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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Looking back at 2010… a countdown of the most popular

Ah, 2010. You were the first full year that I actually operated this blog. Lots of fun and shenanigans were to be had. I decided to take a look back at what was popular on the site this year, as a wrap-up for 2010…

1. BPGlobal Billboards

The first entry here is not train-related in any way… however it was such a major news story at the time I couldn’t not have some fun with it – though fun is actually a terrible way to describe it, as the Gulf Oil Spill was quite tragic. To me the two standouts in coverage on this was a fake twitter account, BPGlobalPR, and Boston Globe’s The Big Picture. I merged the two into fake billboards, which apparently caught on and made their rounds on the web – and brought around thirty thousand viewers to the site in a single day.

2. Harlem Line Timetables

It is true, I have turned into an eBay whore… collecting just about anything regarding the Harlem Line. Many of the timetables I have can be found on the second most popular part of the site, the Harlem Line Timetables archive. It is desperately needing updating, as I own or have scanned many more timetables than are currently pictured. My goal was always to have a timetable for every year, and for the most part I do have that, from 1930 on up. Look for a major overhaul of this section in 2011!

3. Stupid Warning Signs

Ah, stupid warning signs. One of the most amusing things I’ve made for the site. These popular signs round out the top three most popular things on the site this year. Folks have requested that I turn these into stickers, but if you people start sticking these on trains the MTA PD might actually have a real reason to arrest my ass.

4. The Cutest Train Car in the World

One of the posts I made after returning from Japan featured the Tama Densha railcar of the Wakayama Electric Railway. The railroad is known in offbeat circles around the world due to the fact that they employ a feline Stationmaster (I believe she’s actually been promoted to Vice-President now). Tama the cat was so popular, designer Eiji Mitooka created a train car in her honor. The front of the train has whiskers, the seats inside have cat print. My favorite part of the train? The library full of books for the kids.

5. Centalia, PA – Burning Ghost Town

I’ve always been fascinated with Centralia, ever since I first read about it on the internet many years ago. Since then I’ve visited several times. The story begins in the 1960’s, when a coal seam under the town caught fire. It continues to burn to this day. The land has fissures that belch smoke, and it permanently smells of sulfur. It is a tragic story, as the once bustling small town has been whittled down to less than ten citizens.

The coal under the town that is burning is anthracite – which was popularized in little rhymes about Phoebe Snow in advertisements for the Lackawanna Railroad.

6. The Loneliest Station on the Harlem Line

Although I hadn’t come up with the concept yet, the Harlem Line Panorama project began with Mount Pleasant – which I labeled as the loneliest station on the line. The tiny station in between Hawthorne and Valhalla services the cemeteries in the area, and has very limited service.

The first panorama posted on the site

7. The Harlem Line Panorama Project

If you’re interested in seeing all the panoramas to date, located on a map – this is the place to go. This Google map is the seventh most popular portion of the site, although technically it lies off site and on Google’s servers. However, each placemark contains my favorite panorama from that stop, and a link back to the post on this site.

8. Sadie the Subway Cat

The Transit Museum in Brooklyn has employed a cat or two, mostly in the hopes that they would chase away any subway rats. In this eighth most popular post I recollect my first visit to the Transit Museum and my encounter with Sadie… and my crazy idea to get her a miniature-sized train conductor’s hat. Of course none of that really panned out – and as far as I am aware, Sadie has been quietly retired from the public.

9. The #1 Reason to Ride Metro-North

Back in June I posted these spoof ads for Metro-North and beer. If you are a regular commuter you will notice that in the afternoon, and most especially on Fridays, there are quite a few people drinking beer. The exception to that if you are those people that work at Target in Mount Kisco, you’re drinking it in the morning. But since you can’t drink and drive, and you can certainly drink and ride, Metro-North could always have an amusing new ad campaign.

10. M8 Cars Will Not Debut on the New Haven Line

Ah, April Fools Day… I couldn’t resist making a fake post about the new M8’s. Shattering the dreams of many New Haven Line riders, I posted that the red trains would be repainted blue and running instead on the Harlem Line by the end of the year. I even made up some fake quotes and attributed them to Dan Brucker – which probably doesn’t place me very high on his list of awesome bloggers.

So that is it! The ten most popular things on the blog in 2010. Happy New Year everyone!

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