Taking a ride on the New (old) North Borneo Railway

The historical North Borneo Railway opens once more in Sabah, Malaysia
The historical North Borneo Railway opens once more in Sabah, Malaysia

The oldest railway in Borneo

The railway in Sabah, Borneo has a long history dating back to 1896 when it was constructed to transport tobacco from Borneo’s interior to the coast for shipping.

Before coming to Borneo I could not get any good information about the railway line nor train. Some said it was working, others said it had been closed down since 2007. Others again said it was still under repair.

What’s worse, is that conflicting information online mentioned an old steam-train was also operational in the area … maybe. The website to the steam train looked more like a holiday resort than anything to do with train information.

Even when I first arrived people told me the train in Kota Kinabalu was not working.

So the only thing to do, is find out for yourself!

The North Borneo Railway reopened in February 2011!

After a  near five year refitting, new trains, and repaired lines the old historic railway route is now open for business once again. The train’s relaunching consisted of two free weeks of train travel for everyone.

Station master in Borneo's train station
Station master calls for the train to leave Kota Kinabalu for Beaufort

The old route was from Jesselton (Kota Kinabalu) to Beaufort, then onto Tenom. Again, even when I asked at the station, I was told there was no longer a route to Tenom. But, only when I reached Beaufort, did I find out there is still a train to Tenom!

Sometimes no matter how many people you ask, you’ve just got to go out there and find out for yourself.

My Journey on the North Borneo Railway

Inside the new North Borneo train
Inside the new North Borneo train

I do enjoy train travel, but I am not a trainspotter. Nor do I jump up and down at the sight of one. However, there is something special about taking this train in Borneo.

It’s called slowing the world down with a little bit of living history.

Ticket in hand I was greeted by a bevy of station staff. All smiling widely and proudly as they welcomed me. Far from crowded, the little station was clean and the trains spotless.

The station master is equipped with a whistle, and a walkie-talkie, plus a brand new uniform. Again, all smiles, lots of waves and very welcoming.

Traveling on Sabah’s train

Promptly at 7.45 am we took off with the sound of a modern train horn blaring loudly in an old school manner. Inside the new carriage everything was spotless. Cool air flowed from air-conditioning, and little maps showed the route above neat little coat hooks.

That familiar gentle feeling of a train clickity clacking along tracks filled the carriage as we slowly passed by Kota Kinabalu airport. Everything was moving slowly, as perhaps it should on a train journey like this.

Inside a group of Malaysian women excitedly looked out the window. A new experience for them, or an old one renewed.

School children waving at the Borneo Train
School children waving at the Borneo train

Old school train travel in Sabah, Malaysia

We drew slowly into our first stop at Putatan. Whistles blew, and outside a handful of people boarded. Sitting down opposite me a Malaysian man gave me a big wave, and then a thumbs up as he looked out the window. There seemed to be a pride about the fact the train was running again.

Outside a little bit of that magic of old school train travel was happening.

We passed by a school, and as we did little children came running up to the windows to wave wildly at the slow-moving train

This continued on through all the little towns we passed through. Coupled with small boys trying to out run the slow train. Then at small markets people all stopped their shopping to look up and smile as the train trundled by. Again, big smiles and lots of waves from young and old alike. It made the train journey heartwarming.

The new North Borneo Train
The new North Borneo Train

Slow train to Beaufort

This is no modern-day speedy train, though it does mention a top speed of 100kmph on the side of the engine. Neither is it an adrenaline packed adventure though the heartland of Borneo.

You will see the sea, small towns, a large construction area, some deforestation, a market or two and get lots of waves from local people.

Eight stops later, and you’ll arrive in the small historic old town of Beaufort.

I’ll leave my time in Beaufort for another occasion.

Meanwhile here is the train schedule, and details on how to get to the railway station in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah; plus a final note.

How to get to Kota Kinabalu Railway station (Tanjung Aru)

  • Take the green city bus to Wawasan terminal
  • Take a mini bus (17A) from Wawasan to the railway station (15 minutes /RM 2)
  • Or simply take a taxi to the railway station (RM 15-20)
  • It is a little bit too far to walk comfortably

Train timetable & schedule for the railway in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo (2012/2013 update)

The new North Borneo Train, and the old Beaufort to Tenom train - both running well
The old Beaufort to Tenom train – Still running today!

Please note there are often disruptions to this rail service due to damage to tracks. My advice is to call the station to ensure the time table has not changed recently.

If in doubt you may call the Tajung Aru station  on +60 882 54 611

I’ll update this timetable should repairs be made and the service resume.

Tangjung Aru (Kota Kinabalu) to Beaufort Train Schedule 2012/2013
(single ticket RM 4.80)

ServiceDepartureArrivalPrice (one-way)
Tangjung Aru (Kota Kinabalu)07.45RM 1.85
Beaufort10.00RM 4.80

Getting back to Kota Kinabalu from Beaufort

Beaufort to Tangjung Aru (Kota Kinabalu) Train Schedule 2012/2013
(single ticket RM 4.80)

ServiceDepartureArrivalPrice (one-way)
Beaufort13.40RM 1.85
Membakut 14.00
Bongawan 14.17
Kimanis 14.33
Tangjung Aru (Kota Kinabalu)16.00RM 4.80

To get back to Wawasan bus terminal from the railway station –  cross the main road to the other side and walk down the road to a small shoulder along the road and wait for a minivan going directly to Wawasan (be careful crossing the road as traffic moves very quickly here.) note to Kota Kinabalu city management – Build a foot bridge!!

Going further into Borneo – The train to Tenom

Pulling into Beaufort station you can’t help but notice the old red train on the opposite side of the tracks. At first I thought it was the old KK Beaufort train, left to rust away. But, no. This is the train to Tenom, and it’s still operational!

The old Tenom train
The old Tenom train (click to enlarge)

The only problem is, it only leaves once a day in the morning at 07.50. So, to take the train to Tenom, you must stay the night in Beaufort. And, to take the train back from Tenom to Beaufort you’ll need to spend the night in Tenom as it boards at 07.30.

Beaufort / Tenom Train Schedule 2012/2013 (single ticket RM 2.75)

ServiceDepartureArrivalPrice (one-way)
Beaufort Saliwangan – Halogilat – Rayoh – Pangi – Tenom13.3016.30RM 2.75
Tenom – Pangi – Rayoh – Halogilat – Saliwangan – Beaufort07.3010.00RM 2.75

For confirmation on daily train schedules or maintenance work delays be sure to give the train station a call.

Kota Kinabalu Tanjung Aru station telephone number:  +60 882 54 611 

Is the Sabah railway a tourist attraction?

Well, it depends what you like. If you like trains, then of course it will be for you. If not, and you have half a day to spare and want to see another part of Borneo then this might be for you.

It’s a slow 2 hour and 15 minute journey, hopefully the little kids will still be waving as it passes by (wave back!). There’s food at both Kota Kinabalu station, and in Beaufort station (just outside & across the road).

So yes, it is something different to do in Kota Kinabalu Sabah should you have some free time. Or, if you want to take a historic rail trip to some of the older towns in Borneo like Beaufort and Tenom.

Please note:

A) There is also an old style tourist train that claims to run this route as well (Sutera Harbour). However it’s frequently out of commission, and has been an on and off service for many years. The cost of this “tourist” train is also a great deal more than the local North Borneo Railway mentioned in this article.

B) My advice for anyone who wants to take a train ride from Kota Kinabalu to Beaufort, or even Tenom is to call ahead and make sure this service is running on the day you want to go. Throughout 2012 there have been reports of track repairs hampering the daily service. So call ahead to make sure it’s operational!

Kota Kinabalu Tanjung Aru station telephone number:  +60 882 54 611 

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Coming Soon:

Anyone for Billiards in Beaufort?

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52 Replies to “Taking a ride on the New (old) North Borneo Railway”

  1. It’s the end of July 2013 and next month it’s Kota Kinabalu again for me, could anyone tell me if the train is still running at Beaufort to Tenom would appreciate a reply.

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