North Borneo Railway: Exploring Sabah by Train

Toot toot!! All aboard the North Borneo Railway! On our recent trip to Malaysia, we were very excited about riding a rare, fully re-furbished British Vulcan steam train back to colonial times. Unfortunately, Alex jinxed himself and fell ill the night before. We both hoped it would pass. However, as daylight crept into our Kota Kinabalu hotel room, he still had a fever. So off I went to Tanjung Aru Station, minus my partner in adventures.

Vulcan Steam train

Arrival at Tanjung Aru Station

It was a beautiful day, with a gorgeous blue sky. I was warmly welcomed at the train station by the colonially clad staff. I subsequently handed them my passport for the train ride! The North Borneo Railway passport describes the history of the railway, the train and each of the towns along the route. With the description of the towns is a space to collect stamps. The children on the train were delighted by this, as was I!

North Borneo Railway

North Borneo Railway History

The train line is steeped in history. Established in 1896, it was the first in the state of Sabah. It was intended to open up the land for commercial cultivation. Initially, the line stretched for 64 kilometers. It was extended to run 90 kilometers from Kota Kinabalu (once known as Jesselton) to Beaufort. Another extension connected Beaufort to Tenom.

The North Borneo Railway opened up trading in rubber, rice, silk, soya beans, pineapples and tobacco. These were shipped from the Jesselton port on behalf of the North Borneo Chartered Company. The company was given the authority to rule Sabah by the British empire, who were occupying the region at the time. Yes, it’s an unfortunate chapter of colonialism.

North Borneo Railway, through the jungle

The North Borneo Railway was a success, primarily due to the rubber trade. But after the Japanese occupation during World War II and the development of better infrastructure in the form of roads, the railway became obsolete. By 1974, only a small section of the railway was still in service. In 2007, the railway was closed for renovation as Sutera Harbour Resort partnered with the Sabah State Railway Department to overhaul the tracks and re-develop the railway.

Friendly staff on the North Borneo Railway

What to Expect Aboard the North Borneo Railway

Today the railway is open to commuters and travelers wishing to pass between Tanjung Aru and Tenom. The steam train, however, only goes as far as Papar Town. But it offers a glimpse into colonial times in Borneo. The Vulcan steam train, powered by burning wood, is one of only a few that are still functional in the world. It is beautifully restored, with staff fitted in colonial uniforms. A tiffin set lunch is also served.

A tiffin lunch is a light meal that is often served in metal boxes that clip together. The term originates from colonial ruled India.The presentation of both meals (continental breakfast is also included in the form of coffee and pastries) is gorgeous. I really felt like the year could have been 1910!


North Borneo Railway Stops in Kinarut and Papar

There are two scheduled stops, the first being Kinarut. Kinarut is a very small town featuring a beautiful Buddhist temple only a few minutes walk from the town mosque. This highlights the cultural diversity in Malaysia. The second stop is in Papar town, which is a larger town with a decent sized local market.

The stop is only for 30 minutes, which I found to be a bit short to have a proper look around. I purchased a large bag of dried chilli for 2 ringits (around 50 euro cents). We’re looking forward to cooking with them!

Buddhist Temple - Putatan
Wild water buffalow - Borneo

Wildlife Viewing

On the return trip back to Tanjung Aru, I was delighted to see wild water buffalo. I was lucky with that sighting as my head was out the window a good bit of the time! The scenery is mostly jungle and mangroves, after passing Putatan. Many of the local children will come out and wave at the train.

I will admit, seeing the conditions people live in, while I sat in this luxurious train, was uncomfortable for me at times. However, the restoration of the railway does re-open these communities to the potential for economic regeneration. And this is a goal of the Sabah State Railway.

Vulcan steam train

North Borneo Railway Recap

The Sabah State Railway and Sutera Harbor Resort have done an excellent job bringing a bygone era back to life. The trip ignites romantic nostalgia associated with steam trains. The four hours I spent on this journey back in time were worthwhile.

They won Best Tourism Attractions for the Non-Nature/Man-Made category at the Sabah Tourism Awards 2013. It is a wonderful way to experience a piece of important history in Sabah, Borneo. My experience wasn’t quite the same without Alex. He was disappointed he couldn’t make the North Borneo Railway trip. Fortunately, he recovered to enjoy other great romantic adventures in Borneo!


North Borneo Railway Schedule

The North Borneo Railway runs two weekly return departures (Wednesday & Saturday) from Kota Kinabalu to Papar, year round. The train departs from Tanjung Aru train station at 9:30am and the trip lasts around 4 hours. Breakfast and lunch are included.

North Borneo Railway Prices

The price is RM 396 ($90 USD) for adults and children ages four and older.
Tickets are complimentary for children ages 3 and under.

North Borneo Railway

The Magellan Sutera Resort

Level 2, 1 Sutera Harbour Boulevard,

Sutera Harbour, 88100 Kota Kinabalu,

Sabah, Malaysia

Tel : +60 88 308 500  Fax : +60 88 311 136

Email for enquiries: [email protected]

The most up to date information on prices and schedules for the North Borneo Railway can be found on the Sutera Harbour website.

Disclosure: This article was a collaboration with the Sabah tourism board. Thanks to the them for arranging our tickets aboard the North Borneo Railway. We would also like to thank Sutera Harbour Resort for accommodating Bell and making her feel very welcome on board. All photos and opinions here are our own. This article contains some affiliate links.


  • Alex&Bell

    Alex and Bell originally met while solo traveling after finishing university in 2002, in Brugge, Belgium. Alex grew up in the USA and Bell hails from Australia. During our nearly 20 year marriage we've lived around the world, including spending six years living in the Netherlands and Ireland. We have traveled to nearly 70 countries and enjoy giving readers authentic and quality travel tips. Alex is an award winning travel journalist and travel planner, who also freelances for other outlets. Bell is an award winning PhD scientist who currently works for a non-profit lung cancer advocacy research organization called Lungevity. Happy travels and if you have any questions leave a comment or drop an email!

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2 thoughts on “North Borneo Railway: Exploring Sabah by Train

  1. I’m heading to KK in July and this train trip has popped up in my research. It looks like a very different experience to the adventure / nature experiences that Sabah is known for.

    1. Hi Bianca, it is a great way to see a different side of Sabah! Alex and I love catching trains, so we were really excited to do this as it is quite an experience to ride one of these Vulcan steam trains! It was awesome to catch a glimpse of the water buffalo too. Enjoy your travels in Borneo!

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