The stoker throws logs into an already roaring fire, the engineer toots the whistle and then, in a cloud of steam and smoke, locomotive No 6-016 chuffs out into a sun-dappled Borneo morning, bringing back to life a part of the Malaysian state of Sabah's colonial past. Behind the engine are five carriages and a kitchen car, all painted in the green and cream livery of the old North Borneo Railway.

The service is operated by the Sutera Harbour Resort, although non-guests are welcome, and runs between Tanjung Aru, just to the west of state capital Kota Kinabalu, and Papar, 38 kilometres to the south.

At Tanjung Aru station, passengers are greeted by staff wearing khakis, pith helmets and starched white shirts. But it's only the shirts that are starchy; the people wearing them are full of smiles and will cheerfully pose for photographs. They are also very well informed and happy to answer questions about the service and the train.

"NORTH BORNEO RAILWAY" now refers to the Sutera Harbour steam service, which runs twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but, in colonial times, it was the name of the larger rail system, which is now known as the Sabah State Railway (SSR). Perhaps "system" is the wrong word, though, since the SSR encompasses just one, 134-kilometre line, which runs from Tanjung Aru through 12 stations, including Papar, to Tenom, one of the oldest Chinese settlements in Sabah (a significant number of its 55,000-strong population are descended from Hakka immigrants from Longchuan, Guangdong province).

Construction of a one-metre gauge line that ran from Beaufort (which is located at about the mid-point of today's SSR line) to the port at Weston began in 1896. It was built by the British North Borneo Company to transport tobacco to the coast and closed in 1963. In 1903, the existing line was built. From Beaufort it ran north along the coast to Jesselton, modern day Kota Kinabalu, and, in 1905, was extended south, to Tenom.

Jesselton station closed in 1974, leaving Tanjung Aru at the head of the line.

The engine that pulls the 10am North Borneo Railway service from Tanjung Aru was built in 1954, at the Vulcan Foundry in Lancashire, northern England. It was one of the last batch of three steam locomotives built at the foundry before it converted to diesel production.

As the train readies for departure, the station PA is blasting out classic tunes from the swing era. A few dallying passengers climb aboard, the guard waves his flag and we're off.

To one side, the main road out of town is squeezed in between the track and the sea; on the other, car workshops and stilt villages provide a foreground to the distant mountains of the Crocker Range National Park.

Danish pastries and croissants with tea and coffee are served. The carriages date from the 1970s, although they have been refurbished with polished brass and local wood, to reflect the golden age of steam. Passengers sit two per table, so everyone gets a window seat.

The railway line veers away from the road and heads towards Kinarut, a market town with old wooden shophouses and a temple with a 20-foot-tall smiling Buddha to explore. The stop is brief, however, and soon we are steaming past rice paddies, orchards and mangroves, before passing through the 450-metre Pengalat Tunnel - the only tunnel on the line - over a river on a steel trestle bridge and into Papar.

There is a 30-minute stop at Papar, just enough time to explore what is a modern town with a few old buildings and a lively tamu (local produce market). Some passengers wander off to sightsee and stock up on kuih cincin (a flower-shaped biscuit with a palm-sugar filling) while those more interested in the train stay on the platform to watch the locomotive drink from the old water tower and head to the turntable, to be spun around for the 130-minute return journey.

It's easy to see why steam trains inspire the imagination. Their big wheels and steamy breath, and the clanking of con rods, could almost convince you they were alive. Then, of course, there is the fire that is the heart of all steam engines. But a fire needs fuel and a downpour the night before has left much of our firewood wet. As a result, poor old 6-016 cannot build up enough pressure to make the return journey and a diesel engine has to be enlisted.

As we head back north, chicken satays, spiced mackerel, stir-fried vegetables with prawns and chicken biriyani are served for lunch in old-style tiffin tins. It's good food but it would have tasted so much better with the occasional whiff of steam coming through the open window and the gentle chuff and clank of the locomotive up ahead.

THEREIS MORE to the railway network beyond Papar, and it is worth exploring, but you have to use regular trains. The first of these leaves Tanjung Aru at 7.45am and takes just two hours to reach Beaufort.

The most interesting area of this friendly little town is along Jalan Chung, a broad lane flanked on both sides by wooden shophouses built on stilts, to protect them from periodic flooding of the Padas River. Each row contains half a dozen shops selling everything from mobile phones to mops and brushes, and a wonderfully faded kopitiam (a traditional coffee shop) that probably hasn't changed much since it was built. The chipped and grubby painted wooden walls might not look too appealing but the kopitiam's patrons are a friendly bunch and the coffee - a potent but mellow brew with chocolatey overtones and a dollop of condensed milk in the bottom of the glass - is enriched with old-fashioned goodness.

There are two trains a day beyond Beaufort, to Tenom, and these operate mainly for the benefit of school children. It is the least comfortable service but it does pass through the most luxuriant scenery on the network.

At 1.30pm, two faded red and cream carriages and a baggage van drawn by a grubby green diesel pull out of Beaufort. The line follows the Padas River as it cuts across the southern end of the Crocker Range and passes plantations and then forests that rise majestically from the far bank of the river and stretch back into Borneo's interior, before delivering the train to Tenom, at about 4pm: time to rise for the passengers who have been dozing in the afternoon heat.

There's not much to see in Tenom itself but just up the road is Keningau, a good base from which to explore the Crocker Range National Park or climb Mount Trus Madi, Malaysia's second-highest peak.


Getting there: Air Asia and Cathay Pacific ( fly daily between Hong Kong and Kota Kinabalu. See for more details about the North Borneo Railway.