It all began with an invitation to us from the Director of the British National Railway Museum, Steve Davies to visit the United Kingdom in April 2010. Steve Davies has pioneered the establishment of a Sierra Leone Railway Museum Supporters’ Fund there. It was Davies who established the Sierra Leone National Railway Museum in 2004 while serving here with the International Military Assistance Training Team.
On the trip with me to the U.K. were the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, Mr. Melvin Caulker; and the General Manager of the National Tourist Board, Mr Cecil Williams. We were attending the formal launch of the Sierra Leone National Railway Museum Supporters’ Fund. The Sierra Leone National Railway Museum has enjoyed a close working relationship with its counterpart in the U.K. Such relationship has included training of Sierra Leone railway museum staff abroad and continued exploratory visits by Steve Davies and British Railway Museum staff.
The launch of the fund was made to coincide with the last journey of a Sierra Leone train in the U.K. Our U.K. colleagues wanted us to be on that train on its last journey. Technically speaking, it was not the train’s last journey. The train was going to be taken off the tracks for repairs to its boiler. Repairing a Steam Engine boiler in these days of electric trains can be very expensive, our British friends told us. It is not certain therefore when the Sierra Leone train will be back in service.
We arrived in the afternoon of April 17, 2010 at the Welshpool Station in Wales to be met by a small crowd of railway enthusiasts and officials. We had a conducted tour of the yards of the Welshpool and Llanfair Railway during which the breadth of Sierra Leone’s railway heritage was unveiled to us. The Welshpool and Llanfair Railway hold carriages 1048, 1066, and 1207; Locomotive 85, and dozens of couplings from the Sierra Leone Government Railway. Locomotive 85 is even fitted today with a brand new spare Fire-Box which had been obtained from the Sierra Leone Government Railway in 1975.
The moment came two hours later when the sharp blare of a train’s horn reached us from the distance. All of us assembled on the platform. The Sierra Leone train was now in view. It had been decorated with flowers and the flags of Sierra Leone and England. A third flag was probably that of Wales. The train stopped and passengers disembarked. A crowd of approximately thirty people including us from Sierra Leone boarded, and the train took us on an hour-long return-journey. In the course of the journey Steve Davies and I took turns at the Foot-plate where I saw the Fireman loading coal into the Fire-Box from time to time. The Fireman happened to be a woman! Steve Davies actually took a turn at the driving controls. At the end of the journey a British woman played the Sierra Leone National Anthem on her bag-pipe. That was my journey on a Sierra Leone train in 2010. I never rode the Sierra Leone Railway in its days.
The train at Welshpool was the last of similar locomotives supplied to the Sierra Leone Government Railway. It worked on various duties. In its last days it was used to push other trains up Oxford Street (Ecowas Street), around the present Freetown Central Mosque, down to Water Street Station (now Bus Station). The coaches were part of forty-five coaches given to Sierra Leone as a gift by Britain on her Independence in April 1961. When the Sierra Leone Railway closed in 1975 most of its functioning carriages, locomotives, and tracks were sold overseas. Japan was a main buyer, I have been told. The locomotive SLR 85 and four coaches were bought by the Welshpool and Llanfair Railway through the facilitation of a British national visiting Sierra Leone at the time. In the book Sierra Leone Narrow Gauge (Beale and Mitchell 2004), we are told that “the deal was done at the 11th hour with a Lebanese scrap merchant”. The train and coaches arrived in Britain on the ship Idomeneus of the Elder Dempster Lines in early August 1975 and were off-loaded at Liverpool. Welshpool and Llanfair Railway is a community-based cooperative running antique trains as a leisure and tourism business.
The Sierra Leone Railway Museum at Cline Town and Sierra Leone Government Railway assets at Welshpool in Wales serve as a memorial to British enterprise in Africa; presenting a potential touristic niche in Sierra Leone for enthusiasts of British engineering and industry heritage. Surveying for the Sierra Leone Railway started in 1893. On May 25, 1896 the first engine steamed on the construction work which started at Cline Town. It was British West Africa’s first Railway. By Charlie J. Hughes