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 

Hotel search at the Longest Way Home

Need a hotel room in Kota Kinabalu?

Looking for the best online rates?

I recommend you try my own hotel search for Kota Kinabalu. The best online rates guaranteed!


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. very nice! only 4.50 Ringgit huh? affordable and comfortable.. what more can you ask for ;) (So long as you’re not in a hurry)

  2. Now you really are heading into places people dont go in borneo! Were there any tourists on board?

  3. i went to kota kinabalu in 2007 and had one of the best train rides in my life. we were transported to beaufort and from beaufort took a ride on one of the ancient trains to padas river for white water rafting. The train was old and slow and if you are up for it, you can sit on one of the train cables that were used to transport timber in the olden day ie: no roof and no walls! I sat on that on the way back and had to hold on to a rope the whole time and obviously got 2 tones tanner but the experience was exhilarating. It surprises me that many who visited kota kinabalu have not heard of this amazing trip.

    I am not sure if the train is still running but i would advise everyone to look it up. (edit: link removed)

    not to mention the white water rafting itself was an experience!

    1. Hi Sheah, the train you mentioned sounds super exciting and I took a similar one in Cambodia, where it was called a Bamboo train. Are you able to find any information on this train? I would love to take it when I go to KK in the next few weeks. Thanks!!


  4. Nice train! It seems a world apart from the cockroach infested train journey I took through Vietnam a few days ago. It seems you’re really enjoying Malaysia. And I think people are going to appreciate the useful info you have in this, including that timetable :)

    1. Cockroach infested train in Vietnam … doesn’t sound too good! Well done for surviving it. Yep, enjoying Malaysia … well Sabah anyway! Let’s see if the rest is the same :)

  5. I visited the station not too long ago and the station master gave me a tour inside the station workshop. Did you see the 2 Vulcan Heads there? I was most impressed with how they are still maintaining it.

    As for billards in Beaufort, hah! I played a game there while I was aimlessly lost in town. Beaufort is home to a number of old 60’s diesel train engines and some far out retro train coaches. They are available inside the train depot at Beaufort. By the way, did you try the Beaufort-Pangi service?


    1. No I did not got to Pangi, I’m not at all interested in White water rafting. The old engines, some of which are actually 1991, and still running have been moved. The tracks are all clear now. Which is a shame. The new trains is very good, but they are missing out on the historical past of this rail service. While it’s catering to local transport now, it should encompass history to involve both national, and international tourists.

      That said, I am due back to present photographs I took there. If things pan out, there’s also an old British man living there who’s got some interesting stories to tell too.

      Beaufort, the town itself, I enjoyed. I wanted to meet the Kadazan. More on that next.

  6. Very well written and informative, just loved the description of the journey like being there mydelf.

  7. One of my favorite methods of transport., there’s just something great about train travel. More than likely it’s the ability to get up and walk around is you wish, maybe a stroll to the dining car (if there was one) or just being able to relax a little more than on a bus.

    It’s a good thing they’ve got this locomotive up and running again, and I do remember that it was out of action when I was there a few years back. I suppose the question you ask on whether it will become a tourist attraction or not depends on the local government. I can’t remember Beaufort, but I suppose it they make it a nice place to spend a few hours (gardens, coffee shops, …ect) then it would be popular as a nice day trip for those flying into KK for a package tour.

    1. Very much agree with you. I can never meet people on a bus. But on a train you can nearly always meet a family. And if someone you don’t like sits next to you, then it’s easy to move. But on a bus, you are stuck with them. Like I was today :)

      If they’d put the old engines out on display, and mention the whole WW2 thing, that they don’t like to mention. I would imagine it could indeed be a tourist destination. They have the potential, but, I don’t see the initiative in Beaufort anyway!

  8. I’m trying to leave a comment without triggering the spam filter gods… hope this works! This is a great post and I enjoyed reading about the newly restored train in Borneo. It’s good you didn’t listen to the people who said it was shut down, and checked out the train for yourself. What a fun ride :)

    1. Welcome back Leslie. Sorry again for the heavy spam filter, blame it on those Russian spammers.

      It’s amazing how little information there was out there regarding this train service. Glad I went there for myself! :)

  9. The new trains looked exactly like the ones we have over here in KL! I just took a train from KL – Ipoh too using the new coaches and it’s really comfortable! Beats the age-old traffic jam anytime!
    Oh I wonder if the train to Padas is still there! Even if you don’t fancy white water rafting, the experience itself is really something! Think of being squashed in between the locals carrying their big baskets of goods (to be sold), with no air-cond and a VERY loud clanking train! :)

    1. How was Ipoh? I bet they shipped the train over from your side to Borneo! Really relaxing train ride. A/C mighty too! I did not see a train to Padas, only to Tenom. But do have an appointment to go back, and will find out for you.

      Many tours are taking people via bus to the white water rafting place now it seems.

  10. What was old is new again. It’s good to see trains being revived mostly because I believe they will play a huge part in the future of transportation.

  11. whoaa..nice one..i came from Tenom but haven’t get the chance to take a ride. Last time i heard that the railways are still under maintenance for several years already and i also think the train schedule is for temporary which it will be changed when it fully operate later. :)

    As for the old train, they might have been storing it for maintenance also. hahaha..

  12. We are thinking about taking the train to Tenom on the way to Long Pasiah. Is the train ride from Beaufort to Tenom interesting, scenically or in any other way?



    1. It really depends on what you like. If you have not seen jungle, villages, the odd palm oil plantations, then yes. If you like old diesel trains that can get a little crowded, but in a good way, yes.

      If you have seen or experienced all of this before, then maybe it’s not such a great ride.

  13. im a sabahan, thanx for choosing sabah as one of your destinations!!
    i’ve never ride the train before, and this entry make me wanna feel the experience too..thanx~~

  14. So bummed this wasn’t open when I was on Borneo for my honeymoon in 2010! I really wanted to go further north than just KK, but it was SO hard to get around. There’s so little logistical info on the island online that I’m sure people planning trips there will find this very helpful!

  15. Last week: We took the slow train to Beaufort to get a glimpse of the countryside. Going we sat in the back carriage of the three (good choice), and returned in the first carriage (something of a mistake because the driver toots the crossing guards continually) but in brand new air conditioned comfort, half empty train, with real people and happy babies – not another tourist in sight. A fascinating cross section of low lands passed before our eyes. Our next trip was the bus ride to Kinabalu National Park through the mountain ranges and jungle. Such a beautiful country of contrasts – a week was not nearly long enough.

  16. Thank you , our original blogger and Julie, for reporting on the train to Beaufort.! It is very difficult to find out anything about it. I am a honorary Sarawakian…..no trains here I’m afraid..not even in the past apart from two very short tracks one from Kuching (that is why we have a Jalan Kereta Api,) and one in Simunjan for the coal mining in Gunung Ngeli.

    I am bringing a friend to Sabah next month, and a chance mention of the train caught my eye. Hence my on-line search and my discovery of this blog. I am fairly certain we will try it out, and I will return to this blog-site to tello you how it goes!!

  17. Thank to The Longest Way Home… provide the time table for journey from kk to Beaufort.
    I am going to kk 11 Dec 2011 til 16 Dec 2011..Sure I will try to take this longest journey train,I can feel that it will bee very enjoying.
    Thank alot

  18. Hi,

    Really interesting write-up. Btw, I have a couple of friends who went to Tenom last month by train and according to them there’s a Tenom bound train at 1pm. Therefore there’s no need to stay overnight at Beaufort to wait for the next day train.

  19. how many time to go from beaufort to tenom ?
    what price ?
    is it possible in tenom take a bus to brunei ?
    tank you for yours answers
    Very interesting note.thank you
    I go to KK and brunei in march and i want take this train

  20. Are there buses from Beaufort to Tenom? to KK?
    If yes, what are the departure times?

    1. Yes, there are buses linking the towns. From Kota Kinabalu the terminal near Bandaran Berjaya that provides intercity van services that links the capital with Beaufort and Tenom.

      Sipitang Express Bus Sdn Bhd from Kota Kinabalu offers express bus services to Beaufort. Departures at 07:30 08:30, 12:00 and 16:30 (subject to change). From there you will need to take a mini van or taxi.

  21. I live and work in KK, and as i am a teacher, we were planning to take some students to Tenom to see the agricultural park. I found out that currently the train does not go to Beaufort, only as far as Papar, which is around 45km outside KK. So the travel is severely restricted. You wouldhave to take a bus to Beaufort to travelon to Tenom by train. We are now just travelling the whole distance by bus.

    1. What’s the latest information regarding the train departing from Tanjung Aru? Does it terminate in Papar or Beaufort now?

      I’m thinking of going all the way to Tenom by train the week of 05 or 12 MAR.

      1. It’s running to Beaufort. But only once a day. You can catch a Bus or Taxi to Tenom from there. Or stay the night and go the next morning.

        Better to take a bus from Beaufort as there’s not much to do there.

  22. Thanks so much for this great news. We did it yesterday. The steam train costs $90 each Australian and the local train goes twice as far into the country, costs $1.50 Aus each way and is air conditioned. We were the only tourists on the whole train. We justr rode out to Beufort walked around for 45 kins, had a drink and some food and rode back. Enjoyable travel, say the country and cost $3.00
    Leaves KK at 7:45am only one train each day

    Best $3 ever spent

  23. Did the trip to Beaufort on the local train a few days ago. Thanx for the info “The Longest Way Home”. Was a fantastic day out and very interesting scenery along the way. The station staff at KK were great. Would recommend this trip and cheap. Had a tasty lunch at one of the cafes in Beaufort.

  24. The steam train ticket price at July 2012 270 ringgit per person including lunch and doesn’t go that far, considering the price! At that date, there was a mechanical problem and it had been cancelled for a few weeks. It’s jointly owned by the government and Sutera Harbour Resorts. Thanks for the blog posting it’s helped us make plans for the Tenom-Beaufort journey. There’s accommodation available at Fat Choi Coffee plantation (Tenom) for 81 ringgits per night.

    Really enjoyed dipping into the stories of your travels.
    Bon voyage

  25. OCT 2012 We rode the train last week! It was not operating to Beaufort, only as far as Rayoh, which is two stops along the line but well worth every cent of the 1.20 Ringgit we each paid for the 2hr return journey! Sat on the steps at the open door as it rattled along. Not sure whether Beaufort train run will resume in the future, so do ring Tj Aru office. There is a minibus from Tenom to Beaufort via Keningau for about 15RM.
    Just a note about the Coffee plantation. It’s a short drive out of town but up a steep hill! Not that practical without transport although they did say they could drop us in town and bring us back each day. Accommodation a bit disappointing so we only stayed one night. Should have found a place in town!

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