Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Get down from there!Randy and I stop into the depot to visit a favorite employee. Susie Kiger, Sales and Marketing Manager, meets us with a smile and a few goodies. Her sunshiny personality exudes warmth and friendliness. As it turns out, Susie and I have something in common. We both have new homes, but spend very little time in them. In essence we agree that we have, "purchased nice homes for our pets to live in." Susie leaves us to the depot gift shop and we promptly purchase $200 worth of stuff.

Our next friendly face is that of Curt Rudd, Anchorage Terminal Superintendent. He takes us to meet with the security folks, Dan Frerich, Director of Police & Security & Chief Special Agent and Tim Allen, Manager of Port and Homeland Security. I find out they are both former military OSI (Office of Special Investigations) agents. Back at my job at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base I work with OSI agents all the time so I feel right at home with these guys. They inform Randy and I of the various rules and safety procedures. Then it is off to sign the necessary release forms and receive our yard passes.

AOCCurt then takes us on a tour of the new $10 million Anchorage Operations Center (AOC). It is impressive to see a building where the pre-construction phase was so well thought out. For example, returning train crews typically enter the rear of the building where a sink, washing machine and dryer stand ready. Crews can then go to the crew center where restrooms, showers and crew lockers are available for both men and women.

As we tour the various offices and breakrooms, it comes as a complete surprise that some of the workers already know me from my website. Several of the office computers are even using my photos as screen savers. This makes my head swell so big that I begin having problems getting it through doorways.

Next, we journey through the second floor offices meeting the various big kahunas of Alaska rail operations. Much swapping of business cards takes place. We also tour the dispatcher's area where Ed Verlanic gives a drop dead awesome demo showing how the railroad tracks its locomotive's precise location using GPS. This all fits into the collision avoidance system the railroad is working on. Finally, we head to the third floor for a look at the operations tower. In a room where almost all the walls are windows, Gary Phillips vigorously works on freight line-ups in the yard. Dale Greth, Customer Service Representative, is involved in a heavy duty phone call, but is able to go into multiplex mode and assist us with finding information on some hoppers Randy wants to model. Our last stop is an open air dining area complete with barbeque grill. This facility is light years beyond the old yard tower/office that was demolished back in 1997!

Crew lockers Tracking screens Control tower
Men's crew lockers are spacious and accommodate padlocks Dispatcher's screens showing the location of all train traffic Trainmaster Gary Phillips surveys freight cars in the yard

Hopping in Curt's truck, we tour the relatively new Flint Hills balloon track where refined tank car products get unloaded and stored for reuse. I then beg Curt to take us past the nearby Northland and Lynden trailer on flatcar (TOFC) facility. Impressive giant cranes move container freight with computerized perfection. I could sit and watch the loading and unloading process all day. Unfortunately, Curt has another appointment to keep and so drops us off at our car. So far, it's been an awesome day!

Flint Hills balloon track TOFC ships Container cranes
Tank cars on the new Flint Hills balloon track Large ships are loaded with containerized freight Huge cranes take care of the loading and unloading process


We return to the national archives to pick up our photocopies and find the bill totals $177.30! Fortunately, only $28 of it is mine. Ha, ha, ha! We run a few errands in town and then head to Whittier to catch the weekly barge. Stopping briefly at Portage, we take a few quick pix of MOW train remnants LC 110 and caboose 1074.

By 3:30 pm we are heading through the $80 million boondoggle, the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel to the town of Whittier. Popping through the other end of the two mile shaft, we see the weekly barge from Seattle has already arrived. As we approach the barge area we find that operations have changed radically. Now there is a fence around the entire area and access is controlled by Purcell security. Fortunately for us, our name is on the preferred visitor's list. Ba da bing! We drive down to the barge and spend the next 30 minutes taking photos of its contents.

Barge rear Barge mid Rear front
Rear view of the loaded barge... side view... front view...

When I was here was in the summer of 2002 the barges mostly consisted of freight cars. The new barges now have a lower level for railcars and an upper level for containerized freight. As if that isn't enough, extensions will soon be added so the barge can transport even more containers! Anyway, the yard has also expanded and mountains of container freight are everywhere. It is very obvious that COFC traffic is the wave of the future for the Alaska Railroad.

Cruise ship depotSince it appears it will be a while before the unloading process begins, Randy and I head over to see to the harbor office to see if our friend Harbormaster Mark Earnest is there. As luck would have it, he is not. However, his assistant calls him on his cell phone and sets up a 9:45 pm meet. We then stop by the new (relatively) cruise ship depot and take a couple of snapshots. Our growling stomachs then sent us to the old Anchor Inn where Halibut and Chips are served by a tattooed waitress with black corkscrew hair hanging down to her nose. She apologizes for the Halibut being a day and a half old. You could have fooled me. It is absolutely fantastic!

Returning to the barge, we bump into Trainmaster Jason who Randy knows from his baggage handling days. Jason gives us an excellent safety briefing designed to keep us safe while we photograph and video tape the unloading process. "Just don't get run over!" he jokes.

The barge unloading begins at 6:18 pm and the freight railcars are the first to go. [click here to view the 1.8MB video] After one track is unloaded, a worker in a blue booth directs giant cables attached to the barge so the next track is lined up to unload. At one point, the unloading process slows to a crawl as a depressed center flatcar moves over the unloading ramp. The distance between the pavement and the bottom of the flatcar decreases to an almost nonexistent space. The Trainmaster watches very closely until the flatcar completely offloads. The unloading continues at a steady pace and by 7:20 pm all the freight cars are gone.

Locos retreiving cars Unloading cars barge leaning
Locomotives aren't permitted on barges so they use gondolas to reach for the consist. The two towers hold weights used to raise and lower the ramp with the tide. Notice how the barge leans to one side as the loads are removed.
Close clearance What a load Moving freight
A spotter checks the clearance of the depressed center flatcar. Yes, it is very close! Randy Thompson and an unknown worker check out this very unusual load. Once the consist fills the unloading track, they are moved to another siding.

Now the longshoremen jump into action. Using giant forklifts they go into a synchronized ballet of unloading the container freight from the top deck of the barge. It is amazing to watch them gracefully unload a container from the front port side, quickly pass by the forklift unloading the front starboard side and then pass the container onto a smaller forklift that will load it onto a railroad flatcar. The whole process is free of mistakes and wasted motion. [click here for 3.4MB video and here for 2.4MB video]

dualing forklifts The handoff dual unloading
The taller forklift removes the container from the barge while the shorter one puts it on a flatcar. A metal deck is was put in place to protect the concrete pad and enable easier transfer. A total of five forklifts are used. One tall forklift works the left while the other works the right.
taking one down handing off the container the container Taking it away
Step 1: A tall forklift gently removes the container from the top of the barge. Step 2: Staying clear of the other forklift, he moves to the pad and gently puts it down. Step 3: The shorter forklift picks up the container and transfer it to a railroad flatcar.

At 9:40 pm Randy and I head to the harbor office to await the arrival of Mark. He is still not there by 9:50 pm and Randy wants to hit the road so I leave and note and we head for the tunnel. Unbeknownst to us, as we enter the tunnel, Mark is exiting the tunnel. He calls my cell phone to tell me he is on his way and I break the bad news that we have just crossed paths. Before I can finish our conversation, the call is cut off by the tunnel's rock walls.

The return drive is uneventful and I spend the time complaining to Randy about a problem I am having with one of the adult leaders in my Boy Scout troop. We return to Don's around 11:30 pm and immediately become friends with our pillows.

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