioned above by the beautifully-maintained D51-4. There seems to be a – not very vigorous – effort to attract tourists to Sakhalin (foreign visitors were first admitted there in 1989); one wonders whether Russia might be missing out on a money-spinning opportunity here, with the possibility of intensively marketing Sakhalin as a rugged far-north scenery-and-wildlife paradise, analogous to “not a million miles away” Alaska. Russia has from way back, a sad record of wantonly careless and harmful treatment of the natural environment, and visitors to Sakhalin have seen there, a fair amount of evidence of such doings -- however, one might take the optimistic view that it is a big place, quite sparsely populated; and nature and wildlife are remarkably tough and resilient.

It is gathered that, through the throes of regauging, the majority of Sakhalin’s rail system has remained in use. Over the past two decades or so, a couple of hundred branch-line kilometres appear to have closed – whether to passenger service, or completely – but the majority of the system remains in action, served often by mixed trains.

The current drive for a link with the mainland is nothing new; there have long been plans and notions, dating from Soviet times and earlier, for a rail bridge or tunnel from continental Siberia to Sakhalin. At its narrowest point toward the north of the island, the Strait of Tartary is only a few kilometres across – this is where the rail link would be. Such a connection would require new rail construction for some 500 / 600km on the mainland, and another 100km-odd on Sakhalin. Under Stalin in the early 1950s, work was commenced – mostly using prisoner labour – on a tunnel under this narrowest part of the strait; but this project did not get very far, and was abolished after Stalin’s death. The idea has been revived in recent times, enthusiastically promoted by some in high places in Russia; a bridge, rather than a tunnel, is now seen as the solution.

Ideas in the wild-and-wonderful progressive “across the water” sphere, which have indeed been seriously entertained, or in part achieved in sober fact: how about a bridge linking Sakhalin’s southern tip across the 40-km-wide La Perouse Strait, to Japan’s northernmost point on Hokkaido island? Such works are far from impossible, given the will. Dreams prompted, of uninterrupted rail travel London-to-Tokyo; there has been since 1988, a rail tunnel between Hokkaido and Japan’s main island of Honshu. Some gauge-contention seen, 1435mm vis-à-vis 1524mm (even with the Cape gauge out of the way); but this could, for sure, be sorted out. Imagining alternative history where Japan and the USSR were not in opposite camps in World War II – or said war never happening – this wondrous scenario might have come to pass well before the dawn of the 21st century.

Even without any actual rail link with Hokkaido; the instituting of the mainland / Sakhalin bridge and the new lines associated with it, would mean a change of focus for the eastern end of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Vladivostok would be eclipsed, for sea access to Japan, by Korsakov – the ferry port a little way south of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk; the 40km crossing over the strait to Hokkaido is a much shorter one.

The 1067mm-gauge-as-has-been, has not comprised the whole of Sakhalin’s rail story. Instituted in post-WWII Soviet times: there has been close to the island’s far northern end, a 1524mm gauge line (dieselised early) some 30km long, from the oilfield at Okha, to its designated port. Per recent information, the oilfield seems to be worked out, and the area is moribund.

And a 750mm-gauge light railway was constructed to run some 250km south from Okha, to meet up with the 1067mm gauge a little way south of Nogliki – a kind of “Promontory Point” situation understood to have been accomplished in 1953. These lines in the far north of the island are reckoned never to have operated under Soviet Railways aegis, but to have been basically industrial railways – though in the Communist world, there have been wider grey areas between “industrial”, and “common-carrier”, railways, than obtained further west. Passenger working happened on these on Sakhalin, for sure – even if mostly of a “workmen’s trains” kind. The fairly meagre information available, indicates that the 750mm line, originally steam-worked, was dieselised as from 1975; its passenger services, such as they were, withdrawn in 1980; and the line was finally abandoned in 2006. In the matter of hard-to-get-to railway byways – Mr. Small, meet your match...

(For a fairly recent account of the railways of Sakhalin see Harvey Smith's writings and pictures, Tim Littler organised a steam charter here in 2000. There are many pictures in a Russian language page

A very long way south-west from “Russian Cape-gauge land” – Hainan Island, the southernmost part of the People’s Republic of China. A little distance south of the Tropic of Cancer; and by the PRC’s rather shop-soiled standards for pleasant environments, in the sort-of tropical-paradise category. The island is roughly egg-shaped: some 250km maximum across one way, and some 150km the other; modestly mountainous in the centre, and divided from the mainland by a narrow strait.

Ever since the People’s Republic became visitable by railway enthusiasts, its attraction in railway terms, certainly on the standard 1435mm gauge, has been based on quantity rather than variety: anything in this sphere even a little outside the norm, has tended to attract greater interest than might have been so, in more “spoilt-for-choice” places. Hainan is a case in point.

The island first acquired railways during Japan’s attempted war of conquest against China, late-1930s onward and segueing into World War II. Hainan was Japanese-occupied from early in the conflict, and in 1939 and the early 1940s, the occupiers inaugurated a rail route to a total of 250-odd km, parallel to the island’s west and south coasts, and thence running inland from the port of Basuo at the island’s western extremity, to Shilu. These lines were built to Japan’s customary 1067mm gauge, and are thought to have been made primarily for the purpose of winning and exporting the island’s iron ore, for the war effort – a goal which came to be mostly thwarted in the latter stages of World War II, by Allied destruction of Japanese shipping. The Japanese-built lines are reported to have been destroyed around 1946 / 47 by violent typhoons. They were reinstated piecemeal over the following decades by the Chinese state railways, on 1435mm gauge.

During the long years of railway enthusiasts’ exclusion from the PRC, the existence and approximate location of railways on Hainan became known – but absolutely no more than this bare fact. Even after gricers were first able to penetrate the “Bamboo Curtain” in the mid-1970s, the vast country’s opening up for curious railfans was a gradual process. With its quickly having become apparent that the state railways’ steam fleet was to a high degree modern and standardised on a limited number of classes; people inevitably went into imagining-and-wishful-thinking overdrive, concerning far-flung and still forbidden parts of the system, where exceptions to this situation might perhaps obtain. (Somewhat the same phenomenon as occurred in respect of Soviet Sakhalin.) Hainan was an instance of this – a rumour arose, that Atlantics had once worked on the island’s lines, and might perhaps still do so. A venturesome enthusiast was at last able to make it to the island, travelling independently, in 1985. Operational-Atlantic-related hopes were dashed – though the remains of a 4-4-2T, of a type rebuilt in the 1920s from a turn-of-the-century American-made 4-4-0 class, were indeed found in existence on the island in ’85.

Less exciting than the wildest longings, but still noteworthy: Hainan was found in the mid-1980s to be a stronghold of a type which was becoming rare in China as a whole – the class JF 2-8-2. These were quite “blocky”-looking locomotives, without smoke deflectors. The type was divided into many sub-classes (“detail variations on a basic theme”) – in part, sub-classified according to a wide range of origins: some, pre-1949, were built in the USA, some in Japan, some in Czechoslovakia. China built many JF of her own after the People’s Republic was established.

In 1985, Hainan’s lines were operated by “standard-mode” JF – some being Japanese-built mid-1930s onward. There were found out of use at locosheds, examples of class JF[8], built by Škoda 1936 on; and 2-8-0s of class KD[5], Japanese-built quite early in the 20th century. Curious, that many locos then found on Hainan were of Japanese make – although the island’s defunct Japanese-built lines had been of a different, narrower gauge; but it appears likeliest that this “Japanese touch” was no more than coincidence. In 1985, Hainan’s rail system was in two separate sections: Basuo to Shilu, and the other line running some 100km along the south coast. The former line was relatively busy; for the latter, one mixed train each way per day, sufficed. Construction was in progress, of a link between the two sections, reinstating the old Japanese line; by one account, the link line was opened late that year.

JF ruled on Hainan for another decade, in the course of which they became extremely rare on the mainland; then in early 1996, a couple of diesel locos and a number of the modern JS class 2-8-2s, were introduced to the island. The JF apparently lingered on for a while. My friend B, a number of “bashes” in whose company I have recounted in “Travellers’ Tales”, visited Hainan in August 1996. He observed for certain, one JF in steam, plus a couple of other locos re whose identity “the jury was out” – their numbers not identifiable for sure. (He happened to have a brain which was highly numeric; he was not good at recognising loco types by their appearance, and relied heavily on number series for identification.)

It is understood that by the year 2000, Hainan’s JF were finished; a report from that year tells of haulage being a mixture of JS, and diesel. A little JS action was observed in early 2003; but a year later, the island’s rail services were all-diesel. At the general time of the 20th / 21st century transition, a new line was inaugurated from Shilu to the island’s capital Haikou, opposite Hai’an, the southernmost town on the Chinese mainland; with corresponding inauguration of new mainland trackage to Hai’an, and the launching of a train ferry service – initially for freight wagons, later for passengers – between mainland and island. All this has been progressively improved and modernised during the past decade or so. Overall, heartening stuff to hear about; the sentimental might wish for Hainan Island to have long continued as a steam haven, even up to the present day – but “sentimental”, and the People’s Republic of China, emphatically do not mix. (For information on the JF class, see

And on, a couple of thousand kilometres further southward, to Indonesia. This country was the Netherlands East Indies until after World War II; its railways grew up under Dutch rule. As regards public railways: their “default” gauge in this land has always been 1067mm, and has become universal there in the past two or three decades. Very largely, common-carrier railways in NEI / Indonesia have always been confined to its two most prominent and developed islands, Java and Sumatra. Java had at peak, a unified rail system running to nearly all corners of the island – this basically applies today, although many lesser lines have closed. Sumatra boasts three geographically separate systems, one of them formerly part-1067mm gauge and part-750mm. I consider Java and Sumatra’s rail scene “too big and too well-known” to qualify for inclusion in these articles. Indonesia’s “discovery” circa 1970 by the railfan community, as a treasure-house of working steam of all imaginable kinds, sizes, and ages – although the whole set-up was physically and operationally in poor shape, and became more so year by year – went on to make all aspects of its principal rail scene, well-known to most enthusiasts with an international interest.

The huge island of Borneo – about two-thirds of it Dutch then Indonesian, the remaining northern third British then Malaysian (no offence meant to the neighbouring tiny railwayless nation of Brunei; but in the interests of keeping things simple, am glossing over it here) – has never had public railways in its Indonesian sector. (As mentioned below -- had history gone differently, this matter might have panned out otherwise.) The only public-rail presence ever on the island, has been in a very small corner of its -- British-then-Malaysian -- north-eastern end: originally the North Borneo Railway, now the Sabah State Railway, and still alive and kicking. Metre gauge, as in “Peninsular Malaysia” and Thailand; running essentially southward for at maximum nearly 200km, from the capital city of Kota Kinabalu. Ever since my first learning of it fifty-plus years ago, my gut feeling about this system has been that – its exotic setting notwithstanding – it strikes me as rather “small beer”, and in itself not immensely interesting. Others will, and do, feel otherwise. So – sorry, Sabah State Railway: you get here, only this glancing mention. You have plenty of fans, and I’m sure you can survive my not being one of them. (For a more sympathetic account see James Waite's historical notes and Rob Dickinson's report of a 2001 visit, with links to other reports.)

Public railways have existed on a couple of other islands of Indonesia. The island of Madura – a little over 100km long, measuring a good deal less across – lies just off eastern Java, over a narrow strait from the big port of Surabaya (famous in its time, for its urban steam-tram route, part of the Indonesian state railways’ system, which lasted in everyday service until a remarkably late date). There came to be on Madura in the colonial era, a rail mini-system. A present-day observer might feel a little surprised that this came about regarding Madura, rather than Bali -- equally close to Java, though further east -- a renowned tourist magnet, and a general focus for attention and interest; whereas in the world as a whole, probably only one person out of many hundreds of thousands has so much as heard of Madura. One takes it, though, that a hundred-plus years ago, priorities were different.

Madura’s lines (1067mm gauge) began at the ferry port of Kamal, opposite to Surabaya’s out-port of Udjong. Two routes, dividing 6km out: one shorter one heading north-then-east, one longer one running east to the island’s main town Pamekasan, about two-thirds of the island’s full length. When railfans first found Indonesia, Madura’s lines were running, and steam-worked; by several six-coupled and eight-coupled tank loco classes. In the early 1970s, a few enthusiasts made it across the strait to Kamal, and briefly saw steam thus in action there; as best is known, though, none stayed “across the water” at length and explored the island’s lines. In a situation of, usually, little time available for the visitor -- fairly “penny-plain” tank types on Madura, were no rivals to such things in daily service on Java proper, as various types of Mallet; and different classes of ancient (and modern !) four-coupled tender locos; and tram and quasi-tram engines of assorted shapes and sizes running on roadside lines.

Madura in any case went diesel fairly early – dieselisation complete as at 1975. With the country’s general tendency toward decline of rural and secondary lines, in response to various forces including intense road competition, Madura’s lines fell into disuse not very long after that date. Material worth salvaging, was taken off to Java; otherwise, all was left to deteriorate, rather than being reclaimed. Visits about ten years ago at the time of writing, found much remaining track and effects, in ruinous condition. Local authorities and local enterprise are understood to have hopes at the present time, of possibly restoring public rail services on Madura, linked with the building which is reckoned under way, of a bridge connecting the island with the Java mainland. Call me a cynic; but I wonder what is the Indonesian for “don’t hold your breath”...? (For pictures of the railway search Google images for "kereta api Madura".)

Indonesia’s other one-time public rail venue, was on Sulawesi – next island east of Borneo: the one which on the map, looks a bit like an octopus gone wrong. For a pretty well ephemerally short time-span (1922 – 1930), a 1067mm gauge public line ran from the island’s chief city near its southern tip – Makassar, alternatively named Ujung Panjang – southward not quite 50km, to Takalar. In the 1920s, the colonial authorities had ambitious plans for extensive further public railways in Sulawesi, and in Borneo; and for linking up the three separate systems in Sumatra, and extensively electrifying the main lines in Java. The financial crash of 1929 and ensuing global economic depression, meant that these things were not to be. 

Regarding public railways worldwide, Makassar – Takalar must be very close to the top of the list of far-flung lines which the fewest-ever lucky railfans experienced first-hand. A close rival for the “gold award” here, would seem to be – appropriately, with Asia in the broadest sense being under discussion – the metre-gauge Aden Railway (Aden – El Khudad). An almost eerie similarity: this, and the Makassar line, all-but identical both in route length, and in dates operational as public carriers: in the case of Aden, period 1922 – 1929. Super-rare acquisitions both, especially in an era before universal and rapid air travel...

(The current state of the course of the former railway has been documented by Indonesian enthusiast Kang Bas - (link dead by April 2015) 15Mb Indonesian language.)

Rob Dickinson