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Freetown, Sierra Leone

Autumn 2015


Sierra Leone’s National Railway Museum goes global


The Sierra Leone National Railway Museum (SLNRM), a remarkable collection of secretly-hidden and long-lost British-built locomotives and stock, rediscovered and preserved in Freetown after the civil war ended in 2005, has launched its international supporters’ charity. The plan is to establish the museum as a major employer and education in Sierra Leone's capital, as well as a route for UK aid and investment to kickstart growth of Sierra Leone’s economy. It is in desperate need of funding assistance to develop the enterprise.

Conserving and visiting historic railway trains are a popular leisure pursuit in the UK and the team will capitalise on this interest by gaining donations and sponsorship from that country. The trains were stashed away from scrap men after the Sierra Leone’s complete 350 mile railway network closed in 1975. A bloody civil war ripped the country apart for ten years, and 10,000 refugees made their home in the workshops, surviving inside and around the forgotten locos and Queen Elizabeth II’s Royal Train whilst soldiers fought outside.

It is expected that the old vehicles, once fully restored, will be a major draw for international tourists as well as being an educational facility, employer and commercial opportunity for Sierra Leoneans, kickstarting economic growth. The museum aims to become a sustainable operation to enable and empower those involved in Freetown to improve their lives and their situation.

The democratic government is encouraging sustainable tourism growth through new wildlife reserves, beach improvements, hotels, museums and African cultural heritage development. Through establishments like the SLNRM, Sierra Leoneans are rediscovering their shared national identity, learning new skills and bringing international funding to the country. The international support team aims to empower and enable the indigenous Freetown-based team by providing much-needed funding and professional support


2015 marks the 100th birthday of the oldest surviving locomotive (“Nellie the Engine” as she is known by children in Freetown), the 40th anniversary of the railway closing and the launch of a UK support group, the Friends of SLNRM. 


The Friends of SLNRM are therefore looking for partners worldwide to help provide funding for the museum and its team to grow.


The trains' journey from Leeds to their survival in Ebola-hit Sierra Leone today is a miracle. The British-built 350 mile-long narrow gauge railway was forced to close in 1975. The impact of the railway’s loss was immediate: thousands of farmers who had transported fresh produce in a few hours from the plains to the coast and capital now took days to go by dusty track. Farms closed; communication between friends and families suffered. Familiar-sounding stations to British ears shut, such as Hastings, Waterloo and Bradford shut – as did every station, from Freetown to Pendembu and Kamabai.

Heartbroken railway staff secretly hid and locked their favourite locomotives and carriages away from scrap men. Then, during the civil war of 1992-2002, more than 10,000 refugees sought refuge from child soldiers inside the hulks of these rusting iron dinosaurs and inside Queen Elizabeth II’s forgotten royal train which sat alongside them in the locked-up sheds by the docks. Remarkably, after the war ended, rumours of their survival persisted and they were rediscovered by a British army officer, Colonel Steve Davies, and alongside Sierra Leone’s President, snatched from Chinese scrap men at the eleventh hour following a staged intervention on live TV.

Through ten years of peace and the vicious Ebola outbreak, the trains have been cosmetically restored as the Sierra Leone National Railway Museum. Those locomotives from Leeds and Manchester have become beacons of hope and are seen as a way to bring in foreign tourists and international knowledge and training to empower staff and a nascent cultural sector. For the first time, young people will be able to train with hands-on engineering apprenticeships. The potential for this museum as a cultural, heritage and educational hub is only just being realised.

Last month, Air France restarted flights to Freetown (Sierra Leone’s capital), and the government has cautiously started to look towards a post-Ebola future. The ambitious Friends of SLNRM group comprising Sierra Leonean civil service staff in Freetown plus railway enthusiasts and museum professionals in York aim these plucky pieces of steel become virtual vehicles for aid, international investment, sponsorship, education, job creation and skills transfer – which will eventually get tourists to once again spend time and money in country that needs help now more than ever before.


Sierra Leone’s National Railway Museum is going global!

Helen Ashby OBE, chair of the Friends of Sierra Leone National Railway Museum, comments:

“Many years ago ‘Nellie the Engine’ and her later cousins from Britain helped build a nation 3,000 miles away. Now, 100 years later, these products of Yorkshire industry 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.


“But we need the people of Britain, and particularly the people of Leeds, to kickstart this project. I hope they can join us this weekend at Armley Mills and find out how the workshops of this city 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.”

Full plans and an online donation facility are at .

A gallery of high-res images for media use is available


Further comment from the Ministry of Tourism in Sierra Leone will depend on availability due to pressing matters with the Ebola situation.



Phone interviews with Steve Davies MBE and Helen Ashby OBE are available.




More about the Friends of Sierra Leone National Railway Museum plans


The SLNRM is at the heart of plans for helping the country re-establish itself on theinternational tourist map. The Friends of SLNRM does not direct plans nor does it attempt to instruct, but provides support, funding, experience and consultation to empower the team in Freetown. It works with the team to:

  • Provide funding increases to support eight staff and their families

  • Preserve all major exhibits in Sierra Leone, each to tell a themed story about Sierra Leone history

  • Enable Public Sector Management university students and staff to learn internationally-acquired techniques from visiting UK museum and marketing professionals

  • Provide education programmes for Freetown schoolchildren

  • Enable craftsmen and apprentices to learn transferable skills in exhibit restoration and conservation

  • Seek UK sponsorship of key projects to enable reconstruction and interpretation, enhancing the museum offering

  • Raise the profile of Sierra Leone and reminding UK residents of our significant similarities

  • Work with several other planned developments to create a significant and sustainable collection of businesses and services to attract inbound tourists

  • Advise on best practice museum, conservation, education and engagement policies

The collection is unparalleled not just because of its incredible survival, but because of the artefacts’ unique nature and the stories about Sierra Leone past and future that each can tell to both nationals and inbound tourists as the museum develops:

  • Queen Elizabeth’s unused Royal Train: The world’s only royal train that was never used by royalty: built by engineers for Elizabeth’s visit in 1961, a late itinerary change meant the monarch never rode inside this bright white streamlined vehicle. We have started external restoration.

  • “Queen of Tonga”, No. 73: A massive Garratt locomotive which once pulled that queen on an international bonding visit, and also hauled huge trains of agricultural produce 200 miles from the plains to the docks. Built by Manchester’s Beyer, Peacock Ltd. in their Gorton Works in the 1950s.

  • The Pump Trolley: used by workmen to patrol the line, visitors can now pump up and down a short track inside the museum to help raise funds. Technically the only working passenger-carrying train left in Sierra Leone.

  • Independence Coaches: 2 of 45 carriages sent to Sierra Leone by the British Government as a congratulatory gift on independence from being a British colony.

  • “Nellie the engine”: Freetown’s friendly little 100 year-old steam 0-4-0 saddle tank shunting engine kept virtually as the staff’s pet, built in Leeds in 1915 as the railway’s No.10 and now a firm favourite with local schoolchildren.

  • Steam loco No.81 of 1947: Built by Hunslet of Leeds to a 2-6-2 tank design. Its sister, No.85, was bought by the Welshpool & Llanfair Railway in Wales in 1975 and it is currently on public display at Locomotion, the National Railway Museum at Shildon (UK).

  • Diesels No.105 and No.107 of 1954, and No.123 and No.133 of 1958: Built by Hudswell, Clarke Ltd of Leeds, they were touted as the “Best of British Engineering” but were problem-fraught and were often replaced by steam locomotives


The British Library Endangered Archives Project has issued a £15,000 grant which has been used to start digitising the irreplaceable paper ephemera that still exists. Accessible online and in the museum, this archive will enable anyone to find out about the impact that railways, technology, and the railways’ demise, had on Sierra Leone. Ongoing formal support from the Arts Council, the Sierra Leone Ministry for Tourism, tourist agency Visit Sierra Leone and the UK National Railway Museum has also been committed.

The FoSLNRM has now been established to support the museum in Freetown with international fundraising, practical assistance and skills transfer to enable the Sierra Leone-based SLNRM team to develop the museum with the benefit of internationally-acclaimed museum professionals. The FoSLNRM board of trustees includes several current and former UK National Railway Museum staff, including Steve Davies, Helen Ashby, Anthony Coulls and Tim Procter. Other trustees include government officials and expats in Freetown. The UK-based team all made frequent visits before the Ebola outbreak and will again when it is responsibly safe to do so in 2015.

Anyone can join FoSLNRM or make a donation online at Funds raised through the FoSLNRM will be used to restore the exhibits, provide interpretation, repair the roof and ultimately develop the SLNRM as a significant visitor attraction asset, employer and educational facility for Sierra Leone. It is spearheading economic development alongside other sustainable tourist facilities.

For more information:

Tim Dunn, FoSLNRM Marketing Officer
+44 (0) 7973 174357



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