On this clear June morning about a dozen people are milling about the normally deserted station platform in the sleepy town of Talkeetna, 112 miles north of Anchorage. They have covered a few hundred square feet of the platform with cartons of supplies, backpacks, camping gear and rifles, five large dogs and a 15-foot canoe, waiting for Alaska Railroad's "Dayliner" to take them to remote campsites and cabins not accessible by automobile. That will happen if all this gear will fit into the short baggage compartment of the single Budd RDC-2 railcar which can be heard whistling its approach in the distance.
Before the highway system was fully developed, railroads operated passenger "accommodation" schedules on many lines. This was basic transportation: no fancy streamliners, sleepers or diners. These trains made all the stops, delivering local passengers, mail, express and gossip. Often, as a "mixed", they delivered the freight as well.
Most of the Alaska Railroad's mainline is paralleled by the George Parks Highway, but for a distance of 55 miles from Talkeetna north to Hurricane Gulch the railroad heads off in its own direction. It is the only land transportation for persons living, working or vacationing in that area. To accommodate these people, the railroad operates a local out of Anchorage three times a week in the summer (late May - mid-September). Despite only two scheduled and 18 flag stops, the train will stop anywhere passengers request to get on or off. Welcome to America's last Accommodation.
The RDC (not so affectionately known locally as the "Budd Can") comes to a stop, amidst the dissonance of its electronic bell and the homey if not technologically inspiring clap-clap-clap of the exhaust pipe cover on the roof. Conductor, engineer and passengers all pitch in to load dogs and gear into the baggage and passenger compartments until nothing is left on the platform except the canoe. Wags suggest lashing it to the roof or side, but after a little head-scratching, the crew takes it to the back of the train and shoves it through the rear door into the coach aisle. Ten minutes later we are off for Hurricane Gulch and intermediate stops with 20 passengers, 5 dogs, an overflowing baggage compartment and one canoe.
We amble along the Susitna River, stopping here and there to discharge passengers and dogs. "The Great One", Mount McKinley, towers over our accommodation. At one location a lonely cabin proudly proclaims itself "City Hall". Pausing at the edge of a bridge over the Susitna River, we off-load the canoe and the couple who plan to paddle it back to Talkeetna. (On the return trip we'll spot them on the river, toot, and exchange waves.) We are now sixteen miles short of the last stop, and still about 700 feet below it. There are six people left on the train. All of us have bought round trip tickets so we are just along for the ride. The "accommodation" temporarily becomes our exclusive excursion train.
The last stop is Hurricane Gulch. The RDC stops midway across a 384 foot long steel arch bridge, 296 feet above the gulch and rushing glacier stream below. If ever there was an unlikely place to stop to change ends on an RDC, this would be it! But during the ten minutes that the car is on the bridge, we passengers are treated to a spectacular view, and may even step off onto the narrow walkway if we wish -- and dare.
The train is carded for 10 hours round trip. We've been running a little late but the timetable advises that "times are approximate and (trains) may run later than schedule indicates". Nobody seems to care, just so long as the crew gets back to Anchorage before their 12 hours duty time expires.
The train crew and the car itself are railfan-friendly. The railroad radio is connected to the otherwise unused public address speakers, so scanners are unnecessary. All sections of the car, and I mean ALL, are open to the public. The word "prohibited" doesn't seem to be in the rural Alaskan vocabulary ("personal responsibility" is, however). The engineer's daughter, along for the ride, is assigned to spot and call out the slow order yellow boards.
On the return trip we are instructed by track warrant to enter a siding and meet the northbound Fairbanks passenger train. This is our opportunity to get off and stretch. Soon we will highball their eclectic 13-car consist of Korean-made coaches, super domes and double-decker commuter conversions, all crammed with nose-against-the-glass tourists.
We continue south, watching for potential passengers and wildlife along the track. Above the muted clickety-clack of the jointed rail a song wafts back from the engineer's compartment: "...she'll be coming 'round the mountain when she comes...". It's just that kind of train, where the engineer might break out in song, where you get to know the train crew by their first names, and where it would be rude when you get off not to say thank you for a great and rare ride into the past.
Thanks, Gene and Pete, for an accommodating experience!
© 1996 Frank W. Bryan