A final look at the Alaska Railroad

In 2013 I spent a lot of time talking about the Alaska Railroad – I got a chance to visit Alaska in both February and September, and had quite a few photos (and videos) to share. This post, however, will probably be the last time I talk about Alaska for a while. This is the last set of photos that I’ve not yet posted, for the most part showing the route from Fairbanks to Denali, along with some views of the Alaska Railroad’s passenger coaches and domes.

If you missed any of our previous Alaska posts, here is a complete listing:
February
Alaska Railroad, Part 1
Alaska Railroad, Part 2
The Dalton Highway & Arctic Circle
Chena Hot Springs

September
Alaska Greetings
Seward, Coastal Classic Route
South of Anchorage
Palmer & Airport Branches
The Whittier Tunnel
Fairbanks area
The Anchorage Shops
Tanana Valley Railroad Museum

Someday I’ll probably get back to Alaska, but because of the very few vacation days I get, I’d prefer to go places I’ve never been before. But if Alaska is on your list of “must visit” places – GO! All seasons offer entirely different experiences – from the never-setting sun in summer, to the icy cold aurora viewing in the winter. Despite what you’d probably think, visiting Alaska in the winter isn’t totally crazy if you are adequately prepared (a thermal base layer is essential). In fact, traveling over the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Fairbanks, and then visiting the Chena Hot Springs (located about an hour outside of Fairbanks) is actually pretty popular. Popular enough for the Alaska Railroad to be offering additional mid-week trains in March. But trust me, soaking in an outdoor hot spring in negative degree weather is pretty awesome.

Anyway, I won’t regale you with any further Alaska stories. I think all my previous posts do that fairly effectively. As you check out my final glimpses of Alaska, I have my eyes focused at some interesting places in Eastern Europe for later on this year…

 
   
   
  
 
   
  
 
  
   
  
 
   
  
  
 
 

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Behind the scenes of the Alaska Railroad…

Over the past few weeks we’ve gotten a chance to check out the best that the Alaska Railroad has to offer – from its most attractive scenery to some of its rarer routes, we’ve covered a lot of ground. Part of the awesomeness of the NRHS convention was that we got to see some “behind the scenes” stuff that most rail passengers never get to see. The Alaska Railroad was undoubtedly a generous host, opening not just their rail system to us, but their operations center and even their locomotive shops.

I won’t include a whole lot of commentary with this post, and I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. If you ever wanted to get a “behind the scenes” view of the Alaska Railroad, we’ll take a quick tour of their operations center, check out the view from a few of their locomotives, visit the car facilities and of course, the locomotive shops. And yes, I ran all around with my trusty fish-eye lens… because I could!

  
 
 
From this perch one can monitor the activities of the Alaska Railroad…

 
  

Shall we take some equipment out for a spin?

 
Inside DMU #751 – “Chugach Explorer”

 
   

The Alaska Railroad’s finest railcar, the Denali, is luxury on the rails. Built in 1929 and refurbished by the Alaska Railroad, the car features only the fanciest materials – bronze, crystal, mahogany, and marble. The railcar contains a sitting area, a “boardroom”, a kitchen, as well as a bedroom and bathroom (which is probably nicer than the one in your own home).

  

Railcars used by various cruise companies are also stored and maintained here.

 
  
  
Some of the various equipment stored outside…

 
   
  
   
  
 
 
The car facilities and locomotive shops… that’s what you really wanted to see, isn’t it?

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Rare mileage on the Alaska Railroad – The Palmer & Airport Branches

Most of the places we’ve checked out thus far on the Alaska Railroad are part of regular routes that countless passengers have traveled over. Today, however, we’re going to take a look at two of the railroad’s branches – the Palmer branch and the Anchorage Airport branch. Both routes are occasionally used for passenger service, but are not in regular scheduled service. The Alaska Railroad operates a fair train every year for the Alaska State Fair, which travels over the Palmer branch and to South Palmer station. Besides the fair and other special events, it is mostly freight that sees this branch. Beyond the branch’s useable track lies the town of Palmer, for which the branch was named. Palmer’s depot still stands, and is used as a community center. Sitting outside is a restored coal locomotive.

 
  
  
 
 
  
 
  
   

Photos around Anchorage and on the Palmer Branch

The Anchorage Airport branch likely sees more passengers than the Palmer Branch, but it is still not a regularly scheduled route on the railroad. Cruise ship lines with chartered trains are usually the only patrons of the branch, leaving the depot there fairly quiet. If you have money to burn, the depot is available to rent, however.

  

Photos on the Airport Branch. With its high-level platforms, this is the most “Metro-North looking” part of the entire Alaska Railroad.

Thanks to my camera, you can ride both branches from your own home. Starting off at the Anchorage International Airport, we pass the Anchorage depot before heading onto the Palmer Branch, finishing just beyond the South Palmer / fairgrounds station.

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Our second video for the day shows another hidden part of the Alaska Railroad, one that passengers never see. Reversing out of Anchorage’s depot, we head into Anchorage yard just after sunrise.

Next week we’ll check out yet another part of the railroad never seen by passengers, as we go behind the scenes and take a shop tour.

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More Adventures on the Alaska Railroad, South of Anchorage

In our last two Alaska Railroad videos, we got a chance to tour the two main areas the railroad services south of Anchorage – Whittier and Seward. Both routes share the same trackage just south of Anchorage, which parallels the Seward Highway and travels through the scenic Kenai Peninsula, Chugach National Forest, and Turnagain Arm areas. Before moving on to the area north of Anchorage, I figured that we should finish up with the coastal areas south of the city. We spent a little less than a week in the Anchorage area and experienced quite a variation of weather – from sun and blue skies, pouring rain, and even a little bit of snow – all of which are visible in my collection of photos. Anyway, I’ll let the photos (and more mounted on the locomotive video) speak for themselves!

 
  
   
 
  
  
  
   
 
  
   
  
 
  
   


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A visit to Whittier, and a ride through North America’s longest rail/highway tunnel

In 1923 President Warren G. Harding drove a golden spike just north of Nenana, completing the Alaska Railroad’s main line. The line extended 470 miles from Seward to Fairbanks, and is still the major backbone of the Alaska Railroad today. Over the years since there have been various additions and branches added, from the 28 mile Eilson Branch extending from Fairbanks to the Eilson Air Force Base, to the short Anchorage International Airport Branch which connects the railroad to the airport and is used occasionally for cruise ship passengers. Today, however, we turn our focus onto one of the railroad’s most important branches, the Whittier Branch.

Completed in 1943, the Whittier Branch connected the Alaska Railroad’s main line to the ice-free port of Whittier. Though a branch to Whittier had been considered for years prior, the project only came to fruition because of World War II. Whittier was not only a shortcut compared to the railroad’s other ice-free port in Seward, reduced exposure of ships to Japanese submarines, and was harder to bomb by plane because of the frequent bad weather.

 
  
 
  
 
   
  
 
   
 
  
 
  
  
  
 
 
On the route of the Glacier Discovery – visiting Whittier and the flag stop at Spencer Glacier.

The most notable characteristic of the branch are the two tunnels used to pass through the mountains surrounding Whittier. A one mile tunnel was needed to get through Begich Peak, and a 2.5 mile tunnel passed through Maynard Mountain. While the shorter tunnel exists much as it did when it was first constructed, the longer tunnel has had extensive work to allow cars and trucks to pass through.

Construction of the Whittier Tunnel
Col. Benjamin B. Talley, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Alaska (second from right) and Lt. Gen. Simon B. Buckner Jr., commander of the Alaska Defense Command (third from right), enter the Whittier Tunnel during a holing through ceremony Nov. 20, 1942. Photo from the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Gone are the days where Whittier was just a military port – today it is an attractive ingress to Alaska used by boaters, freight ships and cruise liners. But up until the late 1990s Whittier was not accessible by car. The Alaska Railroad operated a shuttle service where cars could be transported by flatcar to Whittier, but it was not the most ideal option. While constructing a new highway over the mountain, or constructing another tunnel were all considered, the most cost effective solution was to modify the Alaska Railroad’s existing tunnel to allow road vehicles to traverse the mountain into Whittier.

Converting the tunnel to multi use
Converting the tunnel to multi use
Construction work to convert the railroad tunnel into a dual rail/highway tunnel. Photos from Hatch Mott McDonald.

Completed in June of 2000, the modified tunnel is the longest dual purpose rail and highway tunnel in North America. Built to endure the harsh Alaskan climate, the tunnel is able to operate in temperatures down to -40°F, winds of 150 MPH, and the portal buildings are able to withstand avalanches. Trains are still an important part of the traffic using the tunnel, and it employs a computerized traffic control system to regulate both vehicular and rail traffic in both directions. Besides special cruise ship trains, Alaska Railroad passenger service along the branch and through the tunnels is on the Glacier Discovery train. Freight remains an integral part of the railroad’s operations on the branch, and it is from Whittier that the railroad is connected by barge to Seattle and Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

While plenty of people on YouTube have recorded the journey through the tunnel by car, we get to take a unique journey through by train, thanks to my camera mounted on the front of one of the Alaska Railroad’s locomotives. In typical Whittier fashion, it is raining, but you get the general experience of leaving the port of Whittier, waiting for access into the tunnel, and traversing both tunnels on the branch. Enjoy!


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Back from Alaska, and the NRHS Convention

If you enjoyed our series on Alaska posted earlier this year, you will undoubtedly love our upcoming series on the Alaska Railroad. I’ve just returned from the absolutely awesome National Railway Historical Society convention, which was held in Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska, and have some great features lined up for the blog… many of which include video. My trusty GoPro camera was mounted on several locomotives throughout the trip, recording well over a hundred gigabytes of footage. So if you happened to miss the convention, or have always wanted to go to Alaska, you can pretend like you were there along with us!

 
  
 
  
 
 
  
 
  
  
 
 
Photos from the railroad route to Seward.

The Coastal Classic is likely one of the Alaska Railroad’s most scenic routes, traveling southward from Anchorage to the port of Seward, and passing glaciers and beautiful vistas. The line follows several horseshoe curves to gain altitude, and passes through several mountains by tunnel. Following the route of the Coastal Classic, our NHRS charter train took a leisurely ride through this gorgeous section of Alaska. Our video starts a little over fifty miles from Seward, and condenses two hours and twenty minutes of the ride into ten minutes. The video concludes over a bit of rare passenger mileage – bypassing Seward’s passenger station and heading into the Seward rail yard and docks.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing some more stories, photos and videos from the convention, but for now enjoy a quick jaunt on the picturesque Alaska Railroad…

A special thanks goes out to the Alaska Railroad’s Kenny Smith, who was instrumental in getting my camera mounted on the various locomotives and trains throughout the trip! Thank you so much, Kenny!

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Greetings from Alaska…

Greetings from Alaska!
Just outside Denali Park station on the Alaska Railroad.

For as far back as I can remember, I Ride the Harlem Line has never gone longer than a week without at least one post. This week, however, will be the anomaly. If you’ve been following me on Facebook, you’ll know that I Ride the Harlem Line is currently at the NRHS Convention in Alaska, and super busy riding trains. Although the convention is keeping me busy and thus no post this week, I can promise you some amazing features coming… and yes, they may involve a GoPro mounted on an actual mainline Alaska Railroad train. Fo’ realz.

Sunrise
Sunrise heading south of Anchorage towards Seward.

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Some final photos from Alaska

Just wanted to take a quick minute to share some of my final photos from Alaska (at least until I visit again in September!). My series on Alaska has been a whole lot more popular that I ever thought, and not just among my normal audience of railfans. Taking a trip to Alaska in the winter is sort of “off the beaten track,” and many want to know some of the details. Others find it interesting, but want to know how to convince their friend / family member / significant other to brave the cold and go with them. Hopefully this post will answer some of the many questions I’ve received, and perhaps convinces you to go ride the Alaska Railroad in winter – it was quite fun!

To make a long story short, I didn’t freeze to death, and although it was quite cold, it wasn’t absolutely unbearable. As I mentioned previously, the Alaska Railroad pretty much booked the entire trip for me (with the exception of the Chena Hot Springs, where you can usually get a cheaper price if you book on your own). As one would likely guess, you probably want to invest a little money in appropriate gear to keep yourself warm. I don’t get anything for plugging the following items, but I was just fine with an Under Armour Base 3.0 underlayer, a North Face Denali jacket, and a North Face Super Diez jacket. You can check the weather reports before you go – if you are from the city, they number will likely be an absurdly low temperature, of which you have no reference point. If you are well prepared, -20 doesn’t feel nearly as bad as it sounds.

  
   
 
Photos from the flight back from the Arctic Circle. The Piper Navajo which we were in seats 8.

While riding the Alaska Railroad, opening the top windows in the vestibules in between cars was permitted. Obviously, sticking your head and camera out of the window of a moving train in subzero temperatures is rather frigid, but a face mask and snow goggles are immensely helpful. The fact of the matter is, you’re not going to get spectacular photos from inside the windows. The good majority of my railroad photos all were taken out the window. You can bear a little cold to get some decent photos – just like you can bear a little cold at night so you can see the aurora! (It is worth it!)

Penguin swim...
The fact that penguins do not live in Alaska does not seem to be commonly-known. I took this photograph, for the many that asked for it, while at Chena Hot Springs – It is titled an “Alaskan penguin” in its “natural habitat.”

As for the question on how to convince someone to go with you to Alaska in the winter, the aurora, or northern lights, is a pretty good reason. Having never seen the aurora before, that was really the primary reason for my trip. Secondly, plan a trip to Chena Hot Springs. This seems like an extremely common venue during the winter – many of the folks that were on my train from Anchorage to Fairbanks I later sighted at the springs. The outdoor spring there was quite lovely – for the five seconds it takes you to walk outside to it in a bathing suit you think you are absolutely bonkers, but once you get in, it is quite relaxing. Besides the springs, there are a wide array of activities that you can do there – from dogsledding to snowmobiling (mind you, Alaskans call them “snow machines” – they also laugh at you when you get them stuck in waist-deep snow!).

 
  
   
  

The sled dogs at Chena Hot Springs. Even if you don’t go for a ride, you can tour the kennel and see these cuties.

If you’ve been following the blog for more than two years, you may remember my trip up to Quebec, where I stayed at the Hôtel de Glace and visited some train stations. Made entirely of snow and ice, the hotel is quite beautiful, though it is only around for about three months before it melts. Chena has a similar, albeit smaller, version in their ice museum. But unlike any other structure in the world made of ice and snow, Chena’s ice museum is year round. The hot springs are used as a power source to cool the entire structure. Alas, that means the outside is completely fake. The inside, however, is most beautiful.

  
 
  
   
  

I think that pretty much sums everything up. If you missed any of my previous Alaska posts, you can find them here:
Traveling Alaska’s Dalton Highway
Riding the Alaska Railroad, Part 1
Riding the Alaska Railroad, Part 2
If you have any other further questions or thoughts, feel free to leave a comment!

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Riding the Alaska Railroad, Part 2

After last week’s journey along the Alaska Railroad to around Hurricane Gulch, we continue today with the remainder of the ride to Fairbanks. This includes passing through Denali National Park and Preserve, though no one was looking to disembark in the frigid weather (we did see some ice climbers from the window, however). Further north was the small town of Healy, which contains the Usibelli coal mine, Alaska’s only operating coal mine. The coal from the mine is shipped southward by the Alaska Railroad to Seward, where it is loaded on ships for export, or north to other interior locations in Alaska.

Usibelli's coal ships via the Alaska Railroad
Usibelli’s coal ships via the Alaska Railroad. The mine is connected to the railroad main line by a rail spur.[1]

Beyond Healy is the town of Nenana, once a large population center with several thousand residents. According to the 2011 census[2] there are only 383 residents today. Nenana depot, opened in 1922, still stands, and the Aurora train reached it around sunset. The Alaska Railroad itself was completed just north of the depot in 1923 with the Mears Memorial Bridge.[3] President Harding drove the ceremonial golden spike at the north end of the bridge, linking the two sections of rail. Beyond the bridge the passenger portion of the Alaska Railroad terminates in Fairbanks. The railroad itself extends at least to Eielson Air Force base, which is freight only. In fact, some of the aforementioned Usibelli coal is shipped to and used at the base.

Artifacts of the Alaska Railroad
Brochure and matchbook cover from the Alaska Railroad. [4]

While we traveled from Anchorage to Fairbanks, the only route open to passengers during the winter, the Alaska Railroad’s main line is more than a hundred miles longer. Extending southward to Seward, the line also branches off to the port of Whittier. Along these rails glaciers are visible from your train seat, and one of the routes is aptly named the Glacier Discovery.

When it comes to railroad history, Alaska’s rails are a bit young compared with some of the other lines we normally cover on the site. The New York Central can claim history back to 1826, and the Harlem to 1831 – Alaska’s first dates back to 1903.[5] The predecessor Alaska Central Railway went bankrupt by 1907, and was reorganized as the Alaska Northern Railway Company, operating an approximately 70 mile stretch of rail extending north from Seward. Construction on a real Alaskan railroad began in earnest in 1914, when Congress agreed to fund the construction and operation of a railroad from Seward to Fairbanks (Alaska had officially been incorporated as a US territory in 1912). Anchorage, Alaska’s most populous city today, was formed as a railroad town during the construction. Populated by construction workers of the now-named Alaska Railroad, Anchorage officially became the headquarters of the railroad by 1915.

Today the Alaska Railroad is owned by the state of Alaska, and it operates both freight and passenger service. On the passenger side, as of 2012, the railroad owns a fleet of 44 railcars (excluding locomotives), which consists of 2 business cars, 6 diners, 11 passenger coaches, 6 vista dome coaches, 7 low-level dome coaches, 6 bi-level ultradomes, 1 bi-level diesel MU, and 5 baggage cars.[6] In 2011 the railroad carried 412,200 passengers, 265,335 of which were from cruise ships. Outside of cruise passengers, the Denali Star is the railroad’s most popular passenger train, followed by the Coastal Classic.

That is about it for today’s post on Alaska – there will be one more Alaska post forthcoming, and it will contain dogs and penguins… everybody likes dogs and penguins, right?

   
  
   
  
   
  
   
 
  
 
  
  
  

  1. Usibelli coal photograph via Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources []
  2. Census data from the US Census Bureau via Google []
  3. A history of the Mears Memorial Bridge. []
  4. Alaska Railroad brochure and matchbook covers from the author’s collection []
  5. Timeline history of the Alaska Railroad []
  6. Statistics from 2012 Alaska Railroad Passenger Services Business Report. []

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Riding the Alaska Railroad, Part 1

In our previous post regarding Alaska, we traveled the Dalton Highway up into the Arctic Circle, a route that for the most part parallels the Trans Alaska Pipeline. The interesting thing to note about the Highway is that there could have been a railroad here too, and possibly instead of the Pipeline. After the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay in 1968, the problem was how exactly to get this oil out of such a remote location. Prudhoe Bay is in the far north of Alaska, and ocean access is hindered by ice – a fact that assured whichever method of transportation was chosen, it wouldn’t be easy. Besides the pipeline, highway tankers, submarines fortified to navigate the icy waters, air tankers, and the railroad were all possible solutions to the problem.

An Environmental Impact Statement from 1972 regarding the pipeline project details the two possible railroad routes that could have been. One proposed plan envisioned a Trans-Canada railroad, connecting Prudhoe Bay down through Alaska, and Canada’s Yukon to Whitefish, Montana. The massive project would require construction of 2,200 miles of double track to connect with already existing rail infrastructure in Montana. Carrying two million barrels a day would require operation of 37 trains per day. Trains would contain 80 to 110 tank cars, and likely be over a mile long (roughly 88 tank cars is a mile).

Alaska Pipeline Map

The other route, and likely the preferred route, was to extend the already existing Alaska Railroad to Prudhoe Bay. Diverging from the current railroad around Nenana, the new railroad would continue north to Prudhoe, requiring 580 miles of new track to be laid. The existing railroad infrastructure would also have to be updated in order to accommodate the heavy traffic. It was estimated that 1.26 million barrels a day could be transported over the single track line, requiring 21 trains a day in each direction. The total run from Prudhoe Bay to the port at Whittier would take 39 hours. Transporting the goal of two million barrels would require a double tracked railway, and operating more trains.

Unfortunately, neither railroad option was chosen, and the Trans Alaska Pipeline was constructed. The pipeline can transport just over 2 million barrels of oil per day, something that would have been difficult by train. Though certainly not impossible, transporting that much oil would require immense amount of equipment, and significant maintenance. The Alaska Railroad extension called for 9 hours a day to be devoted solely for maintenance, as even a small accident could have catastrophic effects (in hindsight, the pipeline proved to be just as dangerous – the Exxon Valdez oil spill could certainly be categorized as catastrophic. The Trans-Canada railroad plan would have eliminated the need for ships transporting oil). Even if the Alaska Railroad had been extended, it is likely it would have been used solely for freight, similar to the Alaska Railroad’s route that goes to the Eielson Air Force Base, or the mines near Healy.

But it is, of course, the passenger routes of the Alaska Railroad that we’re really here to see, and they look a bit like this:

Alaska Railroad

As you see from the map, different trains are offered in the winter and the summer, and my trip included a trip on the Winter Aurora train. Running weekly in either direction, the train takes around twelve hours and travels from Anchorage to Fairbanks. Besides a baggage car and several passenger cars, the train contains a dining car that serves up hot meals. The first half of the journey I took passed through Wasilla and Talkeetna, and passes over the 558-foot long Hurricane Gulch arch bridge. The below photos are from the first half of the trip – we’ll continue the journey, and learn a bit more about the Alaska Railroad, in Part 2.

  
 
 
  
 
  
 
  
   
  
   
  
   
  

Riding the Alaska Railroad

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