2003 Alaska Rail Adventure

by Tom Smith



This year Karen and I celebrated our 25th Anniversary with a special vacation trip to the 49th State. It was a new experience for Karen and Allen and an opportunity for me to see the changes that occurred since I visited Alaska in 1970. My one week of vacation was not enough to do the state justice, so we focused on the Kenai Peninsula, a compact (for Alaska) area that is easily accessible with some magnificent scenery. We also made a side trip to Talkeetna on the Alaska RR to see Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in North America.

Now the preferred way to visit Alaska would be on the Alaska Marine Highway, the state ferry system. It can actually be done with some intense planning and time to allow for connections between boats that in some cases sail only twice per month. We could have also gone on one of the Alaskan Cruises offered by the major cruise lines, like Holland America and Princess, companies more often associated with warmer climates. With insufficient time for the former, and not liking to be herded around, we planned the trip ourselves, with Karen doing most of the trip planning since work kept me too busy. She put together an interesting trip with something for everyone.

We flew from Portland to Anchorage, first having to take a Horizon Air twin engine prop plane from Portland to Seattle to connect with Alaska Airlines Flight 85 in Seattle. During late afternoon, Alaska Air has flights to Anchorage about every half hour, and they were all filled. Where are the lowered traffic levels the airlines complain about?

In Anchorage, we saw signs all over the terminal pointing to the "Train Depot" and found they led to a brand new terminal building with two elevated stub end tracks, but there was no information posted on the locked doors. The lady at the airport visitor information desk said the station was to be part of a future commuter service into Anchorage, but I found the track leading to the airport was a single industrial track with sidings, grade crossings and a 10 mph speed limit. Something about this didn't add up. Later we learned that the station was in use for cruise train charters once or twice a week to link air passengers with their cruises. Building such a facility for only occasional use still didn't make sense, although Alaska has benefited from a lot of oil revenue, and can spend it on projects with little benefit. One possibility that occurred to me was that ARR might move its passenger terminal to the airport from downtown.

While Anchorage has many hotels and motels, the most convenient turned out to be the Comfort Inn, which is only a block from the train station, and has a nice view of the ARR shops. They also provide complimentary shuttle service to both the airport and train depot, and a complimentary breakfast with cereal, muffins, fruit and do-it-yourself waffles. We made good use of their services during our stays there.

After checking in, I went out to observe the 8:15PM arrival of the Denali Star, the Alaska Railroad's daily train from Fairbanks. It arrived behind one of ARR's 16 new SD70MAC's acquired in 1999-2000 and a GP40-2. Behind the passenger cars that included two vista domes, a diner and lunch counter car were 6 special Holland America and Princess tour cars, designed and built for the cruise companies to give their passengers the levels of service, comfort and cuisine to which they were accustomed aboard ship. The cruise tour cars were cut off in front of the Comfort Inn and their passengers transferred to a fleet of waiting tour buses for transport to their hotels since the train would have been too long for the station platform.

There have long been cruises in Alaskan waters mostly confined to the Alaskan Panhandle in smaller ships with passengers making side trips on the White Pass & Yukon. The development of major ocean cruises with ships in the 40,000+ tons range and 1000+ passengers has occurred in the past 20 years, as the major cruise lines have built ever larger ships, deploying them in the Caribbean in winter and summer in Southern Alaska, with inland tours to attractions like Mt. McKinley National Park. The typical cruise will sail from Vancouver, (B.C.) and dock at Seward, about 120 miles south of Anchorage. At Seward, passengers will transfer to an Alaska RR special train, or more likely to a fleet of monstrous tour buses, for transport to Anchorage where they will board the special tour cars on the Denali Star. The Alaska cruise business is a major operation with many options available to passengers, including one-way trips with air transport for one of the leg. Since the ships can carry more passengers than the train or hotels can handle at one time, the cruise lines have to juggle passengers between train, buses and hotels to give everyone an Alaskan experience. They probably keep the equipment 100% utilized, but it is unlikely a single passenger would have an opportunity to ride the entire Alaska RR on one trip.

As the cruise business developed, the lines wanted to provide passenger comforts over and above plain old day coaches, and tried to outdo each other providing the biggest and best rail transport ever seen. There is nothing else like it in passenger railroading today. It all started in 1983 when Tour Alaska began adding 4 former Milwaukee Road Super Dome cars to Alaska trains, calling them the Midnight Sun Express. Anyone familiar with those cars is well aware of their viewing shortcomings, so when Princess Cruises acquired Tour Alaska in 1986, they replaced those cars with 4 "Ultra Domes" rebuilt from former SP Gallery commuter cars by Bob Steele at Tillamook, Ore, Billed as the largest passenger rail cars in. the world, each car seated 90 passengers and had kitchen, dining, bar and outdoor observations. The small commuter car windows were replaced with large windows that wrapped into the roof. In 1993 and 1997 Princess added two completely new cars each year built along the same design as the former SP cars by Colorado Railcar.

Not to be outdone. Holland America's Westours began acquiring full-length domes in the mid 1980's. All but one were former Santa Fe Big Dome dome-lounge cars that Santa Fe sold to Auto-Train in 1971. In 1981, 13 Big Domes were sold at Auto-Train's bankruptcy auction, with 5 acquired by private individuals, and the rest by New York Susquehanna & Western. In 1985, Westours began buying these cars, and eventually acquired all of the remaining Big Domes, except for one retained by Santa Fe, and another, which became a part of the Conrail inspection train. They too were refurbished by Bob Steele at Tillamook and Forest Grove, Ore. Westours also acquired a former GN Great Dome to round out its collection.

In 2001, Royal Caribbean jumped into the race with 4 new cars built by Colorado Railcar, also billed as the world's largest rail cars, featuring "the most dome glass of any double deck rail cars in the world." In 2003, Westours again laid claim to having the "largest passenger rail cars in service in North America" introducing 4 new McKinley Explorer bi-level dining lounge cars built by Colorado Railcar. These monsters are 89 feet long, 18'2' high, seat 88 passengers and "feature more glass area than any other passenger car ever built," according to an HAL sales executive. The new cars will begin replacing the former Santa Fe cars. Who will make the next move? Clearances are going to restrict how much bigger these cars can get. These cars may not be able to operate to Seward where the line is curvy with tunnels. Since they are delivered by carfloat, they must traverse the Whittier Tunnel. They demonstrate a faith in the future of Alaska RR passenger service, since the cars may be too big to be used anywhere else.

Alaska's passenger train service in 2003 is much different than it was on my first visit. In 1970 it was F-units, converted former US Army Hospital cars and troop sleepers, run basically as a public service used by local residents to access remote parts of the state. There was then no highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks, so the year round (but not daily in the winter) passenger train provided an essential transportation service. Today, Alaska's freight and passenger service has been affected by the opening of the Anchorage- Fairbanks Parks Highway, with bulk commodities like coal and oil dominating freight traffic, and passenger service mostly oriented to tourist travel.

In 1970, Alaska operated just two passenger services: the Anchorage- Fairbanks trains 5 and 6, known as the AuRoRa, and a train between Anchorage and Whittier, which also ran shuttle trips between Portage and Whittier to piggyback vehicles and passengers between the Seward Highway and the port of Whittier. There was no service to Seward. Passengers on the Fairbanks train were accommodated in coaches rebuilt from former hospital cars that were plainly furnished, but retained the large windows. Meals were available from a diner lounge with vinyl upholstery, a menu posted on the wall, and a jukebox for entertainment.

Now, the Alaska provides 4 separate daily services, but only in the period between mid May and mid September. Anchorage-Fairbanks service is provided by the Denali Star, taking 12 hours to cover the 356-mile trip. Passenger service between Anchorage and Seward, restored in 1986, is provided by the Coastal Classic, a one-day round trip from Anchorage, with 4 hours 20 minutes allowed for each direction. Both trains offer coaches, vista domes, snack and dining car service. The Glacier Discovery is a short train providing service to Portage and Whittier, and also takes tourists to boat tours of glaciers visible along the route. It follows the Seward line to Portage (MP64), then diverges to the 12-mile Whittier branch for a trip through the tunnel and a connection with the Valdez/Cordova ferry. It then returns to Portage, and makes a trip south to Spencer Glacier and Grandview (MP45). It next returns to Portage, makes a second round trip to Grandview, and returns again to Portage, where it runs again to Whittier, and returns direct to Anchorage. Motorcoach connections are made between Anchorage and Portage between the two Grandview trips for passengers who desire a shorter and less expensive trip. Lastly, there is the Hurricane Turn, the last reminder of what the traditional purpose was of Alaska RR passenger service. Comprised of 2 RDC's, this train covers the 58 miles between Talkeetna and Hurricane providing flagstop and local passenger service to a section of the railroad where the Denali Star does not stop and is not accessible by highway. it runs Thursdays through Sundays, and weekend visitors park at one end or the other and pack in supplies. In the September-May off season, the ARR runs only one Anchorage-Fairbanks trip each week, north on Saturday, return on Sunday, and making all local flagstops en route. There is no service to Seward or Whittier then.

The Alaska's passenger equipment has also changed from what it was in 1970, with none of the equipment remaining in service from that earlier visit. in 1971 the Alaska RR acquired a large number of baggage cars, coaches. vista dome coaches, lunch counter and dining cars from the Union Pacific, with which they were able to upgrade their service and begin retiring the hospital cars. In the early 1980's some former Amtrak Budd-built coaches, dome coaches and diners were added to the roster, but most were retired by 1990. By then, the Alaska had taken delivery of 6 coaches, 1 diner, and 1 cafe car that were built new in Korea by Daewoo Heavy Industries in 1989. Two RDC3's, 2 RDC2's and 1 RDC1 joined the roster in the mid-1980's, with 2 coming from SEPTA, and 3 from Amtrak. Four were originally New Haven cars, and one was built for the NYC. The RDC1 was used for parts, and the others placed in local services. Some of the Alaska's most intriguing equipment arrived in 1999, when the ARR acquired the equipment rebuilt by Rader's Colorado Railcar from the defunct short-lived Florida Fun Train. Included were 4 Sunroom cars, rebuilt from CN coaches with windows wrapping into the roof, and 4 cafe lounge and lunch counter cars that were rebuilt from former C&NW bi-level cars that had been equipped for long haul service and had been acquired by Amtrak. When rebuilt, the upper level was removed, giving the cars a cathedral ceiling. Some of the UP cars have been retired since the newer equipment arrived.

We were told to be at the depot an hour before the Denali Star's 0815 departure to cheek in, and surrendered our tickets for boarding passes with assigned seats in one of the Korean coaches. Seating 78, those cars can be a little cramped, but are otherwise bright and clean with big windows. There were plenty of empty seats on the train, so we rode mostly ion one of the ex-UP dome cars, which had their original seats. Our train was pulled by an SD70MAC, and was the same consist I had seen coming in the night before, with coaches, dome coaches, and the tour cars bringing up the rear. Leaving Anchorage (MP114.3), there are signs of massive roadway improvements and track relocations in the 45 miles between Anchorage and Wasilla. The tour guide giving the narration told us the track was being straightened out to permit higher speeds, which could allow for starting commuter train service between Wasilla and Anchorage. This struck me as ludicrous given the population density of the area and that there presently isn't even bus service between the 2 cities. What oil money will do! But apparently a lot of people commute to Anchorage from Wasilla, where housing prices are lower.

The Denali Star makes only 3 intermediate stops between Anchorage and Fairbanks. The first is Wasilla, where no one got on or off, and also stops at Talkeetna and Denali. Denali is the entrance to Denali National Park, which contains Mt. McKinley, but Talkeetna is actually closer to the mountain and is the favored destination of those wanting to hike or climb the mountain or take one of the mountain and glacier flying tours. Since I rode to Fairbanks in 1970, and Karen and Allen wanted to see the mountain, we would take the train only to Talkeetna, and make a round trip on the Hurricane Turn, as the Alaska RR agent who answered their 800 number told Karen that was the best way to see Mt. McKinley from the train. It turned out to be excellent advice, and resulted in an unexpectantly pleasant travel experience.

The ride north was mostly through forests, and swampy land along the Susitna River. The Dutch doors were open and we also enjoyed the pleasures of riding in a vista dome again, having 2 to choose from; one a former UP car built by ACF, and another a Budd- built ex-NP car that had come from Amtrak. The Budd dome had suffered the indignities of one of Amtrak's refurbishing, so we stayed in the UP dome. Those ACF domes built for the UP cannot be topped, in my estimation. We arrived Talkeetna, MP 226.7, at 1125. The train is so long that it cannot use the original passenger station, so a new one was built about a third of a mile south of town, which has room for the tour buses and baggage facilities. Many passengers got on or off here, including cruise passengers who would transfer to the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, a new resort hotel which has recently opened to cater to the tour market, there being virtually no other accommodations for large groups in the town of 290 population.

The Hurricane Turn departs from the original Talkeetna station at MP226.9, so we had to hike the short distance to reach it in time for its 1215 departure. It is not a connecting service, and you can't even buy tickets in advance or from the Talkeetna agent-you have to purchase them from the conductor, and only cash or cheeks are accepted. The RDC's were in a siding, and could not enter the main until the Denali Star cleared. We found the train crew in the crew room in the station and were told we had time to get lunch from a little store on the town's main street, which we brought back. The engineer, Chuck, revved up the "Budd Cans" as they called them, and brought them up to the platform. A number of people were waiting to board, some driving their trucks up to the baggage door and loading supplies. The train consisted of 2 cars, RDC3 702, which had once been SEPTA 9170, originally New Haven 129, and RDC2 712, formerly Amtrak 34, and originally NYC M480. The RDC3 had -been extensively rebuilt, and whether by SEPTA or Alaska, I don't know, with the mail compartment removed and the Windows and doors for it blanked. The baggage room door was replaced by a hinged door that swung inward! Some additional seating and a handicapped restroom were installed in part of the original baggage compartment ahead of the exhaust stack divider. The RDC2 still appeared to be original. The cars were well worn, despite having been rebuilt by CEECO in 2000. The crew explained that after rebuilding the air conditioning had never worked in the 712, so nearly everyone sat in the 702, as it was a warm day. Fellow passengers were a mixed lot, many of them visitors who were guests of locals going to their fishing cabins, fishermen, and a few people like us who were along for the ride.

This was a laid back trip, no schedule, no hurry, we just had to get to Hurricane in time to clear up for the southbound Denali Star. The door to the cab was open, and passengers could chat with the engineer or ride in the cab, or in one of the open baggage doors. It was a beautiful clear day, and provided a rare crystal clear view of Mt. McKinley, which according to guidebooks is only visible 20% of the time in summer. I know I didn't get to see it before. With enthusiastic tourists aboard, the crew staged several impromptu photo stops at scenic locations, the first a few miles out of Talkeetna where there was a grand view of Mt. McKinley. The engineer opened the outside end door, and the conductor the baggage doors so everyone could take all the photos they wanted, as there wasn't room to unload. We then proceeded northward, letting people off along the way, and at Hurricane (MP281.4, Pop 0), after crossing the Parks Highway for the first time in 70 miles, entered the passing siding. The siding was CTC controlled; the ARR is introducing CTC in bits and pieces along its route. After some passengers got off. and so I could get a nice shot of the southbound Denali Star, the crew took us for an additional ride to the north end of the siding where we shot the passenger train (which doesn't stop) against a mountain backdrop and then out the siding up to the Hurricane bridge (MP284.2) which is 914' long and 296' high, where we again had a photo stop. Hurricane was aptly named for its fierce winds. Their power was evident in the remains of truck trailers blown off of TOFC flats we could see far below.

We then returned to the Hurricane station to await the 1530 departure. More passengers boarded, one loading a supply of treated lumber to build a deck. Another photostop was held at the Indian River Bridge (MP 269), where there was room to get off, get some photos and fresh air. or watch the fish in the river. There was still plenty of time to return to Talkeetna by our scheduled 1745 arrival. We thanked the crew for their hospitality, and made our way to the Roadhouse, an old 7-room two-story log hotel built in 1917. We were told Talkeetna was a "hippie town" and found many twenty, thirty and forty somethings outdoorsy types there, as well, as the trendy bar and eating places that cater to that kind of clientele. The Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge runs a shuttle bus between the Lodge and town, so we went to the Lodge for a nice dinner with a terrace overlooking Mt. McKinley. We enjoyed our stay at the Roadhouse, and between 3 and 4 AM I heard 3 freight trains pass through; the only evidence I saw or heard of any freight traffic on the Alaska RR, except for cars in the Anchorage rail yard. It was light enough to have shot them had I known they were coming, but one of the challenges in the land of the midnight sun is allowing yourself time to sleep!

The Roadhouse serves a breakfast that is legendary; people come from miles around to eat there. I like to start with a good breakfast and ordered the "large" version; the people across from us ordered the "small" version. Their meal came before ours, and I was aghast by its size. Mine was more breakfast than I usually eat in a week! We took a jet boat tour along the Susitna River and saw a moose and some eagles. Mt. McKinley was socked in. We made our way back to the station for the southbound Denali Star, due to leave at 1640, for our return to Anchorage. For the sake of doing it, I wanted to eat in the dining car, as only the Denali Star has full dining service. We were again on the same train set on which we had arrived with the Korean built dining car. (The other consist had a former UP diner). Several full course meals are offered at one pretty stiff price, $27, which with tip can add up to a C-note for the whole family. The meal and service were good, but a paper cover had been placed on top of the linen tablecloth! We arrived in Anchorage on time at 2015, and again made our way to the Comfort Inn.

We appreciated the complimentary breakfast at the Comfort Inn, as we had to return to the station in time for the 0645 departure of the Coastal Classic to Seward. Alaska's major hotels are very much aware of rail schedules and that people have to catch trains. Most hotels provide shuttle services to the rail depots. The Seward train was all new mileage. Alaska RR resumed passenger service over the 114-mile route to Seward in 1986 after an absence of 32 years. When it last ran in 1954 it was just one train per week to meet the weekly Alaska Steamship sailing from Seattle.

At Milepost 0, Seward was the origin of the Alaska RR. Having a relatively mild climate, and a deepwater port on Resurrection Bay, the ice free port became the main gateway to Alaska's interior. It is not surprising that Alaska's railroad pioneers visualized a railroad out of Seward that would reach Anchorage and the interior when construction began on what was to become the Alaska RR in 1902. Seward was the sole gateway to Alaska until WWII, when port congestion forced the US Army to build the branch to Whittier to open a second all-season port with a car float operation allowing direct interchange of freight cars. Seward changed forever on March 27, 1964, when the Good Friday Earthquake, the strongest ever recorded, and its resulting tidal wave and fires, caused major damage to the city. wiped out the docks, and severely damaged the rail line all the way to Anchorage. The rail line was eventually repaired, but the port facilities were never rebuilt. Break-bulk shipping had become obsolete with containerized shipping through Anchorage and direct interchange of freight cars via the Whittier car ferry. The Alaska RR now began at MP1.6 in Seward, not at MPO. The line south of Portage withered with little freight traffic, but in the 1980's gained new life when a bulk coal export facility was built to ship coal from the mines at Healy to Korea. Brought in by rail, coal was delivered to ship by conveyor.

Tourism was becoming a major factor in Seward's economy, and when the Alaska RR restored passenger service to take advantage of it they first used RDC's until patronage required conventional equipment. Mile for mile, the Seward line has the greatest concentration of spectacular scenery on the Alaska RR, with ocean views, snow covered mountains, forests and glaciers. Passenger service assumed greater importance when the major Alaska cruise lines began bringing their big cruise ships into the Port of Seward, docking at the passenger pier also used by the Alaska Marine Highway. There is a rail siding direct to the dock, and the Alaska RR station is a short walk away. When the ships dock, hundreds of passengers have to be dispersed to their various sightseeing destinations, whether taking a glacier cruise, boarding the train or transferring to one of the tour buses for a trip on the Seward Highway to Anchorage.

The Coastal Classic was headed by a GP40-2, and consisted of a baggage car, Korean Cafe car, Korean coach, an ex-NP Budd dome, a former C&NW bi-level snack car, a former UP coach and a former UP dome coach. The latter is dedicated to tour groups, but was not being used this trip so we were allowed to ride there, which we did, because of my fondness for the ACF UP domes. But this car was actually built by Pullman Standard in 1958 to an ACF design. It was among the last of UP's domes, and I'm not sure why UP deserted ACF which had built all their other domes, unless ACF had gone out of the long haul passenger car market by then. But it did prove that P-S actually could build a decent dome car, a lesson they should have learned earlier. There was a good load of passengers waiting to board, and most, including us, were assigned to the Korean coach, but there was plenty of room aboard to roam. The Budd dome was equipped with walkover seats in the dome for bidirectional operation. Few people knew the ex-UP dome was open, so we had it mostly to ourselves. Being on the rear of the train, it also offered opportunities for vestibule and Dutch door riding.

The train leaves Anchorage, slowly making its way through the suburbs and strip malls of south Anchorage, passing the junction of the airport line, before coming alongside Turnagain Arm at Potter. A flagstop is available at Girdwood (MP75) where the Mt. Alyeska Ski resort can be accessed, but otherwise the train runs nonstop to Seward, following Turnagain Arm as far as Portage. There it begins a climb through the Kenai Mountains, removed from the Seward Highway, with several tunnels, sharp curves, steep grades, and "the loop" where the tracks make almost a complete circle to gain elevation. It is rugged spectacular scenery, and several glaciers are visible from the train. About MP30 the train comes back down to sea level, and parallels the Seward Highway into the new station at Seward, at the end of track at MP1.6. The original Seward station at. MPO survived the 'quake and is still standing, but is used for other purposes.

We transferred to the shuttle bus from the Seward Windsong Lodge where we had a reservation. The Lodge is owned by the same company as the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge and is owned by native Alaskans who have become wealthy supplying quality tourist facilities at good value prices. Karen's nephew Jamie Thomas has been working there this summer. We left our baggage at the hotel, and reboarded the shuttle bus back to town, where we had lunch and walked out to see the HAL Statendam in port before boarding the MV Coastal Explorer for a tour of the Kenai Fjords National Park. This tour is also operated by the same company that runs the Lodge, and was an excellent tour where we saw whales, sea lions eagles, puffins and other wildlife, as well as close views of several glaciers. The glaciers calve icebergs into the ocean, and it was fascinating to sail into the area near Holgate Glacier, the ice covered sea without so much as a ripple and small bergs bumping against the hull of the boat. It was exactly the way survivors of the Titanic described the sea on that "night to remember." The glacier would creak and groan, as it does move slowly, and the ice shifts and breaks off. A cold, damp rain was falling which only added to the gloomy atmosphere and made photography easier when you didn't have to contend with the sun's glare. A salmon dinner was served, but Karen and Allen were not able to fully enjoy it due to a touch of mal de mer. On our way back we saw the Statendam getting under way.

The following day, June 16, we took a walking tour of Exit Glacier near the hotel, and Karen and Allen visited a place run by one of the racers who raises Iditarod sled dogs, while I went into town to take a walking tour, mail some film back to Kodak, and get more shots of the Coastal Classic, which had arrived with an unchanged consist. The P&O cruise ship Sun Princess had arrived and docked where the Statendam had been. At 46000 tons, the ship appeared to be about the same size as the Statendam. These ships are built for cruising, and are downright ugly as far as I'm concerned with private stateroom balconies and enclosed observation areas instead of open decks. That ship was only a little smaller than the United States (51000 tons) but was slightly bigger than famous transatlantic liners like the America and Ile de France. It gives some indication of the size of the Alaska cruise market that two ships of that size would be in port in as many days, with Royal Caribbean also operating a large ship. That's a lot of berths to fill. It may soon be that every traveler in the US will have visited Alaska. The state has almost lost the frontier atmosphere that I felt in 1970. Anchorage is virtually indistinguishable from any other large American city with shopping malls and fast food joints.

We boarded the Coastal Classic for the return to Anchorage departing at 1800. The ex- UP dome coach was being used by a Tauck Tours group, so we moved to the ex-UP coach, which still retained the UP reclining seats, albeit reupholstered. This Pullman Standard built car had been rebuilt to 60-seat capacity from its original 44 seats by removing the large washrooms, and adding appropriate windows in the proper places. The return trip was uneventful. We had brought some sandwiches from Subway, which were augmented by a few hot items from the snack car, so as to avoid the expense of eating in the diner. Due in at 2225, we were about a half hour early, and again made our way to the Comfort Inn for the third time.

With no train to catch the next morning, we were able to sleep in a little longer, but we checked out and took the hotel shuttle to the airport to pick up a rental car from Hertz. We found that car rental rates were one of the few "bargains" available in Alaska, about the same as in the lower 48. Our destination today was Homer, on the southwestern coast of the Kenai Peninsula. We followed the Seward Highway, which paralleled the railroad and Turnagain Arm as far as Portage. I had been hoping to catch up to the Glacier Discovery train, which left Anchorage at 1000, but it managed to keep ahead of us. At Portage, we drove in to view Portage Glacier, which has retreated quite a bit from when I saw it before. We got a few photos of the Glacier Discovery at Portage, and Karen and Allen wanted to drive through the Anton Anderson Tunnel to Whittier. In 2000, the former 2.5-mile railroad tunnel was paved to allow highway traffic to also pass through. A toll of $12 RT is charged, and traffic moves one way at a time on a set schedule, every 30 minutes. All traffic stops when the railroad uses the tunnel, which is also scheduled.

We explored Whittier a little, but there wasn't much to see. The abandoned concrete former Army buildings that were there in 1970 are still abandoned, although one was converted to apartment housing, where most of the town's residents live. We returned to Portage, where the Seward Highway turns away from the railroad to follow a course to the west. We later turned onto the Sterling highway which we followed through Kenai and on to Homer where we stayed in the Best Western for a couple of days. Homer is a major destination of fishermen who take charter boats out to catch Halibut, but has no history of railroading. It was a scenic drive, but I think I would prefer the Seward area.

On June 19 we drove back to Anchorage, chasing the Glacier Discovery train as it returned to Anchorage from Portage. The Coastal Classic was about an hour behind it. (All Alaska RR passenger trains are extras, and do not have train numbers). We stayed at the Longhouse Hotel that night to be near the airport, after eating an excellent dinner at the Japanese Sushi Garden Restaurant. No sushi, but there was enough left over to pack some for the plane trip home the next day.

In the morning we visited Earthquake Park near the airport which I remember in 1970 contained some dramatic examples of how the earth heaved and cracked in 1964, but which is now so grown up with big fir trees, you can hardly see it. We returned our car, and had a long wait for our plane, but a train was going to come into the airport rail station, so I waited outside for it to show up. It was a cruise special behind a GP40-2 with an ex-UP cafe car and 3 coaches. A second unit, a GP38, tied onto the rear of the train and pulled it back out about a half hour later, and where it was going I do not know, as it could have been either to Anchorage depot or Seward. We then boarded Alaska Airlines Flight 110, which was a non-stop direct flight to Portland.


© 2003 Tom Smith