Farewell to the African Queen As the Welshpool & Llanfair Railway’s Hunslet no 85 goes out of service, Andrew Charman profiles a familiar and favourite locomotive.
April 17th was a special day in the long history of the Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway, a day of celebration for members of the company but for the majority one tinged with sadness. A members’ special train marked the finale for Hunslet 2-6-2 of 1954 no 85 – a stalwart of the line, one of the most familiar locos amongst UK narrow gauge enthusiasts, and the favourite of many a W&LLR footplate crew.
On this Spring Saturday no 85’s 10-year boiler ticket expired. Usually this means an overhaul, a retube or a new boiler. No 85 requires the latter, and as a result it may be some time before this engine steams again.
No 85, the 14th locomotive in the W&LLR fleet and never named, has now spent more time preserved in Mid-Wales than working where it was built for in Africa. The engine was the last of 32 built for the Sierra Leone Government Railways to a standard design by Hunslet. The similarities between it and another famous Hunslet 2-6-2, the Welsh Highland’s ‘Russell’ are obvious, and it has often been erroneously assumed that the Russell design – the loco built in 1906 – influenced that of no 85. In fact it was the reverse, as Hunslet built the first Sierra Leone 2-6-2 in 1898 and the hardware below footplate level was directly incorporated in the Russell design.
Completed in 1954 as works number 3815, no 85 was delivered to the Sierra Leone port and capital of Freetown with sister engine no 84, the pair costing £21,273. They were set to work on the extensive Sierra Leone Railway (SLR), which had a main line extending 227.5 miles and a 104-mile long branch.
By the time 85 arrived, the Hunslet 2-6-2s were confined mainly to shunting and banking heavy trains out of Freetown hauled by larger engines including Garratts. The loco’s working life was to be short. The Sierra Leone system was in decline, finally closing completely in 1974. The scrapmen quickly moved in…
Salvation for no 85 came in the form of the Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway, which was in search of not new motive power but coaching stock. The W&LLR was beginning its extension back to Welshpool, and the preservationists mindful of the need for stock with vacuum brakes on the steep 1 in 29 Golfa bank. Four serviceable bogie carriages in Sierra Leone, at the time just 14 years old having been built by the Gloucester Carriage & Wagon Co in 1961, appeared to suit the bill. Also at the Fisher Lane shed was
Above: No 85 on its final weekend of public service, with the African Train. Photo: James Waite. Below: No 85 is steamed at Fisher Lane Shed, Sierra Leone prior to preservation. Photo: courtesy W&LLR.
the out-of-use no 85. After a test steaming, and with funds provided by two W&LLR members, a deal was struck with the Lebanese scrapmen.
On 7th August 1975, following a two-week 3000-mile voyage from Freetown, a complete African train arrived at Liverpool, no 85 returning to the same port where it had departed for Africa just 21 years earlier. By the end of the day the loco had been unloaded at Llanfair Caereinion station on the W&LLR.
Remarkably no 85 was able to be
LOCO FACTS: Built by: Hunslet Engine
Co, Leeds Date built: 1954 Gauge: 762mm/2ft 6in Wheel Arr: 2-6-2T Weight: 21.5 ton trial-steamed three days later, and for a while the loco was used with its carriages, which boasted ‘Grondana’ centre couplings quite unlike others on the W&LLR. These proved so effective that the line’s entire stock was soon converted to use Grondanas, the line acquiring as many as it could from Sierra
No 69 – NARROW GAUGE WORLD Hunslet 2-6-2T No 85 Cylinder dia/stroke Length Width Height Coupled wheelbase Coupled wheel dia Boiler pressure Weight
10.75x15 19ft 1in 7ft 5in 10ft 5.5in 5ft 6in 2ft 4in 160lb/in2
Drawing to approximately 7mm/ft scale by Keith Dyer.
Leone (In recent times increasing stock at Llanfair has put pressure on the number of available Grondanas, as it seems virtually no other railway in the world uses them).
It was clear that no 85, now ‘named’ no 14 in the W&LLR fleet, was in need of a major overhaul, carried out in the Llanfair workshops. The loco entered regular service at Easter 1979, looking distinctly different to when it had arrived thanks to removing the large coal boxes on the front of the side tanks.
Since then no 85 has spent its life running between Welshpool and Llanfair, apart from a short holiday in Bedfordshire at the 2ft 6in gauge line that runs around Whipsnade Zoo – an arrangement that also saw the zoo’s ex-Bowaters locos ‘Superior’ and ‘Chevallier’ visit the W&LLR. No 85 soon proved itself a favourite with W&LLR crews, particularly due
Below: No 85 arrives on the W&LLR on 7th August 1975. Photo: Bruce Webber. Below right: In the early 1980s no 85 is serviced over the pit at Llanfair. The unique Grondana coupling is clearly visible. Photo: Andrew Charman.
NARROW GAUGE WORLD – No 69