Ravaged by civil war and the Ebola pandemic, Sierra Leone is hoping the railway can help deliver a positive future for the country.
Up until 1975, Sierra Leone still had a national rail network – more than 300 miles of narrow gauge track, an iron reminder of its British heritage. Locomotives built in Yorkshire were shipped thousands of miles to West Africa to transform travel in the country. But in the mid-1970s it closed, the track was torn up and the workshops bolted shut. Although many of the locomotives and carriages were hauled away for scrap, a handful were saved – hidden in a quiet corner of the Freetown works. An old works shunter – now called Nellie – two Hunslet steam engines, four Hudswell Clarke diesels, a Beyer Garratt locomotive and several carriages, including a royal carriage – built for Queen Elizabeth II who was due to visit in 1961 – which was never used were discovered by Colonel Steve Davies, with the help of former railway workers, who was in Sierra Leone in 2002 as part of a British peacekeeping force. The engines were thought to have been lost during the civil war, but not only did they survive, they played an important role, housing some of the 10,000 refugees who made the Freetown works their home. Instigated by the Revolutionary United Front rebels’ bid to overthrow the incumbent government, the war is thought to have led to the deaths of at least 50,000 people.
The Welshpool & Llanfair Railway in Wales bought four coaches and a Hunslet loco but the rest stayed in Sierra Leone. Over the course of the next few years, the rolling stock was carefully restored. The Sierra Leone National Railway Museum (SLNRM) was formally established in 2005 by President Kabbah, not only as a way of bringing tourism to such a poor region but to protect Sierra Leone’s railway heritage. To develop the museum, Steve, who at the time was the director of the National Railway Museum (NRM) in York, set up the Friends of SLNRM to give the museum access to the wealth of heritage railway knowledge that exists in the UK. Volunteers from NRM have even travelled to Sierra Leone to help with the maintenance of the vehicles and the furthering of the collection. This has included creating recordings documenting the memories of former rail workers.
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In May, the museum’s oldest locomotive Nellie – an 0-4-0 saddle tank shunting engine – celebrated its 100th birthday. The occasion was marked by an event at the Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills. With the Ebola outbreak now beginning to yield, the museum is hoping to relaunch and attract much-needed tourism investment. Helen Ashby OBE, chair of the Friends of SLNRM, said, ‘Many years ago ‘Nellie the Engine’ and her later cousins helped build a nation 3,000 miles away. Now, 100 years later, these products of Britain’s industrial past are engines for growth once again: they can help rebuild that nation and help people rebuild their lives.
‘The museum creates a funding stream directly into the heart of a country where most people die before their 50th birthday. Never before has a heritage railway project had a chance to provide a humanitarian role on this scale, but now that time has come. ‘The team in Freetown has a chance to empower their nation through cultural links, education, job creation and direct aid and investment. It’s an audacious project, but a sustainable one, and has formal support in both countries.’
Helen hopes the rail industry will support the museum’s cause. She added, ‘But we need the people of Britain to kickstart this project. I hope people will see how the workshops of Britain are set to change the world a second time around. Donations and sponsorship are what we need to stoke the fires of growth right now.’ ‘Sierra Leone has major development opportunities and this is an incredible chance to become a part of that success.’