Whittier in the 1980's and 1990's
By Jason Kuehn

The Whittier branch is the origin/termination of all the foreign line cars on the Alaska Railroad (see aerial view). The branch serves the Alaska Railroad's (Crowley's Alaska HydroTrain during the 1980's and 1990's) own railbarge service from Seattle which features cars from UP and BNSF (and predecessors). The Alaska Railroad's own cars suitable for
interchange were also in use on this run. Common equipment:

Inbound traffic:

Whittier had an interesting ramp (photo 1, photo 2) mounted on old flatcars that was rolled onto the barge apron to drive the trailers off the top deck of the barge.

The Alaska Railroad's own flatcars would frequently be used for some lumber loads, machinery and vehicles etc.

The ARR also had a number of RBL boxcars that would also be used between Seattle and the Railbelt.

Outbound traffic:

Returning trailers

For passenger service, the Whittier shuttle made several round trips daily between Whittier and Portage in the Summer and several times a week in the Winter. The train usually had a single locomotive, two passenger coaches and fifteen or so of the Whittier shuttle flat cars.

Passenger extras to service cruise ships also operated when cruise ships were in port (I doubt more than once or twice a week.) These trains used the former SP double deck commuter cars in blue and white, and whatever extra passenger cars were available in Anchorage.

There was little or no local business at Whittier. It's reason for existence was the barge slip to bridge cars between Seattle or Prince Rupert and the Railbelt.

As a personal aside and being a student of the mid 1970's to mid 1980's. I like this time period a bit better. The interchange cars from Seattle were more varied BN (many GN, CBQ, and NP cars were still in service), UP, MILW was still running and interchanged with Alaska HydroTrain in Seattle. SP cars showed up often. In addition, the Eastern carriers hadn't gone through the CSX and NS mergers yet offering more variety and the Conrail merger was still pretty young.

The Alaska Railroad's motive power was a bit more varied as well. The barge trains featured anything from GP30's and 35's to GP-40's and in 1985 the GP-49's appeared. Power for the barge trains stayed fairly constant didn't change much in the 1990's, but the other trains did.

The shuttle nearly always used a GP-7, but in the late 1970's the Alco MRS-1's showed up fairly often, or post 1985 a GP-40 or GP-38 would be the usual power. The cruise ship trains often featured E or F units, after 1985 GP-40's would be the most common power. The shuttle train originated with just the passenger cars and in the 1970's and 1980's the bicentennial caboose from Anchorage, and sometimes would carry six to ten freight cars on it as well. It picked up the shuttle flat cars at Portage. The vehicles and buses on the flat cars often were for tourists taking the ferry to/from Valdez. Most Whittier residents and boat owners from Anchorage would park in Portage and just ride the coaches to Whittier, where they could walk to the Marina and the Begich Towers from the rail yard.

The yard in Whittier was not large, but it was fairly long. I think there were only about six or eight tracks in the yard. One of which was used to load TOFC. A LeTourneau piggy packer was kept in Whittier to load the TOFC. My recollection was that 60 cars or so was the maximum load on a barge - really a tow of two barges was common - (plus trailers/containers on the top deck). My recollection is that the HydroTrain barge arrived weekly and the AquaTrain (CN) barge arrived approximately every ten days. Whittier could be pretty quiet on days when only the shuttle was operating. Or it could be a congested mess when a barge was in, a cruise ship was in and the daily shuttle train was doing it's daily routine. I was fortunate enough to be in Whittier on one of those busy days in the summer of
1984. It was a busy place!

Whittier could make a nice shelf layout. The tunnel from Portage came out of the mountains crossed a creek on a wooden trestle and then the yard began. The yard filled the land between the Ferry dock, the Marina, the barge dock, and the freighter dock (really only used any more for cruise ships) on the water side, in order from Tunnel to the end of the yard, and the two massive buildings (Buckner Building and Begich Towers) that were Whittier jammed up against the mountains. The railroad had a number of miscellaneous buildings, but they really weren't used much. The old depot was the yard office, but was not used by the shuttle or the cruise ship trains. The cruise ships docked at the freighter pier and the trains left from on the dock I believe. The freight warehouse was empty except for use by the cruise ships.

Although in WWII and the cold war it was used by the military (714th Railway Operating Battalion) for troop ships and military transports. The shuttle trains loaded and unloaded near the ferry terminal.

As I recall there was also a military tank farm in Whittier but it was inactive. The military was receiving fuel to their tank farm in Anchorage via pipeline from the refinery in Kenai. (They then loaded tankcars for Nenana - for airbases along the Yukon river, Tanana and Galena I think, and Fairbanks bases from Anchorage).

Those are my recollections, subject to correction from others with more recent experience there.



Page created on 8/24/04 and last updated 8/24/04
© 2004 by Jason Kuehn