The International Steam Pages
The North Borneo Railway
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James Waite gives some historical background to the steam operation in Sabah, Malaysia, covering the period up to the time the railway closed for rebuilding in 2006..
The modern development of what is now Sabah began with the formation of the British North Borneo (Chartered) Company in 1881. In 1888 the British protectorate of North Borneo was established with the company becoming responsible for its internal affairs. Construction of the North Borneo Railway began in 1896 with the 20-mile (32km) section between Beaufort South and Weston. The work was overseen by A.J. West who was appointed Superintending Engineer by the company and the line opened in 1898.
In the following year construction began on the opposite side of the River Padas at Beaufort Town on the 57-mile (92km) stretch northwards along the province’s west coast coast to Jesselton (now named Kota Kinabalu) and this opened in 1902. The railway gradually extended inland from Beaufort through the narrow Padas gorge to Tenom and onwards through more open country to Melalap, 39 miles (63km) from Beaufort, which was reached in 1907. Apart from a few short branches or sidings used only for freight this marked the full extent of the railway.
One link which was never completed was the proposed bridge across the river at Beaufort and the Weston branch always remained unconnected to the rest of the system until it closed in 1963. The Tenom to Melalap section closed in 1966. (Dave Hayward was with the Gurkhas here in 1964/5 and saw a steam loco at Melalap but it's unclear if it was in steam added 11th June 2023. More recently trains at the northern end have terminated at Tanjung Aru to the south of the town centre of Kota Kinabalu though much of the track through the town was still in situ when we were there.
The line was originally worked by a group of 0-4-2 side tanks and 4-4-0 tender locos, some of which carried Penney and some Brush builders’ plates though there has been speculation that they were all actually built by Brush. After 1900 a series of light 4-6-0’s appeared, the majority of which were built by Kerr Stuart who also supplied further 0-4-2T’s. The last of these 4-6-0’s to run, no. 14 “Maitland” was restored to working order in 1955 to mark the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the railway in Kota Kinabalu. It was intended to preserve it but very sadly it was mistakenly sold for scrap in 1958, reputedly while the railway’s CME was away on holiday.
In 1912 four handsome 4-6-4 side tank locos were built by Hunslet. One of these is preserved, considerably altered but still as a 4-6-4T, in the Sabah Museum in Kota Kinabalu. It was originally numbered 14 and named “Kinabalu” after the large mountain which dominates the view from much of the west of the province but was renamed “Sir H. Ralph Hone” in 1953 after the colonial governor of the day. It was renumbered 7 under a renumbering scheme carried out in 1954.
Another of the four, “Gaya”, originally no. 13 and no. 6 under the 1954 scheme, was rebuilt as a 4-6-0 in 1954.The frame, at least, of the tender from “F.C. Stoop”, one of the Kerr Stuart locos, was adapted for this conversion and it may be that the old side tanks were adapted to provide the tender tank. “Gaya” is also preserved at the museum. Both these locos were recovered in very poor condition after the Japanese occupation and required extensive reconstruction after the war. They were retained after most of the older locos had been withdrawn to work the lightly laid Tenom-Melalap line. Hunslet also supplied two small 0-6-4 side tank locos in 1913 for use on local passenger trains and for shunting and ballast train work. Traffic on the railway had never been very heavy and many of the locos were kept in store for lengthy periods in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
No further locos were acquired for many years apart from a four wheeled Sentinel loco which arrived in 1927. It was not an immediate success and two years later was rebuilt by lengthening its wheelbase and fitting a superheater which involved the provision of a small smokebox which projected through one end of the loco.
In this form it was quite successful. It was used for shunting for many years and after the late 1940’s spent some years on the Weston branch. After a final spell back on shunting work at Kota Kinabalu it was withdrawn in 1963 and is now preserved at the museum. It did not carry a number until being allocated number 13 under the 1954 scheme and fitted with the pre-1954 numberplates from “Gaya” – misleading this as the plate includes “Gaya’s” building date of 1912, long before the first Sentinels had first seen the light of day!
To help with the railway’s recovery from the damage inflicted upon it during the Japanese occupation three 0-6-0 tram locos were acquired from Belgium in 1949. One of them, “Emma”, proved to be completely worn out and was never put into service. The other two, “Elisa” and “Celine”, were stripped of their overall tram engine clothing and worked as shunters for a few years until replaced by diesels.
Few of the pre-WW2 locos survived the early 1950’s. “Sir H. Ralph Hone” was the last of the 4-6-4T’s in something like their original form to survive and was probably withdrawn soon after 1960. No. 13, the Sentinel, went in 1963 and “Gaya” had probably gone by 1965. It’s good that all three are now at the museum and this is a little recompense for the loss of “Maitland”. (There are pictures of the three locos in the museum in Chris Yapp's 2011 report, RD.)
The final steam locos were three 2-6-2’s, no’s. 14, 15 and 16 supplied by Vulcan Foundry in 1955, the last steam locos to be built by them. They are much larger and more powerful than any of the older locos and are in many respects a shorter version of a series of 2-8-2’s built by Vulcan Foundry to the Indian YD specification for the Burma Railways in the late 1940’s. They were the factory’s last steam locos, being constructed immediately after it had completed a large batch of the 31 class 2-8-4’s for the EAR.
No’s. 14 and 15 were woodburners as all the railway’s previous locos had been. However no. 16 was built as an oil-burner. They worked until the early 1970’s when they were put in store after replacement by diesels. Due to the comparatively short length of the railway they had only covered a small mileage and were still in very good mechanical condition.
In the late 1990’s no’s 15 and 16 were taken out of store and overhauled to work a tourist train, initially twice a week, between Tanjung Aru and Papar, a little short of mid-way along the line to Beaufort. Five carriages built in the 1970’s were refurbished to form the train along with a former diesel railcar which was adapted to form a kitchen car.
In 2006 the daily services on what is now the Sabah State Railway were handled by quite a miscellany of diesels. Detailed info about them is hard to come by. They included at least two types of B-B diesels and one series of 4w shunters built in Japan. Trains through the gorge beyond Beaufort consisted mostly, if not entirely, of short trains hauled by the B-B’s. Services over the remainder of the line were worked mostly by railcars which bore no obvious indications of their origin so far as I could see but which were said to have been built in Italy.
Several small Wickham railcars survived in the shed at Tanjung Aru along with others which looked as they they, too, may have been built in Japan. The star attraction amongst the diesels was definitely Hunslet 4216/1951, a smartly maintained 6w diesel numbered 21 in the 1954 scheme but which had become no. 4101 by 2006. It was one of a pair, the other being preserved in the forecourt of Tanjung Aru station.
Steam Loco list
This loco list is drawn entirely from a lengthy article by the late Arthur Garry which appeared in the April 1970 issue of The Industrial Railway Record. I’ve made use of much other info from the article along with some which comes from the Sabah Museum’s guidebook to its railway exhibits. Mr. Garry worked in Borneo between 1915 and 1938 and there’s a great deal of more detailed info in the article than I have included. Sadly he died shortly before the article was published. The Industrial Railway Society is in the course of digitising the earlier issues of their magazine and publishing them on its website. Frustratingly this issue is the earliest which hasn’t yet been digitised.