by Jerry Hardy
After a very restless night caused by the unending daylight at this time of the year, I was up early and out of the motel at 5:15 a.m. and walked the few block to the Alaska Railroad Station. I was there in time to tape the arrival of the Coastal Classic, my train for today. The consist was: Engine #3009, power car #111, diner #301, coach #201, coach #205, coach #203, coach #204, and dome #502. The dome car, an Alaska Railroad car is reserved for Kenai Fjords Tours passengers. Above the windows it has "Wildlife Express" and below the windows "Kenai Fjords Tours" and a painting of a puffin.
We departed on time at 6:45 a.m. for the beautiful trip to Seward. Departing Anchorage the train travels for quite a distance along Turnagain Arm, a branch of the Cook Inlet. Southbound I was in car #203 one of the older coaches but quite comfortable. ARR leaves the top of the dutch doors open and have no objections to you riding the vestibules so that is where I spent most of the time on all my rides on ARR. Alaska Railroad has a wonderful program in which they select and train high school age students for summer employment as "tour guides" in each coach of their trains. These personable young women and men do a nice job of pointing out sights along the line and filling the passengers in on the flora and fauna as well as the history of the railroad and state. In addition they also pass out to a large route map that has milepost information on the reverse side and copies of "On Board" a newspaper-like fact filled publication. Nearing Portage you can see the dead trees left from the big '64 earthquake. The ground level dropped as much as 12 feet here and the sea water from Turnagain Arm flooded the area and killed the trees. The ground level has since risen but the dead trees remain as a reminder. For quite a while the railroad could only run when the tide was out, when the tide was in it flooded the tracks!
The views along the entire 114 mile trip are spectacular. After leaving Portage, which is only a wye on the railroad where the track splits off to Whittier, the tracks leave the Seward Highway and cut cross-country within close view of Spencer, Bartlett and Trail glaciers.
After switching the power car (which had failed) to the rear of the train and using electrical power from #3009, we were a little late leaving Seward for the return trip to Anchorage. I rode in car #205, one of the newer Korean coaches for the return trip. These coaches have nice large windows but the seating is closer together than the older coaches and lack foot rests. At about 9:40 p.m., with the sun still shining, we met a southbound freight bound for Whittier at Indian siding (MP 88.7). It was close to 11 by the time we reached Anchorage, a little later than the scheduled 10:25 p.m. arrival time. As we entered Anchorage people were still out jogging in the parks and working in their yards, these endless days are tough for me to get used to.
After another nearly sleepless night, I was up early and walked to the station again. I was there early enough to tape the Seward train backing into the station and it's departure and also the Denali Star pull in and depart.
I boarded the Glacier Discover for the trip to Whittier. The day's consist was: #2007 on the point, P-30 a converted EMD B unit for the power car, diner #300, coach #200, coach #202, and coach #210. We departed on time at 9:00 a.m. with me aboard coach #202, another of the older coaches. From Anchorage to Portage we traveled the same rails that we had traveled yesterday. As we made the turn at Portage the cloud cover was fairly heavy and got worse as we traveled along. We did have a fairly good view of Portage Glacier even with the low clouds. As we exited the second tunnel at Whittier the cloud cover was quite low and it was spitting rain which continued off and on all day long.
After our arrival at Whittier, they ran the engine around the train and pulled it back to Portage (12.4 miles) to turn it on the wye, then returned to Whittier and parked it on a siding for our return later in the day.
I was able to watch and tape as they loaded the freight train we had passed at Indian siding last night onto rail barges for the trip south. Later I watched as the barges left the dock and headed out to sea.
I watched the Alaska Marine Highway's ferry, M/V Bartlett arrive from Valdez and unload and take on new passengers and vehicles, including a bus, for it's return trip. I also taped the loading of the ARR shuttle train which travels between Whittier and Portage. There is no road between the two and the shuttle is the only means of transportation from Whittier other than by boat.
We departed at 5:45 p.m. for the return to Anchorage. At Bird (MP 81.7) we met a special southbound passenger train pulled by #3001 and #3005. The brakeman told me that the train was a special for the governor of Alaska who was aboard "Denali", an office car with an open observation platform on the rear. He was reportedly en route to Girdwood for a meeting.
We arrived back in Anchorage on schedule at 8:15 p.m.
I discovered at the last minute that the Denali Star is the only ARR train that has assigned seating. Even though you have a reservation and ticket in hand you need to stop at the ticket window and get your assigned seat before boarding.
Today's train was made up of engines #3008 and #3011, both engines are still in the black paint scheme, baggage car #101, diner #400, coach #209, dome car #500, coach #208, 6 Holland America Westours full length dome cars, and 4 Princess Midnight Sun Express cars on the rear.
At about 8:30 a.m. we headed north for Talkeetna. We were about 15 minutes late due to the large amount of baggage that had to be loaded. The ARR uses large open topped containers for each destination for their baggage and load it all by forklift. This is the first time I've seen this system used and it certainly speeds up the loading and seems to be an efficient system. Amtrak could take some lessons!
At our first stop at Wasilla we had lost even more time. Since I only had an hour between our arrival at Talkeetna and my departure on the Talkeetna-Hurricane local "flag stop" RDC I spoke to the conductor to see if we would make it in time for my connection. He said not to worry as the local couldn't leave Talkeetna until after he left. He did say that there was one small problem, there are two stations at Talkeetna, the express (Denali Star) stops at the new station about three-fourths of a mile before the old shelter where the local leaves. He told me not to worry, he would contact the station agent to see if he had transportation down to the other station and if he didn't he would make a second stop of the express for me at the shelter. When we stopped, the conductor radioed the agent who was busy unloading baggage and asked about transportation for me. The agent said he would be glad to run me down in his car but when he saw how much baggage he had to handle changed his mind and said his wife, who was at the station, would take me down. After getting my bag, his wife put me and my baggage in their station wagon and drove me to the local. The conductor also radioed the local and told them that I was coming and to wait for me! When I arrived at the shelter, I purchased my round trip ticket from the conductor and when the Budd RDC # 712 pulled off the siding onto the main I was one of the first to board. About five minutes past our departure time, Pete, our engineer came back through the car and said they were waiting for someone off the express to arrive before they departed. I told him I was the one they were waiting for. He asked how I got there so quickly and I told him some nice lady put me in her car and drove me down, everyone got a big laugh and we departed for Hurricane.
My five and a half hours on the Talkeetna-Hurricane local "flag stop" were one on the highlights of my trip. This service is operated four times a week, Thursday-Sunday, for the "locals" and is their only means of transportation into this country which is many miles from the nearest road. Bring along your own lunch, there is not food or drinks aboard this one car train. This round-trip is from Talkeetna (MP 226.7) to Hurricane siding (MP 281.4). It does not travel to Hurricane Gulch (MP 284.2). Shortly after leaving Talkeetna, the conductor, seeing my video camera and that I was a railfan invited me to ride up front with Pete our engineer. Needless to say, that invitation was quickly accepted. I rode almost all the way out and back with Pete and "Bear", his big black dog. The passengers; fishermen, hikers, and the people who live along the tracks were most interesting. They stand along the tracks and actually "flag" the train to get it to stop for them. They climb aboard, after loading all kinds of cargo into the baggage compartment, with their pistols strapped on their hips, rifles in hand and a lot of them had their dogs along. Everyone lends a hand in loading and unloading the cargo. Earlier in the week, the local freight had dropped off a container of sheets of aluminum roofing at the wrong location. Since we had time and had to make a stop there anyway, Pete and the conductor decided to deliver the roofing to the right cabin. After deciding that the container was too heavy to load on board, even with everyone pitching in to help, the container was opened and the sheet were loaded on board a few at a time. Since the sheets were so long, they opened the door at the front of the RDC and we loaded the sheets. The sheets extended through the baggage compartment and into the aisle of the passenger compartment. When we arrived at the proper location a few miles up the tracks the whole procedure was reversed and the roofing delivered at the correct cabin.
After watching Pete wad up the first track warrant, I asked if I could have the next one--he gave me all the rest of them!
On our return from Hurricane, following the southbound Denali Star, we had used up all our warranted track at one point and Pete said he was going to stop at the next bridge and water the flowers! We stopped, he took a bucket to the creek and watered flowers that had been planted along the track. When I asked him about it he told me that last year a couple had been shot and killed near there and the families had planted the flowers as a memorial. When he has time he stops and waters them for the families!
If you travel to Alaska don't miss out on this train! It is well worth spending a night in Talkeetna to ride it. ARR does not advertise this train on their web page or in their timetables. I called their 800 number (1-800-544-0552) to get the schedule. Reservations are not available and you have to buy your ticket from the conductor.
At 11:25 a.m. I boarded the Denali Star for the trip on to Fairbanks. Today's train was made up of engines #3013 and #3010, baggage car #100, diner #401, coach #206, dome car #501, coach #202, 6 Westours domes and the 4 Princess cars.
At Broad Pass (MP 304.3) we met the southbound Denali Star. A quick stop is made at the meet and the ARR high school tour guides exchange trains so they can return home and not have to spend the night away from home.
Shortly thereafter, while I was riding in the vestibule, the conductor came by and stuck his head out while we slowed to a crawl. He told me that "sun kinks" had been reported at that point but we went through without any problem. At MP 336, in a 30 MPH zone, I was taping when we suddenly lurched violently from side to side almost throwing off my feet. We had hit an unreported "sun kink". We were on a curve and the engineer hadn't noticed the kink until he hit it with the engine at which time he immediately threw it into emergency. When we stopped, all the ARR cars had passed over the kink and it was under the middle of the first Holland America Westours full length dome car. In my tens of thousands of miles of railroad travel this was as close as I've ever come to being involved in a derailment. If it wasn't for the relative slow speed we were traveling I feel sure we would have derailed.
A track inspector was called and when he arrived and checked things out he called two more men who arrived with brooms and a bucket of grease. They greased both rails and we very slowly walked the rest of the train over the kink without any problems.
Of course all this put us over an hour behind schedule into Denali our next stop 11.7 miles away. At Denali a lot of the ARR passengers and nearly all the passengers in the Westours and Princess cars detrain for a stay at Denali Nation Park and new passengers board for the trip on to Fairbanks.
After passing through the Nenana River canyon north of Denali the scenery, which had been spectacular all the way from Anchorage, gets less so as you leave the Alaska Range behind and travel over a rather flat marshy landscape.
South of Nenana a van was waiting for us at a grade crossing with a replacement crew to replace our crew who had been on board since Anchorage and who were to die at 8:10 p.m. on the twelve hour law. A quick stop and we were on our way with the new crew.
The Mears Memorial Bridge (MP 413.7) at Nenana is rather remarkable. It is one of the longest single span railroad bridges in the U.S. At the north end of the bridge is the site where President Harding drove the golden spike in 1923 to commemorate the completion of the railroad.
For the journey back to Anchorage I chose to splurge and ride on the Princess Midnight Sun Express. The four "Ultra Dome" cars are attached to the rear of the Denali Star for the journey to and from Anchorage. These cars feature full-domed glass ceilings with the largest windows (six by six-and-a-half feet) ever in a rail car. Three of the four cars have open platforms on the lower level where you can enjoy the fresh air and unobstructed photo taking views. All the cars are bi-level with seating on the upper level and dining rooms, restrooms, gift shop, and the open platforms on the lower level.
At Denali about noon I detrained and spent the night at the Denali.
The Denali Star pulled by #3008 and 3011 was on time as it pulled into the station at Denali for this, the last leg of my most enjoyable Alaska Rail Adventure.
Although it was quite a busy week riding the Alaska
Railroad, I would highly recommend a similar trip for anyone, railfan or
not. The equipment was clean and comfortable, the food in the diners was
excellent, the Alaska Railroad personnel were friendly, helpful and accommodating,
and the scenery unbelievable.
© 1998 Jerry Hardy