The International Steam Pages

Mittal Phoenix Arises from Lamco Ashes, Liberia 2010

Peter Nettleship has also visited the Bong Mine Railway in Liberia.
  • Click here for the report of his original February 2007 visit.
  • Click here for his May 2010 update.

In the early 1960s, the Lamco mining company in Liberia, West Africa, built a standard gauge railway to take iron ore from the rich fields in the Nimba Mountains, on the border with Guinea, some 300km to the port of Buchanan for export. It’s probably best known to British enthusiasts for the five Class 08 shunters it bought from BR, along with several Swindon-built Scottish DMU carriages. Lamco also employed a number of ex-BR drivers, disillusioned with life at home, you can click here for an account. 

Civil war hit Liberia in the early 1990s; the railway shut down and was assumed to be completely destroyed. But in 2006, the international iron and steel conglomerate, ArcelorMittal, signed an agreement to take over both the mines and the railway from the Liberian government, and reopen them for export. The international financial crisis forced the project to be put on hold for about a year, but – as of the week before my arrival at the end of April -- it’s now back on track, and ArcelorMittal plans to reopen both the railway and the mines completely in 2011. 

The visit showed the railway was nothing like as badly damaged by the civil war as had been thought. The basic infrastructure was all still there; all bridges are in good order and nearly all the track intact. Re-sleepering is progressing well, and has currently reached Kilometre 96 north from the port at Buchanan. Further north, one sleeper in four or five is in place to allow the operation of light works trains where needed. 

But at Yekepa, close to the mines, there’s also a dump of all the original locomotives from the line, one still with bullet holes from a rebel ambush during the civil war: There’s more than twenty of them, mostly big European and American line locos and switchers, but also including the five ex-BR Class 08s (see for more information) and the Glasgow-Stranraer DMU cars ( Preservationists beware however: They are all in a very sorry state with everything that could be reused already looted. For example, the cylinder blocks are there, but the pistons taken. Even by Barry standards, the locos are all in appalling condition, let alone the problems of repatriating them.

The workshops at Yekepa were abandoned in a hurry when they came under attack by rebels in the 1990s. There’s a set of wheels still on the wheel-turning lathe, and many more signs of work in progress. Also in the yard is a British-built 90 tonne diesel crane, by Cowans and Sheldon of Carlisle, as well as the inevitable Matisa ballast tamper and other P-Way machinery. All very derelict.

Most of the original wagons are also dumped there, and the Railway Superintendent in Yekepa, Thomas Davies, told me they plan to use the bodies with new underframes for the refurbished railway. He spoke highly of the roller-bearing axleboxes on the bogies, too, saying he thought some of those might still be useable despite not having turned a wheel for fifteen years. A tribute to Mr Timkin. 

Much work needs to be done. But the Project Director (Railways and Port) Ross Lockerbie -- not surprisingly, a Scot -- told me in Buchanan he was confident that the project would be ready on schedule in June next year. By and large on the upgrade of the line, the heavy-duty 132lb rails of the original line can be re-used, but new sleepers and ballast will be needed throughout. For the engineering works, the Brazilian contractors, Odebrecht, are using road-rail vehicles – one (which I didn’t see) can move a few ballast wagons, while the other two are converted Toyota Land Cruisers. And they’ve got down in Buchanan two elderly diesels, bought second hand from Romania and (to quote a very senior official) only fit for a museum. For the Crunchers, they identify themselves as LDH 125-195 and LDH 125-472, and carrying a plate (apparently from an agent) labelled Daxi SA. ( I didn’t see either move. (Craig Ryan adds on 28th February 2011 "'LDH 125-195 and LDH 125-472' are both LDH125 class B-B diesel hydraulics built by Faur in Romania. They are main line locos of 1250 bhp with a licence built Sulzer 6LDA28 engine. They are the main type for branch line passenger and freight work in Romania - they are also used in Bulgaria as Class 55 - and are still used by CFR (Classes 80 and 81) and other private companies.")

The line runs north-east from Buchanan to Yekepa, generally fairly straight and easily graded, through open scrubland which gradually gets more wooded and hilly as it gets closer to the magnificent vista of the Nimba Mountains. A trip along the line, regrettably by Land Cruiser on the parallel road, showed much work had already been done. Light trains can go right through already and, half way up, a new quarry is being opened to provide ballast.

New 4,400 hp locomotives are already on order from General Electric in either Canada or the United States, and I was told the first is due to be delivered in January next year. A lot of work remains to be done between now and then. But it’s proceeding apace: The new quarry is at Greenhill, about Km 150 and will provide enough ballast for the whole line: An impressive prefabricated village has been erected there for an expected staff of more than 30, with housing, canteen, generators, clinic and so on. It was due to open for business sometime in July this year.

Work is getting under way, too, at both the port, in Buchanan, and up at the mines at Yekepa. Most of it will, I suspect, be new construction; most of the original remains – like the equipment on the railway -- is good only for scrap.

ArcelorMittal told me two things they are taking very seriously indeed are environmental protection, and the needs and interests of the local people. The Project Director (Mines) up at Yekepa, Mark Wynn (another Brit) was extremely friendly, hospitable and generous with his time – perhaps partly because one of my companions was the legendary Elizabeth Blunt, a national hero in Liberia for her work there during the civil war and still remembered everywhere. She should have been on the train that was ambushed but decided it was perhaps too dangerous and went on by road to meet it at Yekepa – a good decision, as another foreign journalist on board (Mark Huband who later wrote a book on the Liberian civil war) was seized by Charles Taylor’s rebels and held hostage for several weeks before being released unharmed.

Elizabeth was doing a feature on the project for BBC World Service business programmes, so Mark Wynn gave us full access to everywhere and everybody we wanted to see. And we got every indication from everyone we spoke to that the company is indeed taking local views and needs very strongly into account.

Mark Wynn stressed that environmental standards were being followed at international standards – well beyond the requirements of Liberian law. I met several members of a high-powered team that was more than a dozen strong, investigating the flora and fauna in the areas to be mined, to check nothing of special scientific interest would be disturbed. It’s not really very clear how much wildlife remains in Liberia – a lot was eaten in the civil war and in the shortages of its aftermath – but the teams had found some monkeys (using camera traps) and were investigating a number of other animals thought to be in the area – although mostly across the border in Guinea or Cote d’Ivoire. An elusive colony of rare pygmy hippos ‘on the other side’ was exercising their interest, for example, as well as following up possible sightings of chimpanzees, pangolins and buffalo.

With Liberia recovering from – but still not far off – the devastations of civil wars, the local people need jobs, houses, schools, and clinics.... virtually everything. ArcelorMittal has renovated some of the original Lamco housing, and is continuing to do so, but has made it clear it won’t provide the complete company town, and cradle-to-grave welfare that Lamco built up there – and which, in many cases benefitted only the expatriates. So restoration of the golf course, and the famous Olympic-sized swimming pool right on the Guinea border, remain near the bottom of their list of priorities.

Yekepa town has about four-thousand people at the moment, of whom roughly a third are ArcelorMittal employees and their dependents, although, of course, many more benefit from the company indirectly. As well as the jobs it already provides, with the promise of more to come as the mines start up, ArcelorMittal has built a school, a hospital and a youth club, primarily for its own and contractors’ staff and their families, but also available for a nominal fee to other locals. This is all in their agreement with the Liberian government. The company also keeps in close liaison with the local elders to avoid misunderstandings and misconceptions: Mark Wynn says one of the most important parts of his job is managing expectations. There is a tendency in Africa (not just Liberia) to assume foreigners have a magic wand they can wave and everything will be provided for them at no cost.

There’s a problem already (as with the smaller Bong Mine railway further west) of local people running home-made ‘trolleys’ along the track to get their goods to market. These will not mix easily with what could potentially be ten-thousand tonne trains, travelling at a-hundred kilometres an hour with twelve-thousand horse-power on the front... There’s a two-pronged approach to fighting this: Mark Wynn told me they’ve strategically relocated a number of markets along the route further from the railway, and also make a point of employing very local people for each stretch of track for clearance, inspection work and so on, to pass the message about within their own villages and beyond. But I suspect it’s going to be a problem which continues for some time.

What of the future? ArcelorMittal’s Mark Wynn stressed that the current project stands financially on its own: A twenty-five year lease to mine and operate the railway should provide them with acceptable returns. But it could lead to much more: Some of the biggest and best untapped iron-ore deposits in the world are on the other side of the Nimba range, across in Guinea. Competitors hold most of those concessions, including BHP Billiton of Australia (which has also just signed a big new deal in Liberia itself) and Vale of Brazil. But a mere glance at a map makes it obvious that the choice for exporting that ore is between several-hundred kilometres of brand new railway to Conakry – with all that entails in terms of negotiating in a less than perfect political and business climate there – and a short spur across to link up with the Yekepa to Buchanan line of ArcelorMittal...

Not surprisingly, ArcelorMittal did not want to give any details, but they would confirm that delicate – in both economic and political terms -- discussions are under way. So there’s every prospect that the line from Yekepa to Buchanan will become a very busy railway indeed within the next ten years, and I believe capacity on the single line (with about six passing loops only at the moment) will become a serious issue. Watch out for more surprises in the business pages of your local paper... 


Here are some more links which I (RD not PN) found on the web and may prove of interest: (link dead 25th October 2016) 

If you are a glutton for punishment, try this gallery,, particularly the set based on

Rob Dickinson