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NGO makes saving colonial station first main task
Published on: Sunday, July 10, 2016

Kota Kinabalu: The North Borneo Historical Society (NBHS) that aims to save the historical 110-year-old colonial train station in Melalap, Tenom sees the undertaking as its biggest contribution to Sabah since its formation five years ago.

"Prior to 2011, there wasn't any centralised location on the Internet to find resources about the history of North Borneo," said founder Richard Ker, an electronics and IT engineer.

With the trend nowadays of social media platforms such as Facebook being quite popular, he wanted to use it as the main platform to educate and build awareness on North Borneo's history.

"I would search online archives such as UK's national Archives, the Australian War Memorial and many other websites around the world to source for information and photos.

"The role was simple. Share old photos of North Borneo with a bite size text that can be absorbed and understood by people of all ages.

It was during the course of the five years that Ker discovered an abandoned train station located in the interior of North Borneo – the Melalap train station, located approximately 135km from Kota Kinabalu, and not too far from the Crocker Range.

Melalap was once vastly planted with rubber trees, like most areas in the West Coast of Sabah in the early 1900's.

In 1906, a railway extension project was conducted to help transport people and produce between Tenom and Melalap.

"The station was used to transport people, rubber and jungle produce. However, modern transportation systems and vehicles made the train system obsolete and the train station was no longer used since the 70s.

"The rail service was terminated some 64 years later due to economic changes in Melalap and eventually the station was abandoned.

"The condition of the station started to deteriorate and nothing has been done so far to save it.

Some early attempts to save it didn't materialise due to lack of funding and support."

As a result, the station's condition deteriorated rapidly and is now in danger of collapse if nothing is done.

"Today, the station is covered by thick shrubs and bushes and termites are slowly eating away the wooden structures.


This is one of the major reasons why North Borneo Historical Society decided to take the initiative to save the station.

"The station has the distinction of being the last railway point built by the British North Borneo Chartered Company and is also one of a few pre-war heritage structures left in the State. It has historical significance by being the crux of Melalap's development where the Melalap rubber estate ventures would have failed without it.

"The building is also a tourist attraction, especially foreign tourists who had ties to the area during the Japanese Occupation."

Ker said he and his team of volunteers decided to take the lead to save the Melalap train station with the hope of turning it into a new tourism product for the State, to promote and drive economic activities in the area and create jobs for the local people.

"It is also crucial to preserve the history of the historic station and its surrounding areas."

In April, Ker and his team comprising historians Azlan Mohd Jaffar, Rachel Sibangun Joseph and Abednigo Chow conducted a field survey of the station and its surrounding areas, including the use of camera drones by a team from Dragonfly Robotix to get a bird's eye view of the station.

In addition, the team also discovered two nearby colonial era iron bridges spanning two nearby rivers, which served as part of the train link to carry cargo to and from Beaufort.

"We also discovered the Melalap iron bridges were actually built by the same company that did the Sydney harbour bridge," said Ker.

According to Ker, following their trip to the station, a video was quickly put up and a meeting was arranged with the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Arts (Kepkas) chaired by Cultural Heritage Special Duties Officer Joanna Datuk Kitingan, attended by representatives from the Sabah State Railway (SSR), Tenom District Office and State Museum.

Ker said in the course of their discussions it was confirmed that the station belongs to the Sabah State Railway although the area surrounding the station, which was planted with palm oil, was under the jurisdiction of Sime Darby.

"The State Museum added they were aware that the station's building was leaning to one side due to rotting beam pillars and advised it be subject to restoration i.e. dismantle, treat reusable wood and rebuild as per original blueprint while maintaining wood structure to keep authenticity.

"The foundation using wood ground beam was also found to be weak or missing and requires immediate reinforcement."

Ker said currently, they are researching to see if the station was rebuilt post-WWII since many buildings were damaged or destroyed from bombings.


"The Tenom Assistant District Officer (ADO) was also very supportive of the effort and agrees with the restoration and proposes its use as a historical gallery.

"SSR said there were already plans to reinstate railway tracks from Tenom to Melalap.

However, the main issue is funding (and perhaps manpower, too). In addition they also need to figure out what to do with village homes built on top of/near original path of the train.

"As such, SSR had requested a proposal from our NBHS team on restoration works and the General Manager will discuss this further probably during the next Transport Ministry meeting."

Ker said Joanna had also agreed to push for the declaration of the station as a cultural heritage, including gazettement, to allow use of trust fund and mandates construction of a plaque.

"On our part, we suggested SSR build extension away from the original station, to lessen pollution and decrease damage to fragile building structure. We were informed the suggestion of gazettement is to be sent to the State Cabinet for approval."

Ker said Kepkas also requested for assistance for a booklet content for the gazettement discussion, while NBHS requested for immediate damage prevention works for the station due to its current deteriorating state.

He said Kepkas also suggested to implement a small conservation fee on tourists to help pay for guard duty efforts.

Ker added that Sime Darby also was keen to work with NBHS even if the station doesn't belong to them.

He said they have also set up an indiegogo site (www.generosity.com/community-fundraising/save-melalap-train-station-in-north-borneo) as well where interested members of the public can donate toward the restoration of the site.

"The first US$2000 will be used to reinforce the structure and beams supporting the station to prevent it from collapsing.

Donors will receive a beautiful postcard size artwork of Melalap station that can be hung on the wall or framed"


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