North Borneo Stamps: Jesselton Railway Station and Steam Train




In 1899, the West Coast Railway station was established in Jesselton. The railway connects several towns from Jesselton to Papar to Beaufort and ends in Tenom. The railway, in fact, was more important than the roads at that time and is undoubtedly a great asset for the country. For its 125 miles course, it passes many rubber estates and Government stations. It was because of this railway, Mr. Cowie (the then managing director of BNB company) was able to float off company after company during the rubber boom of 1909. In the old days, the Railway service was criticised for its notorious late starting time and arriving later still. The traveller was lucky if he reached his destination the same day, but often this is not the case as passengers quite frequently had to camp for the night in the coaches owing to a bridge having collapsed, a tree having fallen across the line, or the driver having forgotten to bring enough firewood. The trail from Beaufort to Tenom was particularly a dangerous one and the unevenness of the rails made the journey a terrifying one. Recently in 2008, after 108 years of its advent, accident still, unfortunately, happened.

[Left] 08-10-1945. South Road with the bomb damaged Jesselton Railway Station on the right. (Photographer Sgt. F. A. C. Burke)

[Right] 28-09-1945 - Men of the 2/32nd Battalion marching through the ruins of Jesselton seen from an archway at the entrance to the Jesselton Railway Station. (Photographer Lt. A. W. Horner)

During the war in 1940s, the Jesselton railway station was bombed and demolished by the Japanese army under the command of Lt. General Masao Baba. This has resulted in an interruption to the railway service in North Borneo and was virtually paralysed between 1944 - 1945. Because of its vital impartance, the railway system was targeted by the Japanese and later liberated by the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).

The depiction of the Jesselton Railway Station and the Vulcan-engine train in several North Borneo stamps signify the great importance of the transportation service to the country at that time. In fact, for many years the country has been craving for roads and North Borneo might have been described as the land without a road and as Owen Rutter puts it "...and a land in that condition is as little likely to grow as a plant without water...". Apart from a few miles of metalled road in Jesselton, Kudat and Sandakan, there wasnt a single Government highway in the country.
Today, the steam train has been ressurected for tourism purposes and is due to open for visitors again very soon as the Sabah State Government is upgrading the railway. Please check the railway's website here.

[Left] Beaufort area 01-07-1945. Members of the 2/16 Field Company, Royal Australian Engineers (RAE), acting as fireman and engineer of the locomotive engine which was captured from the Japanese by troops of 2/32 Infantry Battalion.

[Right] Beaufort area 01-07-1945. The railway engine captured by the member of 2/32 Infantry Battalion. Manned by members of 2/16 Field Company, RAE. It is now ready to move out of the yardsfor the Beaufort - Weston run.


With regards to the postal service, the train also serves as a post office and called "Train Post Office (T.P.O)". Basically, passengers drop their letters in a postal box in the train and at every transit a mail clerk sorts them out and delivers them to respective stop. There are several interesting postmark in connection with the Train Post office. These are very rare today and would definetely fetch a higher price.


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