No one now remembers when the idea of a train trip to Tenom was first mentioned. Was it a month ago? Two months? Three? It has been dubbed the ‘great train trip’, the ‘great train robbery’. Members have registered themselves for the trip and then pulled out because of newer, more urgent commitments. Then there were those who had expressed to jump on board hours before the train pulled out of the station.
|Boarding the rail bus at Beaufort |
I was so anxious not to be left behind for Saturday’s 7.45 a.m. trip that I woke up at four. When you get to be my age, and a train ride still excites you, plus you really look forward to meeting a bunch of complete strangers, I’d say ‘good for you’!
We—picked Meg and Justin on the way—arrived at the station in good time and saw the group members and their guests milling around the entrance. Hi Paul! Hi Adrian-from-KL! Nice to meet you Tony-all-the-way-from-NZ! Hello Rooney! Hello Joan and Andrew and Frank and Caroline and Margaret and Ariff and the rest!
The Sabah State Railways had given us one coach to ourselves and soon—poooot-poooot!—it was time to go. It had rained the previous night but the faintest bit of rainbow in the morning sky promised better weather. We enjoyed the changing scenery as the train rolled southwards and everyone took photos with their personal gadgets: handphones, point-and-shoot digital cameras, videocam, Ipads or DSLR cameras with lenses as long as my arm.
Nothing exciting happened until we were approaching the tunnel when everyone reminded Lakeming about his ‘lominit botol’ joke. (I won’t repeat it here. You’ll have to ask him yourself!)
|Photo courtesy of Philip Lai|
We were given one hour to explore Beaufort so off we went to find a kedai kopi to get the breakfast we had missed in KK. Had we looked back instead of rushing out of the station, we’d have seen the others arranging themselves for a group photo!
After filling ourselves with coffee and the most delicious noodle soup in the whole of Beaufort we walked back to the station and boarded the rail bus which would take us to Tenom. There were about fifty of us (not including the staff of the Sabah State Railway who went along).
Most of the seats were already taken when Meg and I went up the rail bus and those without a human body in it had a bag placed by their friends. I walked to the back and found an empty seat. It just happened to be the engine driver’s—for the trip back to Beaufort. I had permission to sit in it as the engine driver would be at the opposite end for the trip to Tenom. Hurray! I just had to avoid touching the knobs, levers and switches, the railway staff told me. (My foot slipped once or twice and landed on some metal thing on the floor and the train went ‘Poooot! Poooooot!’ Did my foot just do that? It had no idea!)
After the smooth ride to from Tanjung Aru to Beaufort, we discovered that the trip to Tenom went clackety-clack clackety-clack most of the way and there was a good deal of side-to-side movement. The SSR staff, ever helpful, said the rough movement was due to the joints between the old rails. Anyway, our muscles had a good workout; a free massage, someone said!
This post isn’t complete without a short history of the
North Borneo Railway…
When I saw the tracks several miles out of Beaufort, in the middle of nowhere, and where miles upon miles on one side of the railway was a perpendicular rock cliff and the other side was the raging Padas River, I wondered what the British saw when they were working on the railway more than a hundred years ago. What did the labourers think, these natives who had never, ever seen a train? Did they think the white men were crazy?
|The railway track is carved out of the rock face.|
|The lines run on a very narrow ledge.|
|A tunnel has been cut into the solid rock.|
The man behind the NB Railway was William Cowie. He pressed for approval to build the railway lines after he was elected Director of the NBCC in 1894. Around the same time, Cowie also built the telegraph line connecting
Sandakan to Labuan and he sent the first telegraphic message to in 1897. (This was the first telegraph line in London SE Asia!)
In 1896 the construction of the railway began. Two years later, it was possible to travel by train from Beaufort to Weston although the railway was not fully completed until 1900. Because
Brunei Bay proved too shallow for large vessels, Cowie was forced to pull the line 57 miles north—from Beaufort to . The construction was undertaken by a British company, George Pauling Construction and completed in 1902. The line from Beaufort to Tenom was completed in 1905 and to the terminus in Melalap a year later. The railway services were crippled during the Japanese occupation due to massive destruction on tracks, bridges and locomotives. Gaya Bay
Who laid down the tracks? It’s easy to assume that our grandfathers and great grandfathers (the natives) laid down the tracks under the supervision of the British engineers. But that assumption would only be half right because the Chinese immigrants brought into the country had to work two to three days a week on the railway line or on road building. There were also Javanese labourers employed by the NBCC.
The labourers used tools available in those days: hoes, picks, axes and perhaps dynamite for blasting off chunks of rocks. As a result of working on the railway lines, perhaps many people fell ill or met with accidents and lost limbs and lives.
Thanks to the engineers, the overseers and the coolies we now have a path carved out of the rock face so our train could clackety-clack all the way to Tenom while we recline in comfortable seats and admire the view.