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Celebrating Sierra Leone independence

Created on 23/04/2018 @ 08:33
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The Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway will be staging a new special event on Saturday, celebrating the anniversary of a small West African nation.

Remarkably the Llanfair line has a strong connection with Sierra Leone, today owning a complete train brought to Wales from there in 1975, and on Saturday the line will be running specific stock and mounting displays to celebrate Sierra Leone independence day.

Sierra Leone gained independence on April 27, 1961 after more than 100 years of British rule. To equip the country for independence the British Government carried out infrastructure refurbishment, including significant repairs to the railway which ran 227 miles into the mountainous country.

A full rake of new carriages was ordered from Gloucester Carriage & Wagon Company and delivered to Sierra Leone in 1961. These became known as the 'Independence Coaches'. However, in 1968 a decision to close the Sierra Leone Railway was taken as a result of advice from the World Bank – the railway was gradually phased out, with the final passenger train operating on November 17, 1974.

In 1975, the Welshpool & Llanfair was seeking to increase its passenger fleet and became aware that equipment was being disposed of in Sierra Leone. Following a visit to the capital of Freetown a substantial amount of equipment was purchased form the scrap dealer – as well as four Independence Coaches, the railway bought rail, signalling equipment, and SLR locomotive No 85, built by Hunslet in Leeds in 1954.

Until 2004 it was thought that the Llanfair vehicles were the only Independence Coaches to survive. However, while on military duty in Sierra Leone in 2004, following the end of the ten-year civil war, British Army Colonel Steve Davies rediscovered locomotives and rolling stock that had been saved from scrap and hidden away in the hope that they would one day become part of the national collection. Among this stock were two more Independence Coaches, which are now on display at the National Railway Museum that Col Davies subsequently helped set up in Freetown.

One of the Llanfair coaches was subsequently sold to the South Tynedale Railway for conversion to a buffet car, and another was dismantled for spare parts, but the other two are still in use, having been restored to their original condition – one, a first-class vehicle, is fitted with 16 white leather armchairs. The two Independence coaches in Freetown are unrestored and require significant work to bring them back to their former glory.

So on Saturday, the Welshpool & Llanfair will celebrate Sierra Leone independence, in partnership with the UK-based Friends of Sierra Leone National Railway Museum, who actively support progress at the museum. The third-class coach will be operating as part of the passenger trains, whilst the elegant first-class carriage will be available to visit at Welshpool Station.

Locomotive No 85 has been out of service since 2010 in need of significant boiler work, but went on a national tour in 2017 – promoting both the Welshpool & Llanfair and Sierra Leone, the tour was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. This loco will be on display at Llanfair Caerenion station while it awaits its turn for restoration to service.

The event will also feature displays and activities sharing the fascinating story of Sierra Leone and how the W&LLR came to be part of its history.

“Come and ride in a unique railway carriage and learn more about this special connection,” W&LLR general manager Charles Spencer said. “Regular fares and discounts apply – and the day will provide much of interest to visitors.”

Full information on the railway, including online ticket booking, can be found on the website or by calling 01938 810441.

PICTURE (Andrew Charman/W&LLR): A popular engine at the Welshpool & Llanfair, Hunslet No.85 is currently out of service but will be on display at the Sierra Leone Independence celebration, while the former Government Railway carriages will be an active part of services on the day.

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