Sierra Leone Government Railway

Sierra Leone Government Railway

The Sierra Leone Government Railway operated in the West African country of Sierra Leone from 1897 to 1974. It was unusual in that it formed a national railway system constructed solely to a RailGauge|30 rail gauge. Such a narrow gauge was usually confined to feeder railways.


There were a number of early proposals for a railway in the British colony of Sierra Leone dating from 1872, including a proposal for a trans-Sahara railway, all of which came to naught. Finally in 1893 a proposal financed by the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce was adopted, and surveying commenced. Survey parties confronted many difficulties, especially disease, which delayed completion of the survey. Construction commenced from Freetown in 1896, and the first section of railway was opened to Wellington (7 miles) by March 1897. Subsequent openings were:

:* Waterloo, April 1898:* Songo (32 miles/51.5 km) 1899:* Rotifunk (56 miles/90.1 km) 1900:* Bo (103 miles/165.8 km) 1903:* Baiima (220 miles/354 km) 1905:* Pendembu (227.5 miles/366 km) 1907

Other lines were also constructed. A short branch of 5.5 miles (8.9 km) length was built in 1903 from Freetown to Hill Station, at 748 feet (228 m) above sea level. The line allowed Europeans to live in the healthier hills area above Freetown, but with competition from motor cars was closed in 1929.

A more substantial branch was built from Bauya Junction to Makeni (84 miles/135.2 km) in 1914. It was later extended to Kambai (104 miles/167.4 km), but subsequently cut back to Makeni in 1930. At this time total route length was 311 miles (500.5 km).

The railways assumed increased importance in World War II. Apart from moving mineral resources from the interior to the coast, the railway was also important in supporting fighting in North Africa. Fighter aircraft were shipped to the end of the line, where they were assembled and flown on to Egypt.

The equipment of the railway was renewed in the 1950s, with the introduction of diesel locomotives, and the purchase of some 155 new freight wagons. Both freight and passenger traffic was increasing during this decade. Independence came to Sierra Leone in 1961, and as an independence gift the United Kingdom gave 45 new passenger coaches.

Increased road traffic and changes in government policy in the 1960s saw a decline in traffic, and various proposals for its future. They included a new branch to serve a bauxite mine, and converting to a wider gauge. However the report of the United Nations Special Fund, which recommended closure, was adopted. The Makeni branch was closed in 1968, followed by the Kenema - Pendembu section in 1971. Further closures as far as Bo occurred in 1973, and final closure in 1974.



First locomotives supplied to the railway were two 0-6-0T built by the Hunslet Engine Company and supplied in 1897. These were quickly followed by a 2-6-2T design from Hunslet, a design that proved very successful and enduring, a large number were built between 1898 and 1920. Further locos of this design continued to be supplied throughout the steam era, the last two being built in 1954. Elements of this design were used in the construction of a locomotive for the Welsh Highland Railway known as "Russell".

Five 2-8-2T from Hunslet were supplied in 1906, to be followed by two 4-8-0 tender locos from Naysmyth Wilson in 1910. Further 4-8-0 locos were built by North British and Hawthorn Leslie, bringing the total to 17 by 1921. 1926 saw the introduction of 2-6-2+2-6-2 Garratts from Beyer-Peacock, eliminating double heading of a 2-6-2T with a 4-8-0. The 2-8-2T had proved unsuitable, and all were withdrawn by the mid 1920s.

World War II saw great demands placed on the railway, and its importance was demonstrated by the railway being supplied with a number of new locomotives. Six new Garratts were supplied in 1942, and twenty 4-8-0s were built by W.G. Bagnall and Barclay. Additionally, six 2-8-0 locomotives that had been built in Switzerland were brought in from the South India Railways. In an effort to further increase capacity, five of the earlier 2-6-2+2-6-2 Garratts were converted to a 2-8-0+0-8-2 wheel arrangement so as to increase tractive effort. Experience with these modified Garratts influenced the final steam class purchased by the railway. In 1956 fourteen modern 4-8-2+2-8-4 Garratts were purchased from Beyer-Peacock. These locos increased the maximum load over 1:50 grades from 200 tons to 270 tons (203.21 t to 274.333 t).

In the meantime the railway had turned to diesel traction. The first were purchased in 1954, being three 145HP, 20 ton 0-8-0s built by Hudswell Clarke primarily for shunting duties, followed by five more in 1960. A class of larger diesels was supplied by the same maker between 1958 and 1961. The class consisted of twenty-four 225HP 29 ton 2-8-2s for mainline use. These locos were a limited success, speeding up operations and reducing costs, however were not without their problems. Batteries supplied on the locos were not large enough to start the motors, and a van with additional batteries had to accompany them as a tender. Overall the railway had difficulties in maintaining the diesel locos, and steam locos continued to operate. At closure the railway possessed five operating steam locos, and four diesels.


The railway was built with 30lb rail, limiting axle loads to 5 tons. Some of the extensions were built as "tramways", with rail weight reduced to 20 and even 15lb. In an effort to increase axle loadings and the speed limit above 20mph (32.2 km/h), some sections of the line were rebuilt with 40lb rail in the 1950s.

Most of the line was built with a 1 to 50 gradient, but some sections were as steep as 1 to 39. The Hill Station line had a gradient of 1 to 22. There were 139 bridges with a span of over 20 feet (6.1 m) on the line, the longest being of six spans and 716 feet (218.24 m) across.


At closure in 1974 one of the 2-6-2T Hunslets, together with some coaches, were purchased and shipped to the Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway in Wales, where they continue to operate in tourist service. The loco happened to be the last of the Hunslets built for the railway.

In Sierra Leone a collection of rolling stock was retained at the former railway workshops to form a museum. Locos included one of the 4-8-2+2-8-4 Garretts, a Hunslet tank, and a couple of the diesel locos. Several coaches were also kept, including the Governor's coach, and a coach specially prepared for the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1961. Through the years of civil strife and war this collection disappeared from sight and it was feared it had been destroyed. However the collection survived despite the workshops being used as a centre for displaced persons. Following the initiative of a British army officer, Colonel Steve Davies, restoration of the equipment has commenced in 2004. The President of the Republic of Sierra Leone, Alhaji Dr. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, has visited the workshops site and indicated his support for restoring the museum and preserving the railway heritage of Sierra Leone.

See also

* Transport in Sierra Leone


* Durrant, A.E., A.A. Jorgensen, & C.P. Lewis 1981 "Steam in Africa" Hamlyn. ISBN 0-600-34946-2
* Rowe, D.Trever "The Sierra Leone Government Railway" in Locomotives International No. 41 Dec 1997-Jan 1998.
* Thorne, G. 1996 "Scrapbook of Narrow Gauge Drawings" , 7mm Narrow Gauge Association.

* [ Sierra Leone President visits railway collection at workshops.]
* [ World-wide 30" Gauge Railways]

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