14 September, 2016 by Mahen Bala
Sabah is not a state in Malaysia. It is a country within a country. Partners in an agreement. I am reminded of this every time I line up to have my passport stamped at immigration. 90 days only.
New air-conditioned passenger cars provide a comfortable ride for passengers travelling between Tanjung Aru (Kota Kinabalu) and Beaufort.
7:45am and the new units were ready to receive us at the Tanjung Aru Railway Station. On a parallel track, the iconic North Borneo Railway heritage train stood still, its coaches lined with cushioned wooden seats and painted a classy green and cream. But that’s the tourist train and I am in the less glamorous people’s train, an affordable RM7.50 one way trip from Tanjung Aru to Tenom. As we ease out of Kota Kinabalu, the train stays close to the trunk road, and later the sea as it approaches Kimanis before cutting inland until it reaches Padas River in Beaufort.
Construction began in 1896 under the command of Arthur J. West, a civil engineer with the British North Borneo Chartered Company, originally intended to transport tobacco from the interior to the coast. The first line was a 34km track north of Beaufort to the port of Weston, subsequently extended in 1903 to Tenom and later in 1906 to Melalap. Beaufort was connected with Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu) in 1903. The rail network suffered greatly in the Second World War, and operations was taken over by the Australian Army, using converted Jeeps for locomotive power while they repaired the tracks, rebuilt bridges and overhauled the steam engines. In 1949 and 1960, the network was rehabilitated but shortened.
Students rely on the train service for their daily commute to school and back to their kampung along the railway line.
1:30pm in Beaufort and the onward train to Tenom is ready to leave. The engine is a diesel unit from the late 70s, pulling three passenger coaches with wooden seats and open windows. Here onwards the train snakes along the Padas River, dropping passengers off on unnamed wooden platforms; Kampung Batu 62, Kampung Batu 54, scribbled with a marker pen. Nothing but green patches on Google Maps but the locals knew exactly where they were.
At Halogilat, passengers to Tenom disembark and hop on an even smaller, older train with two cargo carriages. The train back to Beaufort is quickly filled with noisy foreign tourists, headed home after a day of white water rafting. I sat in the last carriage. There was an old man with tribal tattoos on both forearms, who lounged like he owned the train. The conductor, a Sabahan, looked at the old man for a while, before asking another passenger what the tattoos meant.
Passengers hopping off the end of the train share a joke with the train conductor before disappearing into the bushes.
“I don’t really know. He must be a Sarawakian. We Sabahans don’t really have tattoos like that but they do. And only the older folks would know what they mean. It’s long forgotten.” He replied, while buying snacks from a burly Chinese man with a plastic basket stuffed with drinks and tidbits.
I had to ask the conductor about the different trains.
“From Beaufort onwards, the tracks can’t support heavy trains. The land under the tracks might break and we would all end up in the river. It has happened before you know.” He replied. On the 9th of April 2008, a train plunged into the river due to landslide. Since then, tracks in some parts have been re-aligned, but with physical and financial constraints, little more can be done.
A Sabah railway staff looks on as a diesel locomotive arrives at the Tenom Railway Station for the morning shuttle to Beaufort.
“We just work on the trains. All the decisions are made by the senior officials. I don’t think they even see us here.” he replies with a smile, covering both eyes with the palm of his hands.
These cargo carriages are basic, wooden floors with doors wide open. Twisting and turning as we chug along the Padas River, pieces of the blue sky falls through a cracked roof. A young boy stands alone, stroking a rooster tucked under his armpit. Construction material occupy the middle, and their owners sit at the edge, feet brushing against the passing foliage. Another man sits on a gas cylinder.
“We don’t work to make a profit. The train is here to serve the people and that’s our obligation. Otherwise how are the villagers going to survive?” the conductor continued to explain, gesturing at the rest of the passengers.
The train eased into an unseen station. A thin frame with leathery skin and a cigarette in his mouth, shared a joke with the conductor as he threw a gunny sack over his shoulder, and jumped onto the tracks. The train jerks to a stop. I ask the conductor if he knew the man.
“Oh, kenal lama sudah.” He replied in lyrical Sabah Malay while staring down the open tracks.
“Anyone who rides on these tracks are family. We are all family. Even you and me.” He continued with a smile.
The carriage rocked again and inched closer to Tenom. I sat at the edge of the carriage, facing the river. Family. Far on the other side of the South China Sea and I’m still a thread in the same fabric. Even for only 90 days.