Strangers on a train

Travels on the Sabah State Railway

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. My welcome here expires in 90 days. 

It is 7:45am at the Tanjung Aru Railway Station. On one of its two tracks the  leisurely North Borneo Railway heritage train stands still, the interior of its coaches lined with cushioned wooden seats and painted a colonial green and cream on the outside. I am seated in a far less luxurious train for a far more affordable RM7.50 one way trip from Tanjung Aru to Tenom. As we ease out of Kota Kinabalu, the train first stays close to the trunk road, and later the sea, approaching Kimanis before cutting inland until it reaches Padas River in Beaufort. 

Construction of this railway line began in 1896 under the command of Arthur J. West, a civil engineer with the British North Borneo Chartered Company. The line was originally intended to transport tobacco from the interior to the coast. The first stretch was a 34km track north of Beaufort to the port of Weston, and was later extended in 1903 to Tenom and onwards to Melalap in 1906. Beaufort was connected with Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu) in 1903.

The rail network sustained heavy damage in WW2 when the Japanese army destroyed tracks and bridges as they retreated towards Jesselton. The Australian Army began their push in Labuan, with the Engineering Corp using converted Jeeps for locomotive power while they repaired the tracks, rebuilt bridges and overhauled the steam engines. In 1949 and 1960, the railway network was rehabilitated but shortened. The Weston branch line closed in 1963, and Tenom – Melalap section in 1970. After Sabah entered the Malaysia agreement, the North Borneo Railway became the Sabah State Railway. 

Our first stop was the quiet town of Beaufort. The next onward train to Halogilat is 3 hours away. Hoping to kill time without leaving the station grounds, I ask the old man seated next to me about his life.

His reply came with a hint of unmistakeable sadness, reminiscent of life and duty in a distant land. “I joined the army in 1969, served in Port Dickson, Kuala Lumpur, Sungai Petani. My colleagues, some of them fought with the (communist) insurgents. Being in the jungle was tough, but it was an honour, serving the country. Somehow, I never went back. My eldest son is there, working. He rarely comes home.”

It is 1:30pm and the onward train to Tenom is ready to leave. The train 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, with some station signboards being little more than cardboard scribbled with a marker pen. I see nothing but green blotches on Google Maps but the locals knew exactly were they were.

At Halogilat, passengers heading to the terminus at Tenom disembark and hop on an even smaller, older assemblage of a diesel engine with two bogeys. The train I arrived on is now headed back to Beaufort. Seats are quickly filled with noisy foreign tourists, headed home after a day of white water rafting in Rayoh. 

I find some space in the last carriage of the small Tenom train, by now already filled with locals. Next to me is an old man with both forearms covered with tribal tattoos. He moved knowingly with every tug, jerk or bump the train made or was about to make. The conductor, a Sabahan, examined the old man for a while, before asking another passenger what the tattoos meant.

 “I don’t really know. He must be a Sarawakian tribal elder. We Sabahans don’t really have tattoos like that but they do. And only the really old folks would know what they mean. It’s long forgotten.” he replied, while buying snacks from a burly Chinese man with a plastic basket. 

I asked the conductor about the disjointed services along the line. Why would you need three 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 explained. 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 away from the river bank, but with geographical and financial constraints, little more can be done. New airports make more economic sense than an ageing railway.

“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 explains with a smile, covering both eyes with the palm of his hands. 

The bogey I am in is as basic as it gets with wooden floors and doors wide open. Twisting and groaning as we chug along the Padas River, I catch glimpses of the bright blue sky leaking in through the cracked roof. A young boy stands alone by the open door, stroking a rooster under his armpit. Bags of cement and other construction material occupy the middle, their owners sitting at the edge with their feet brushing against the passing foliage. Another man sits on a gas cylinder. All of them deep in thought.

The conductor continued with what he wanted to say, gesturing at the rest of the passengers. “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 train eases into an unseen station. One of the passengers – I could not tell if he was young or old but I knew he had leathery skin and a cigarette in his mouth – shared a joke with the conductor while throwing a gunny sack over his shoulder. He jumped off the moving train and onto the tracks, laughter trailing behind as he disappeared into the bushes. The train jerks to a halt. I ask the conductor if he knew the man. 

“Oh I’ve known all of them for a long time.” He muses while staring down the open tracks. “Anyone who rides on these tracks are family. We are all family. Even you and me.” 

The bogey rocked again and we inched closer towards Tenom. There was more space to move around now so I sat at the edge of the open door, facing the Padas river with my feet hanging freely outside. I am not off this land nor do I speak their language, but for now I am a thread weaved into the same fabric as others around me. I am family. Even if only for 90 days.

Mahen Bala / 2016

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