Paul Duncan's 2011 Trip Report

by Paul Duncan

March 1 , 2011: It seems odd to live in Texas and keep a winter coat in your closet but today that coat is packed along with my camera, laptop, gloves, Alaska Railroad sweatshirt, and some good reading material for my flight. I’m leaving the 70 degree weather of Fort Worth, TX for Alaska, to get another fix of the railroad I model and have been interested in for years. This is my second trip to Alaska having travelled there in 2006 spending one week railfanning the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Fairbanks and back south with time spent exploring Whittier and Seward. A copy of Dale Sanders’ Northern Light book accompanies me for the flight. I’ve spent the past year flying in American Airlines MD80’s but today’s trip is different. A stopover in Seattle with some teriyaki for lunch abbreviates my trip but I’m soon flying over the snow capped mountains of Alaska and landing at Anchorage International. Rental car picked up and I’m off to the Alaska Railroad’s yard in Anchorage. I contact my good friend Dave Blazejewski and we discuss meeting up later in the evening. Dave and his wife Deanna have been gracious enough to allow fellow photographer Chris Starnes and me stay with them. I spend some time capturing some roster shots for modeling from public property and capture the evening’s northbound FOX power wyeing near the diesel shop. I headed down to the east (railroad north) end of the yard to capture a timed exposure with what limited light was left of the train on its airtest from an adjacent road. There’s just something neat about an intermodal train getting ready to depart off its origin ramp. Dave and I hooked up for dinner downtown and headed for home. I grew up a fan of the Rio Grande, Santa Fe, and Alaska Railroad and have to say that Dave’s home is a Rio Grande railfan’s dream come true.

March 2, 2011: Dave and I headed to his office and I was given a tour of the Alaska Railroad’s operations building. Please note through this report that Chris Starnes and me both are railroad employees in the lower 48 and fully aware of all applicable railroad safety rules and PPE requirements. Any photos taken on railroad property were in safe clearance while wearing all applicable PPE and accompanied with an officer of the Alaska Railroad. Please do not trespass on railroad property and always ensure you are aware of train movement when on public property. Chris Starnes planned to land around lunch time so I headed towards Eklutna, one of my favorite photo locations, to capture the southbound OX lead by SD70MAC 4010 with the sun not yet over the Chugach Mountains. The loaded tank cars from North Pole kick up snow as DP 4327 comes into view with several spines of TOFC behind including one of the Alaska Railroad’s generator units. I chased the train to the Beach Lake Road crossing once again with less than optimal light capturing the DP on the broad curve here as well. I doubled back to Palmer to take some shots of the old Palmer depot in downtown and the former branch to the coal fields near Eska and Jonesville. I then headed west and captured some photos of the Wasilla depot. I drove back to Anchorage to meet Chris Starnes. Chris and I had never met and he was a pleasure to railfan with the entire trip. We went back north on word that a southbound coal train had left Healy earlier in the day. We met the train at Willow with Denali barely visible through the white haze in the background. We caught the train side-lit again at Houston, then Old Richardson Highway south of Wasilla, and again at Eklutna. We chased the train to Beach Lake Road and I took these two images (1, 2) of it on the curve there. No additional trains were planned in daylight so Chris and me headed for a public access road he was familiar with adjacent to Anchorage International watching several takes-offs and landings including this Korean Air 747. Anchorage is the fourth largest cargo airport in the world given its relative proximity to Europe, Asia, and North America. The Alaska Railroad serves as a major conduit for the jet fuel used here from the North Pole, AK refinery.

March 3, 2011: Chris and I got breakfast and headed to the depot to check out the consist of the morning Aurora to Fairbanks. The train would have four cars versus the typical three because of a tour group from Korea. We headed north exploring photo opportunities at Matanuska Junction finding this shot. We found a grade crossing north of Wasilla with the train at speed on soon to be replaced jointed rail and again with this broad shot at Willow. Chris and I decided to head south to Seward. A coal empty and the twice a year loaded lumber products train for Spenard Building Materials (Alaskan chain) would be departing from Seward late this afternoon. We found both trains ready to depart out of Seward at the north end with the coal empty lined out first. The loaded lumber train was DP’d 3x3, the first time the Alaska Railroad had built a loaded northbound train in this configuration from Seward. I snapped this shot of the northbound empty pulling the grade out of Seward towards Divide and then at Divide. We continued north catching the train at the highway overpass at Lakeview. At this point, the mainline heads away from the highway towards Grandview and Bartlett Glacier. We headed north towards Portage and caught this southbound heading into Whittier between the tunnels with a string of intermodal including the DTTX stack car under test on the ARR. We returned to Portage to wait for the coal empty. I took this timed exposure as the empty pulled up to the wye at Portage to line it normal from the freight mentioned above.

March 4: Chris and I made our way south from Anchorage to chase a baretable heading towards Whittier with two SD70MAC’s for an incoming Seattle barge. Our first shot was on this broad curve between Potter and Rainbow. Next, we caught the train meeting this MOW gang in the siding at Rainbow. We jumped ahead and took this shot of the train at Bird Point. Earlier in the morning, the Alaska Railroad had operated a Ski Train to Girdwood with DMU 751 that was met by the baretable in front of the depot. Chris and I doubled back and caught this southbound coal train across the flats at Potter and again between Potter and Rainbow. The coal train met the same MOW gang at Rainbow. I snapped these shots of the train at Indian (1, 2). We continued with the train taking these shots between Indian and Portage (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). We met the train again at the first grade crossing past Portage as it made a run for the climb to Grandview. We stuck around Portage for the Whittier turn we had seen earlier. A CN barge had unloaded through the morning ahead of the Seattle barge with the 2 SD70MAC’s coming out of Whittier with this manifest for Anchorage. The train has pulled around the wye and begins heading north over Twenty Mile trestle (1, 2). We had dinner with Dave and toured the shop that evening (1, 2). Once again, we were wearing all applicable PPE and were escorted by an officer of the Alaska Railroad.

March 5: The next morning, we met up with Ted Smith-Peterson for breakfast. He had returned from Cantwell where he had been shooting the railroad. We toured the yard tower of the operations building (1, 2, 3). We headed north to the Old Richardson Highway overpass and caught this southbound coal train in cloud cover. The Alaska Railroad was operating a special for the Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau that would run from Anchorage to Portage and return. We caught the train at Girdwood (1, 2) and again with some snow falling near Portage. The train wyed at Portage and crossed the Twenty Mile trestle at speed. I was able to capture these three shots (1, 2, 3) in fading light on its way back to Anchorage. Thanks again to the Blazejewski’s for their warm hospitality and Chris Starnes for riding shotgun. I had a great trip and really enjoyed another railfan adventure in Alaska.


© 2011 Paul Duncan