Wednesday, July 24, 2002

Remember what it was like to be a kid at Christmas?  You were so excited about what was in store that you awoke at dawn.  I had expected to sleep until my alarm sounded at 8:00 a.m., but the Christmas like excitement popped my eager eyes open at 5:30 a.m.  I tossed and turned until 6:30 a.m. and got out of bed.

It was still raining so I packed my rain gear and hoped that my morning Alaska Railroad flight seeing trip with Jim Somerville wouldn't be canceled.  Don provide a nice continental breakfast for me and I ran out the door.

I met Jim at Piggy's Restaurant at 9:00 a.m. under a canopy of dark low rain clouds.  It really came as no surprise when he said we wouldn't be flying.  As we left the eatery in his Volkswagen Vanagon, he pointed out that no other planes were taking off at Merrill Field so this was definitely an indicator that we'd remain earth bound.

Since planes were not an option, we turned our attention to trains.  Using Jim's military pass, we entered Elmendorf Air Force Base in search of its old and new railroad tracks.  There were two entrance lanes into the base.  Jim took the left lane which contained only two cars.  The right lane contained over 25 trucks which weren't moving an inch.  Military Police were opening up the back of each truck and thoroughly inspecting its contents.  Yet another result of the events of September 11.

Crossing buck and jetJim took me to an area where new double track had been laid.  I had never seen new track before and I was mesmerized by the shiny rails, perfect ties and pristine ballast, all devoid of vegetation.  The railroad had installed this new section as part of its current initiative to eliminate unnecessary curves and speed reductions.

Hearing the roar of fighter jets, we stopped by the flight line to check it out.  The area contained a wide variety such as a C-5, C-17, AWACS and several Spanish war planes.  The highlight of the flight line was the F-15 squadron.  We spent over 30 minutes watching F-15s come and go, their afterburners roaring in our ears and shaking our bodies.

We continued to search out the rails on Elmendorf and then ventured onto Fort Richardson.  Here we found a large number of tracks, all of which had small bushes and trees growing between the rails.  Jim drove to the old coal plant which was no longer serviced by the railroad.  Driving behind it, we discovered a fish hatchery.

Fish tanksWe wandered around aimlessly looking at the fish tanks until an employee gave us a mini tour.  He then sent us into one of the buildings for a self guided "hands in your pockets" tour.  Here we encountered another friendly employee who gave us yet another mini tour which included a peek into a few of the dozens of racks of fish egg trays.

This hatchery rears tens of thousands of fish a year.  Fish life begins as tiny eggs in a tray.  Eggs give birth to juvenile fish which are put in a series of indoor tanks.  They constantly feed the fish to help them grow.  As the fish get larger, they are put into a series of outdoor tanks.  They continue to go from tank to tank until they are large enough to release into streams and lakes.  Then fisherman catch them, kill them and eat them.  Wouldn't it be easier for us to get a fish sandwich at Burger King?

3010Thinking about fish sandwiches made my stomach growl and I realized it was past time for lunch.  As we headed to a local restaurant, we caught the southbound Coastal Classic at the Anchorage Depot.  As true armchair photographers, Jim and I drove the length of the train and snapped off photos of each car and locomotive.  When the train finally blew its whistle signaling its intention to depart, Jim got an idea and drove us to a nearby parking lot.  We leaped out of the van and ran down the paved walk way to find the best photographic spot.  Jim was kind enough to shoot video on my camcorder while I clicked pix.

The Lucky Wishbone Restaurant has been in business for over forty years.  Any eating establishment that has survived for that length of time must be pretty darn good.  Even though it was 1:30 p.m., a long line of people still snaked out the door.  Jim and I eventually opted for a seat at the counter and gulped down half pound hamburgers and a mountain of french fries while chatting about flying and railfanning.

After Jim dropped me off at my car, I went to the Anchorage yard in search of a few camera shy locomotives.  Instead I was rudely greeted by two leased Amtrak F40 locomotives.  I spoke with a few anonymous mechanics who ranted that last year's leased Amtrak units ran great, but this year's units were "just about dead from the get go.  They were in bad shape.  We spent a lot of time fixin' 'em.  Then the contract says they have to be in tip top shape before we send them back.  Something is really wrong here."

I ate dinner at the locally famous Sea Galley restaurant with an Alaska Railroad manager (who shall remain anonymous).  The seafood was good, but the conservation was a great deal better.  By listening to this long time employee, I was able to gain amazing insight into the inner workings of the corporation.

Glass etchingWhen I arrived at the locomotive shop at 11:00 p.m., it was just getting dark and still spitting rain.  I linked up with a mechanic who gave me an "employee's view" of the locomotive and car shops as well as some of the Maintenance of Way equipment.  The highlight of the evening/morning was my first glimpse at the railroad's new business car, the Aurora.  The first thing I noticed was the attractive rear viewing platform with a large ARR logo.  I walked through the car and noticed it looked more like a party/conference car then a working business car.  Unlike the Denali (ARR's former business car which may soon go for sale for a paltry $100,000), the Aurora does not have a bedroom.  It's large open body has two rows of various chairs and tables.  The front end of the car has a beautiful scenic glass etching which really adds splash to the decor.  The front of the car holds a modern looking rest room, food preparation area and sink.  Unfortunately, it was so dark in the car shop that my photos aren't worth displaying them here.

I was very thankful that Don had given me a key to his condo since I came crawling back in at 2:00 a.m.  Since I had been awake for over 20 hours and still feeling the effects of a four hour time zone adjustment, I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

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