A brief history

    Contrary to popular belief and misconceptions this was a single track railway with no junctions, although it did have a branch line which was not physically connected to the main line. Beaufort was a small settlement in the interior surrounded by tobacco plantations and this product needed to be transported to the coast for shipment by sea. In 1896 construction started at Bakau River north-eastwards to Beaufort and south-westwards to Weston, a total distance of about 20 miles. The station at Beaufort South was on the west bank of the Padas river and traffic started in 1898 to the port at Weston where the goods were transferred to small ocean-going ships.

    In the early 1900s work started on another line on the east bank of the river Padas at Beaufort North southwards through the Padas Gorge towards Tenom, 25 miles away and reached in 1905, and north-eastwards to Jesselton, reached in 1903. The connection between the two stations at Beaufort was made via a chain ferry across the river. By 1906 the line had been extended eastwards from Tenom another 9 miles to Melalap. The line was extended a little further north from Jesselton to the pier but this was for freight traffic only.

    Up to the time of the Japanese invasion a total of 20 steam locomotives had been used in the construction and operation of the railway. Of these, three were sold in the 1920s and a further 4 had been scrapped, leaving thirteen survivors. Four of these were recaptured and put back into use in 1945, along with a number jeeps of both Australian and Japanese origin, many of which were converted to run on rails, while others ran with their tyred wheels straddling the rails as the few roads were impassable. Of the remainder, a handful had been dismantled for overhaul in the workshops at Tanjong Aru at the time of the invasion but these and the rest of the remainder had suffered heavily from neglect, allied bombing and destruction by the retreating Japanese. There was a Wickham type 5 with a Villiers IXB engine supplied in 1927 but I have found nothing more about it.

    With the workshops destroyed and no possibility of new locomotives in the near future, four small Australian-built petrol-engined locomotives were supplied by the War Department and regauged, and three second-hand tram locomotives were purchased from Belgium. Of these latter only two were deemed usable and had the tram bodies removed while the third was scrapped.

    Four Wickham 18A Multiple Power units with Ford V8 engines and 2 18A 32 seat trailers arrived in 1950. These all  had works numbers 5127-5132. These formed what became known as the toast-rack DMUs and the 4 18A Multiple Motor units had the running numbers 50-53 in the original sequence. 48-50 were later used for 3 Wickham type 40s (6-seater caravans) supplied in 1971, while the Wickham units were still in use during March 1971.

    In 1950 the first diesel locomotive arrived, being an 0-6-0 from Fowler which became number 20, and in 1951 two 0-6-0 diesels arrived from Hunslet and were put to use on the Weston branch, replacing Maitland which was withdrawn in 1953. These became numbers 21 & 22. Around the same time 3 steam locomotives were ordered "by the Crown Agents for North Borneo Railway" from Bagnall and allocated works numbers 2997-2999 but the order was later cancelled before they were built. The data in my IRS Bagnall book shows 13" x 16" cylinders and 3' 6" driving wheels, but no other details. Later three 2-6-2s were ordered from Vulcan and these arrived in 1955, being numbered 14-16.

    Over the next few years the locomotive remains were gathered at Tanjong Aru and once a new workshop had been built they set about restoring or rebuilding locomotives using what parts they had available, using the Hunslet 4-6-4Ts as a basis. As many bridges had been destroyed or damaged there was a greater need for locomotives with a light axle loading so two of the Hunslet tanks were converted to 4-6-0 tender locomotives similar to the Kerr Stuart locomotives which were all badly damaged, and using their tenders and other parts. A third Hunslet remained a 4-6-4T but was somewhat altered from the original. This one along with one of the tender versions has been preserved in the Sabah Museum in Kota Kinabalu, along with the Sentinel, given the number 13 in 1954 and using the old number plate from GAYA, and a Simplex locomotive which worked on a forestry railway, having no connection of any form with the NBR.

    The Beaufort to Weston line (always known as the branch) closed in 1963 and the Tenom to Melalap line closed in 1970. In 1974 the section from Tanjong Aru to Jesselton (by now known as Kota Kinabalu) closed but part of this has since reopened as far as Sekretariat station, not far from the museum which houses the railway section including the 4 locomotives, 3 steam and 1 Simplex.

    Meanwhile, in the late 1960s several orders were placed for diesel locomotives, 2 Bo-Bos from Hitachi in 1968 numbered 23 & 24, 4 small 0-4-0 shunters from Nippon Sharyo in 1970 numbered 31-34 and another 6 Bo-Bos from Kawasaki in 1971 numbered 25-30. More details of these can be found here.

    In 2007 the main line from Tanjung Aru to Beaufort was closed for upgrading. New Rolling stock was ordered from China in the form of two double-ended diesel locomotives numbered 15101 and 15102 and two push-pull trains consisting of a single ended locomotive, two intermediate trailers and a driving trailer numbered 6601 & 6602, the trailer cars carrying the same number but with a letter suffix. These commenced service in 2011 but shortly afterwards 6602 was involved in a collision with a road fuel tanker on an illegal level crossing and was badly damaged by fire. 3 additional coaches were acquired from KTM in West Malaysia.

    In 2015 two diesel railcars were purchased from the Aizu Railway in Japan, being numbers 8502 & 8503. The first was refurbished and entered service on 27th October 2016 and the second is expected to enter service in 2017. Pictures and info from here  In 2016 a 3-car DMU was ordered from India and this entered service on the line from Beaufort to Tenom on 20th March 2017. It has 192 seats and a top speed of 90 kmh. One of the cars is numbered 8803 but the picture is of a single railcar so perhaps there are 3 numbered 8801-8803. No other details are yet known. Report from here and picture here courtesy http://www.borneotoday.net

I have two sets of photographs taken by the late Peter Hodge which come from the Rob Dickinson collection and these can be seen here:

October 1969

March 1971

    I will make this a more complete history later. Much of the information I have has just been published in a new book which is titled

The Building of the North Borneo Railway and the Founding of Jesselton

The Author is Ross Ibbotson who has already written two other books relating to North Borneo.

This book is now available, see below:

The new book on the Building of the North Borneo Railway was published last month (October 2018) and is available from here: 

It is also available from here, perhaps at a slightly higher cost but at cheaper postal rates: https://penangbookshelf.com/ 
or if you live in Malaysia from here: http://www.ebaystores.com.my/The-Penang-Bookshelf

 I am going to try and find a cheaper option such as friend/family hand-carrying it from there to here on a future visit.

I have also spoken to Ross a couple of days ago and he tells me that both 6-015 & 6-016 are operating at the moment (6-016 boiler ticket expires shortly) and 6-014 is being used as a source of spares. Has anyone seen or photographed 6-015 working recently? Last time I saw it it was awaiting new superheater tubes to be manufactured in Japan but that was more than 2 years ago.


North Borneo Chartered Company: North Borneo Railway; The first train in North Borneo; 3rd February 1898


British North Borneo Chartered Company: Views of British North Borneo, Printed by W. Brown & co., limited, London, 1899


Public Domain


Dr. Johnstone; A.J. West (Officers of the Company)

Here is the first train which ran on the Beaufort - Weston line.

    Here is a pictorial history of the Australian invasion of North Borneo by the troops who were tasked with capturing Beaufort from the Japanese and regaining control of the railway system radiating from that town: The Australian invasion of North Borneo.

Full listing of all locomotives, multiple units, railcars and other powered units can be found here. On the locomotive side they are almost complete and accurate as far as is known, but railcars and permanent way equipment are another story. I have a full list for Wickham up to 1973 but, with a couple of exceptions, nothing to relate to the 4-digit running numbers which were introduced around that time.

My visits

    I had planned to visit in 2008 but the entire line had reportedly been closed in 2007 for refurbishment so I postponed until after the reopening, finally going in early 2013. It was only then that I found that the Beaufort to Tenom section had remained open as far as possible as it is the only means of transport in the area, there being no roads still!

    We spent a week in the area in January 2013 staying in Kota Kinabalu and another week in February when we stayed at Tanjong Aru. During each week we made 3 visits to the railway and one to the museum. The line was known as the North Borneo Railway until 1965 and thereafter as the Sabah State Railway. The twice-weekly steam service is operated by the Sabah State Railway but run by a local Hotel under the North Borneo Railway name. I will create a page for each day, as below:

23rd January. A return trip from Tanjong Aru to Papar, steam-hauled both ways.

25th January. A visit to the Tanjong Aru station and yard.

26th January. A return trip to Beaufort from Tanjong Aru, diesel-hauled both ways.

27th January. A visit to the National Museum in Kota Kinabalu.

5th February. Another visit to the National Museum.

6th February. A visit to Sekretariat to photograph the morning services then Tanjong Aru to photograph the departing steam service.

8th February. Push-pull service photographed from a passing bus.

9th February. Photographed the departing steam service passing the international airport terminal.

I made a second visit of 4 days in March 2016, the first of which was taken up by a meeting which lasted all day as expected. I then found out the next morning that most services had been suspended due to lack of serviceable locomotives! On the Tanjung Aru to Beaufort section only the steam service to Papar was running normally and the trains to Beaufort that day had been cancelled. My plan had been to take the train to Beaufort, stay there overnight, then go to Tenom in the early morning, returning on the midday train which connected back to Tanjung Aru. Then I found that due to the suspension of services there was no way to get back to Kota Kinabalu so yet another night was required at Beaufort, but I needed to back at the airport at 6 the next morning for a flight to Sandakan. The only bonus I got was a visit to the "new" steam depot in the old PW workshop where 2-6-2 6-016 was being prepared for its trip to Papar the following morning and 6-015 was awaiting new superheater tubes to complete its overhaul. I was told they were hoping to make room for 6-014 which was now visible at the far end of the station, its shed having been demolished around it. Considering it had been dumped there for many years it looked in a remarkably fair condition, though it had been stripped of many parts to keep the others running.

7th March 2016. Visit toTanjung Aru Steam Depot in the old PW depot.

8th March 2016. Visit to Tanjung Aru station and the National Museum railway collection.

9th March 2016. Visit to Tanjung Aru steam depot to photograph the steam-hauled train to Papar.

Bernard Mennell made a brief visit on 22nd May 1977.


Below is a modified (converted from the original south-up map) official map showing the full system as of 1961:

Apologies if any of the names are incorrect, they were copied from the original which was not clear in a few cases. The blue numbers are the approximate mileages between stations, again copied from the original map which had some omissions around Beaufort due to congestion, and the section from Halogilat to Saliwangan appears longer than the quoted 2 miles.

If I get a chance to visit again I will take a GPS and get some precise information and create a more accurate map.

Click here to see the original.


The Malayan Railway

The 1960s

Singapore Railways







Singapore 1975

Singapore 1976

Singapore 1977 part 1

Singapore 1977 part 2

Singapore 1977 part 3

Singapore Trams

Singapore 2003

Singapore 2007

Singapore 2008

Malaysia 2008

Malaysia 2013

Bernard Loughlin collection

Allan Stanistreet pictures

Johore Wooden Railway

Johore State Railway

Malacca State Railway

Muar State Railway

North Borneo Railway

Perak State Railway

Selangor State Railway

Sungei Ujong Railway


Some useful links to other users pages with information and pictures of Borneo Railways follow.





Page created 29th June 2015.

Page updated 31st October 2019.

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