The International Steam Pages

The Bong Mine Railway, Liberia Revisited, 2010

Peter Nettleship first visited the Bong Mine Railway in Liberia in February 2007 visit. Click here for the original report.

He has also visited the former Lamco Railway (added 18th June 2010).

The Bong Mine Railway of Liberia is facing an uncertain future. Like its big brother down the road (the former Lamco system which took iron ore from the Nimba mountains down to the port of Buchanan), the Bong Mine railway has been taken over. But whereas the Lamco line is being rebuilt by the Indian conglomerate, ArcelorMittal, Bong Mine has been bought by the Chinese.

For those unfamiliar with this arcane footnote to the world’s railway systems, the Bong Mine railway was built in the 1960s to bring ore from the mines 80km down to the Liberian port and capital, Monrovia, for shipping abroad. A previous visit three years ago, chronicled on these pages found the railway – and the whole of the West African state -- recovering from fifteen years of savage civil war, running a basic passenger and freight service with the aid of three former German 4w diesel hydraulic shunters.

In some respects, things have moved on; in others they’ve moved back. The three German O&K shunters are still the mainstay of the system, although they’ve now been successfully been re-engined with Dorman 450HP marine engines. And they appear to operate without their engine-casings – though whether that’s just for ventilation is not clear. They’ve also been joined by two other locos: One is another German beast, an 0-6-0DH, which was found on arrival to have its transmission completely shot and has never been used. Unfortunately, it came without a warranty. (For German number-chasers, the loco also carries no obvious identification, apart from a dead web address - SFH Schienenfahrzeuge Export-Import GmbH.

The other new loco – under maintenance on the day I visited, but I was told it’s used regularly – is British: also an 0-6-0DH, Barclay 667/84 and ex-WD 630. The reason it was not ready, I was told, was for the lack of an imperial Allen Key: only metric ones were available until someone could go to the shops... The loco was said to be popular and useful, the only complaint being that it had cast brake blocks which were inefficient and wore down quickly. But the preferred carbon fibre ones are double the cost.

The line still runs a regular freight service, bringing the remains of the stockpile of ore down from Bong Mine for export, but has been told to stop its passenger trains, which were used to bring people and goods for sale down to the capital three times a week. Bong Mine town is only accessible by poor dirt roads, and impossible in the rainy season, so the trains were popular; it’s not entirely clear why they were stopped – something about not having a government licence – and nor do the railway staff know whether the Chinese who’ve now taken over will allow them to resume.

But the railway does still run specials from time to time, and my companions and I were lucky enough to coincide with one being run to celebrate the final signing of the Chinese agreement in the week of my visit. The cheery and helpful Chief Engineer of the Bong Mine Railway, Nathaniel Seku, invited us to join the train, which was being run to show the line to a large group of Chinese diplomats, businesspeople and journalists. Also present were Liberian officials, along with the Justice Minister Christiana Tah, who planned to address a public meeting at Bong Mine to explain the agreement to the local people and try to allay any fears they might have.

The train consisted of one of the small German hydraulics, the VIP coach, and five flat wagons carrying the array of Toyota Landcruisers without which no official convoy is complete. Unfortunately, it was a rather large official party, and the train was overcrowded... I was OK on the engine, of course, also draped around which were Mr Seku and several of his staff. But my companions had to be satisfied with outdoor seating on plastic picnic chairs.

The lack of a passenger service has exacerbated the problem of local people using the line to move their goods. This they do on basic wooden trolleys fitted either with skids or small wheels and axles. They seem to do it on the basis that there won’t be any trains to interrupt them, and that in any case, small German shunters can stop instantly.... Neither is a wise assumption. In the early days of the railway reopening, there was one fatal collision, and on my journey, we had several near misses – two of them very near indeed. And one trolley left too close to the line will not be used again.

The journey both up the line and back was smooth and (apart from the near misses) uneventful. There was no need even for the water stop that had delayed my previous trip three years ago. Much clearance has taken place at Bong Mine itself, with most of the stockpiles of ore and spoil (used for aggregate for road construction) now removed, along with copious quantities of what used to be machinery, but is now just scrap metal.

But what of the future? The railway staff – and the people of Bong Mine – are fearful of what the Chinese takeover may mean for the community, and for their own job prospects. Nobody knows what the real aim is. Our visit was running late, so unfortunately, for fear of missing the train back, I couldn’t attend the public meeting in Bong Mine High School at which the plans were supposed to have been laid out. What Bong Mine town needs most is work for the local community. And good communications with the capital and the rest of the country. Will the Chinese provide these?

And what of the mines themselves? Three years ago, I was told the best of the iron ore had been mined out. What remained was of poor quality. Do the Chinese geologists know differently? Do they plan to extend the railway to other iron ore deposits elsewhere? These certainly exist, although mostly (I’m told) across the borders of Liberia in Guinea and Sierra Leone. Bringing them out through the Bong Mine railway seems possible, but, to be honest, unlikely. Especially with ArclorMittal’s hopes for their railway being used.

Many questions remain – but also for me, the very pleasant memories of an excellent trip on a lovely little railway.

The two 'new' diesels, the Barclay and the German disaster.

Below, the train in action, with ladies. The first lady about to board the train is the Justice Minister Christiana Tah. Already on board are Eleanor Nettleship and Elizabeth Blunt. Elizabeth sprung to unexpected and unsought fame in Liberia when she was the BBC's West Africa correspondent and now she has two schools in the country named after her! For more information follow the links below:

The Elizabeth Blunt Story 

Rob Dickinson