A Guide to the North Borneo Railway – Our Day on the Tracks

We spent a day on the old North Borneo Railway (now called the Sabah State Railway) a 134KM stretch of track┬áoriginally┬ábuilt in the 1890’s.

Train travel is one of the types of transport that I really enjoy.  The scenic routes taken by trains often offer views you would never usually see.  Our day started early, as we wanted to do the full stretch from Kota Kinabalu to Tenom in a day so that meant we had to catch the earliest service. The service starts from Tanjung Aru station,  which is a 10 minute drive from the city.

We took a minibus (17A from Waswasan Station at 7am/RM2) although you can easily get a taxi for RM15. You can easily get all the way to Tenom in a day but there is no train back until the next morning so we booked ourselves in at the Orchid Hotel (RM60 Double Room)

Sabah State Railway Timetable Click to expand

Service Depart Arrive Price (One Way)
Tangjung Aru – Papar 7:45 9:00 RM 1.85
Tangjung Aru – Papar 13.40 14:30 RM 1.85
Papar –┬áTangjung Aru 12:00 13:30 RM 1.85
Papar –┬áTangjung Aru 18.00 ┬á19:00 RM 1.85


Service Depart Arrive Price (One Way)
Tg Aru – Beaufort 7:45 10:00 RM 4.80
Tg Aru – Beaufort 13.40 16:00 RM 4.80
Beaufort – Tg Aru 11.00 13:10 RM 4.80
Beaufort – Tg Aru 16.30 ┬á19:30 RM 4.80


Service Depart Arrive
Price (One Way)
Beufort – Tenom 13.30 16:30 RM 2.75
Tenom – Beaufort 7.30 10.00 RM 2.75

As the North Borneo Railway can be disrupted maintenance make sure you call to check times the day before:  Tanjun Aru Station+60 88 254 611

The first train from Tanjung Aru to Beaufort was very modern. We grabbed ourselves a table seat which was perfect as Kelly had a couple of articles to write. The views out the window were pleasant with an overwhelming amount of green and lots of small villages along the way.

Even though the weather in Malaysia is almost always hot and humid, make sure you pack a light jumper or jacket because the air conditioning on the first train is turned up very high and you will find yourself shivering.

north borneo railway
The first leg of the North Borneo Railway is ultimate comfort

We arrived in Beaufort with plenty of time to explore before our next train. It was a very handy stop for lunch. There’s nothing much in Beaufort, the usual small shops and┬árestaurants and a really big Mosque.┬á The rows of shops are built on stilts high off the ground to protect them from the floods on the nearby river.

North Borneo Railway
Beaufort was a pretty town to explore

We bought our tickets for the second leg and we immediately realised this was going to be a different experience. The train was much older, a diesel engine pulling much older cars. We took a seat by the window because an older local gentleman had advised us that the view out of the right side was the best. It turned out that he was right. The first thing I noticed as we set off was the people just hanging out the doors and windows. This train was slow and it was a much better view if you popped your head out of the carriage like a dog would in a car.

This is where the great views started; the train ran alongside lush jungle hills, rushing river rapids, humble wooden huts decorated with colorful clotheslines and breathtaking mountain vistas. The river wound its way through the hills, so close to the train tracks in some parts that we could have jumped out of the window and into the water.

As we slowed through tiny villages so that other passengers could jump off, groups of small children perched in trees and waved and shouted hello.

north borneo railway
The true experience of the North Borneo Railway starts at Beaufort

At Harogilat station we once again changed trains. Our next train was tiny and was pulling just two simple cars. These cars had very limited seating and more of an open air feel to them. We had to keep our balance as you could easily fall out of the open sides if you were not careful. This is the sort of train travel experience that I had come for.

As we slowly clattered through the jungle, we hung on for dear life as we leaned out of the open train to feel the fresh air on our faces and snap photos of the panoramas passing us by. The carriage was full of young children with their heads stuck out of the window, they were taking the school train and it would drop them off at remote points along the route.

north borneo railway
From top left: 1. Kelly trying to keep her balance by the open door of the train 2. School children who had just gotten off the train 3. A whitewater rafting outfit rode with us for a while with all their gear 4. The amazing scenery of the Sabah State Railway

The train arrived in Tenom at around 4:30pm and we headed to our hotel. There was nothing of note to do in Tenom, this trip was really more about the journey than the destination.

Useful Links for the North Borneo Railway

The Railways Wikipedia Page
Sabah Tourism’s Page for the Railway

Lee Carter

Born and raised in Accrington, UK, Lee has ventured far beyond his hometown, traveling throughout Europe, Southeast Asia, North America and New Zealand. He is the co-founder of Global Goose and as well as writing the occasional rant he can be found tweaking the code and taking photos of amazing things around the world. Lee and Kelly have no plans to stop their "Gap Decade" anytime soon.

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  1. Pingback: A Guide To The North Borneo Railway ┬ź Borneo Adventures Lodge
  2. Hi Lee,

    Brilliant write-up! I’m from KL and an avid train-traveler myself. I’ve done the TgAru-Beaufort-TgAru route back in 2011 (which can be covered in a day) but have yet to experience the old Beaufort-Tenom train. Anyway, I’m planning to revive this experience when I visit KK in Feb 2014. I have a couple of questions if you don’t mind.
    1) How’s the RM60 hotel in Tenom in terms of location from the station and cleanliness?
    2) How did you return to KK?


    1. Hi Shaiful.

      1) If I remember right the hotel was actually very good for RM60. We walked from the train station, I remember it being around 10 minutes.
      2) We took a shared taxi with a few others. I’m sorry but I cannot remember the cost but It was not much.

  3. Hi there

    My girlfriend and I are looking to do this journey in May and are wondering how much the train costs all up to get from Kota Kinabalu to Tenom. We have read that between Beaufort and Tenom it is only about 8RM per person, but from KK to Beaufort it costs a lot more.



  4. It’s a real shame you mention that there is nothing to do in Tenom. The Agricultural Research Station on the outskirts of the town is one of the best in Asia. Check out the book “Enchanting Borneo” published by John Beaufoy of the UK (www.johnbeaufoy.com) to get an idea of what is there, the train journey and the rest of Borneo.

  5. hi, i would like to travel to sabah by train from Singapore. could anyone give me any advise how should i go about it?

    1. Ed, there is no railway between Singapore and Sabah, just 1,000 miles of sea crossing. Sabah is part of East Malaysia, while Singapore is adjacent to West Malaysia. So it’s fly if you are in a hurry, or take the slow boat!
      The standard single fare from Tanjung Aru to Beaufort is RM4.80 and from Tanjung Aru to Tenon RM7.20.
      Tho only expensive train is the steam service to Papar and return which includes meals and temple visits. In spite of the price it is well patronised and often fully booked ahead of departure day.

  6. Have travelled on this railway twice, once in 1964 when I was with the British Army in Borneo during the Malaysian/ Indonesian Confrontation. The line was still open at that stage from Tenom to Melalap but the trains were infrequent, I was picked up by Army to travel on to Keningau, as we passed the end of the line at Melalap there was a steam loco in the siding there but not actually in steam.
    I took my wife to Borneo in 1992 and we managed to travel on the railway again then. We stayed somewhere in Tenom but I cannot recollect where now.
    Re my 1964 trip, I had started my journey in Brunei, flying to Jesselton {as Kota Kinabalu was called then} in a Malaysian Airways DC3 Dakota that had been used by the RAF in WW2 flying over Burma etc!

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