Exploring the Last Frontier By Train & Ship

By Walter E. Zullig Jr.

Click here to go directly to the Alaska Railroad section.

Suzanne and I had been contemplating a trip to Alaska for some time. Earlier this summer we discussed it again after hearing from friends who recently had visited "The Last Frontier." Finally we said, "Let's go!" At that point I started an intensive research on the internet reviewing many possible routes. Naturally we wanted to ride as much of the Alaska Railroad as possible as well as to spend some time in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Denali National Park. We also wanted to stop in Skagway to ride the White Pass & Yukon RR and in Sitka to see the old Russian town and other points of interest.

One option we considered was VIA Rail to Prince Rupert. But when we finally located a ship we could use from there, the VIA one way fare from Toronto would have been CDN$3700, a little dear, eh? This sent me back to the drawing board. A check with Stan Barriger and Loring Lawrence at Ascutney Travel resulted in the suggestion of a cruise from Vancouver, BC to Seward with stops at Juneau, Sitka, Skagway and a few other locations. A cruise also would be a nice way to help celebrate our 40th anniversary which occurred at the end of May. But first came some checking on the Amtrak website and a call to their Guest Rewards office. The result was a roomette on the Lake Shore Ltd from Croton-Harmon to Chicago, a free Guest Rewards trip in a Deluxe Bedroom from there to Portland on the Empire Builder another free trip on the Talgo from Portland to Seattle and, finally a free trip on the Talgo from there to Vancouver. We would stay overnight in Seattle and head for Vancouver on the day of the sailing. Returning we purchased a Superliner roomette on #8 SEA-CHI and a small bedroom on #48 from there back to Croton-Harmon. The cruise and trips on the Alaska RR also were booked through Ascutney Travel.

The travel plans were more or less concluded early in July although we did some fine tuning after that. I also booked hotels in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Denali National Park. We got a little more excited about the trip as the day approached and finally August 22 arrived. We took Laddie, our dog, to the boarding kennel, packed and caught a cab to the Croton-Harmon station, 1.1 miles from our home. We usually travel light but due to the cold and possible rainy weather in Alaska and the cruise ship needs, we had one very large suitcase and a smaller one in addition to a heavy carry on bag for each. The large suitcase was packed so we could check it to Seattle once we reached Chicago and we would leave it at the Seattle station until we boarded the Vancouver train on Saturday morning.

The Lake Shore Limited-–CRT-CHI

The agent at Croton-Harmon used to be the file clerk in my office at Metro-North. He greeted us and advised that the train was 13 minutes late but it actually arrived closer to 20" down. Several Metro-North trains arrived and departed while we waited. It came in on Track 3 with Engine 703 pulling a baggage car, crew sleeper, 3 Viewliner sleepers, a diner, a (Amfleet II) lounge car and 5 Amfleet II coaches, one more car than the normal summer consist for this train. Although the coaches were sold out, there were a few sleeper rooms open. The car attendant hesitated at our big suitcase but I told him there was little choice as checked baggage is not handled at Croton. He finally agreed to put it in an empty room in another car.

We settled into our room and enjoyed the beautiful ride up the Hudson on this cloudless day. The ride was uneventful except that north of Rhinecliffe we crossed over from Track 1 to Track 2 to run past a long freight train standing on Track 1. I didn't see the engines so couldn't tell which way it was going. Around 5:45 a waitress from the diner came by to ask if we wanted dinner before or after Albany. We decided to go right away. The diner was directly behind our car so it was an easy walk. I had warned Suzanne about the new "diner light" service. The diner had an attractive appearance and the crew was friendly. The menu provided about five choices but the prices seemed very high for what you get. Naturally meals are included for the sleeping car passengers but I'd think many of the coach passengers would resist paying these prices. I had the seared catfish which was OK but a little dry and Suzanne had the baked chicken. Unfortunately, her baked potato had large black portions inside but mine was quite good. The only desserts were Mississippi Mudpie, NY Cheesecake and a fruit salad. No more apple pie and ice cream! I had the mudpie and Suzanne had the fruit. Both were good but not worth the individual prices charged for them. The plastic type dishes look nice and worked out OK. However, the overall scene is a definite downgrading from the former food service that generally was good to excellent. This is another example of what happens when Congress attempts to micro-manage Amtrak.

The train reached Albany just as we were finishing dinner. Here our P32 locomotive was replaced with two P40's elephant style, a great deal of baggage was loaded and eventually the passengers were allowed to board. Train 449 from Boston was sitting on the Easternmost track and soon #235 from New York arrived, discharging a large number of riders. And lo—what's this—a switch engine trundled along pulling 3 ExpressTrak cars to be added to the rear of our train. Although David Gunn thought he was getting rid of all mail and express traffic, ExpressTrak had gone bankrupt and their judge ordered Amtrak to continue honoring the contract.

Departure from Albany came 31 minutes late at 6:56pm. After the Schenectady stop we had some more nice scenery through the Mohawk Valley with a 4 minute delay at Hoffmans where the CSX freight line joins in. After a freight passed the Dispatcher promised to "let you run" and we moved along rapidly. Since we were getting tired, we had the attendant make up the room about 9pm. I adjourned to the lounge car while Suzanne went to bed. At this time I also walked through the entire train and noted the sleepers to be nearly full and that there were 5 coaches, not the usual consist of 4. They were quite full as well and I heard the conductors on the radio getting rates for selling sleeping car space to coach passengers. The two sleepers in front of our car had cards on each room with the passengers' names as well as points of travel. About 95% of them were going to Chicago with a very few to Toledo and South Bend. Our car had two attendants, one a trainee. He gave the better service but neither was too swift. When we boarded at CRT the older one said he couldn't find "2 passengers" on our travel agency issued ticket; I suggested he leave that problem to the conductor.

We were about an hour late by Utica where about 25 detrained and a like number boarded. There we used the recently constructed platform alongside Track 1, the normal "Westbound" track. This platform also is used by the Adirondack Scenic Railroad After that stop I returned to the room to retire for the night.

The train ran fast but neither of us slept that well. In the upper berth I had a sensation of a very rough ride in some locations, especially at interlockings. At one location the train seemed to jump up, something other passengers mentioned at breakfast. Also we sometimes had a rather violent lateral motion and I was glad the attendant had hooked up the safety net. Nevertheless I had slept through the stops at Rochester, Buffalo, Cleveland and Toledo. I awoke as we were nearing Bryan, OH, where we arrived at 7:48am (6:25). Shortly after the attendant knocked on the door to advise that breakfast was only served until 8:30 so we got dressed and headed for the diner.
Breakfast was a slow process, even with the pre-cooked meals now used. Suzanne had the Continental and I had a quiche. Our table companion was a man from North Adams, MA, who had boarded at Albany and was heading for Denver. He very much dislikes flying and mentioned that the morning paper had an article about an air crash in the Ukraine that killed 170 people. Many Eastbound freights passed while we were in the diner, including a Detroit Edison unit coal train with three BNSF units for power. The next one to pass had two UP units.

Although we had been only 1_ hours late, the train kept losing time. At South Bend the South Shore Line track at the now-exclusively Amtrak station was quite rusty so I assume little or no freight uses it. We ran parallel to the South Shore for part of the trip in this area but didn't see any of their trains. I did notice a new station for what appeared to be Ogden Dunes with a mini high level platform. A new housing development was under construction a short walk from that station. We raced through the former Union Station at Gary, now merely a shell with walls and empty space inside.

Nearer to Chicago we encountered quite a few freight trains, running in both directions. In all fairness to NS, at this point they did a good job of moving us along. But there were a few delays at junctions and our arrival at Chicago's Union Station was an hour, 45 minutes late at 10:45am. Our first item of business was to check the large bag thru to Seattle. That accomplished, we headed for the Metropolitan Lounge to drop the other bag while we did some walking around the city. Next we walked over to the new main Post Office on Harrison St. to mail a small package. This has replaced the large 2-block long building visible from the trains and involved a walk even once inside the building. Next to Citibank to pick up cash and then to RTA HQ on Jackson Blvd. for Suzanne to obtain her RTA/CTA half fare card. We also went upstairs with the hope of visiting a friend who works for RTA but he was in New Haven, CT, on vacation. Since time was running we returned to Union Station to relax in the Metropolitan Lounge on this rather warm day.

The Empire Builder

At 1:40 a boarding announcement was made and we joined the other passengers heading outside to our train. The rear car was the Minneapolis drop-off coach and our Portland sleeper was the very next car. Once inside we could see this train is something special. All the equipment had been rehabilitated with dark blue seats and simulated wood paneled walls. Everything was immaculate. Once upstairs our attendant, Paul, introduced himself and said he'd be back later with champagne. Excellent information announcements were made by the crew and we soon were underway with an on time departure. Paul soon came by with two bottles of champagne. I told him this is a great way to travel but I only wish they had nice glasses instead of the plastic now used. I recall a trip from Portland to Denver with Jack May several years ago when we were given beautiful glasses made for the Pioneer as take home souvenirs. Alas, both the Pioneer and the glasses are gone.

After Glenview we began to see grain elevators, a sure sign of the Midwest. And a short distance into Wisconsin we passed a large Wisconsin Electric Power Co. generating plant with about 100 coal hopper cars parked around it. Dining car reservations were taken as we traveled between Chicago and Milwaukee and we were looking forward to a real dinner with meals cooked on board. Since the Milwaukee arrival was early, it was designated a "smoking stop" so I got off to walk around. The station is concrete and is covered over with roadways so there isn't much to see or do there. Further on a large crowd boarded at Columbus, the stop for Madison. We adjourned to the sightseer lounge car to enjoy the scenery at Wisconsin Dells and other locations in farm country.

Our dinner reservations were for 6:45. Upon entering the diner the very attractive setup was apparent. Moreover, the staff was a close to excellent with five waitresses who were friendly and energetic and did everything possible to encourage people to use the diner. [For example, "We have 3 seats open at this seating; anyone who would like to have dinner come in now." I can't envision this happening on the Lake Shore Ltd.] Our table companions were a couple from Mankato, MN, who were heading to Minneapolis. They had traveled to Chicago from Cleveland on the Capitol Ltd. We discovered that we had some things in common: both have a child and family in the Cleveland area and both are interested in railroads. All had the steak which was excellent and I enjoyed vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce for dessert. Our friendly waitress mentioned that she has been with Amtrak for 28 years, having worked on the Sunset, Texas Eagle, California Zephyr and now the Builder.

The Minneapolis stop came 13 minutes late but the departure was 36 minutes down. I detrained to walk around and finish jotting down the train's consist. The station was quite full of people and, as on past trips, the conductors were checking in the passengers by destinations so as to get them seated in the proper cars. This is a time consuming process and I believe was the main reason for the 19 minute stop ending up as a 43 minute stop. While in the station a Minnesota Commercial RR switcher removed the last coach and placed it on another track. That was the CHI-MSP coach so our car now became the last one on the train affording an "observation car" view through the rear door window.

The train's consist was as follows: Engines 81 and 82, elephant style, pulling 1 baggage car, 1 crew transition sleeper, 2 sleepers for Seattle, a diner, 2 coaches for Seattle, a Sightseer lounge car, 2 coaches for Portland, a sleeper for Portland (our car) and the CHI-MSP coach. Upon reaching Spokane the Sightseer car and those behind it would be separated from #7 to continue to Portland as Train #27.

Suzanne was sleeping when I returned from the MSP station so I climbed upstairs and settled in for the night. I must have dropped off about 11:50 and awoke shortly after 7am when the conductor was announcing the Devils Lake, ND, stop. At that point we were about an hour late. Soon the dining car crew started making their announcements so it was time to get up and have breakfast.

The car attendant put my name on the waiting list but I still had a 15 minute wait as the diner was full. My breakfast, a delicious omelette, was well worth the wait. The conversations revealed several other passengers who were heading to Seattle or Vancouver to board cruise ships so perhaps we'll see some of them on other segments of the trip.

The Minot stop came during just as I was finishing breakfast. I detrained and picked up some maps in the station but didn't walk around too much as it was raining. I noted the bank of vending machines that provided "breakfast" on a previous trip when the diner had closed earlier than I had expected. No photos here due to the rain but I would get some at the afternoon servicing stop at Havre. That's in the "Big Sky Country" of Montana where the sun always shines. Rugby was the next station after Minot; Sinclair gas is still being sold here, now at $3.00 a gallon.

We had lunch about 11:45am, now in Montana and on Mountain Time. Suzanne had an excellent salad while I enjoyed a delicious pizza along with a small salad and finished off with vanilla ice cream. As before, the service was excellent. Our companions at the table were a young couple from Souix Falls, SD, who had boarded in Fargo, ND, at 3:24am. They were headed to Whitefish, MT, which is a very popular destination on this train. During lunch the train made its stop at Wolf Point, MT, where a large crowd was waiting to board. Yes, this train is far more than service to the end points of Chicago and Portland or Seattle. There are countless "ons and offs" at the many stations along the way and the residents of these communities are dependant on the Builder for their transportation needs. For great distances we ran parallel to Montana Highway #2 which I recalled from previous trips. Every 5 minutes or so we might pass a pickup truck—no traffic jams out here!

Havre, MT, the next big stop came nearly an hour late at 3:18. Westbound trains first make a stop East of the depot to refuel the locomotives; upon conclusion the train proceeded to make its station stop of about 15 minutes duration. Some smoked while others took photos. Back on board I was working on the computer when the conductor announced the Shelby stop. That seemed much earlier than it should have been—indeed some recovery time has been built into the schedule and we waited at Shelby for 15 minutes. Radio talk indicated that we were going to back out so I went to the rear of the car where a conductor gave the back up instructions to the engineer. It was only about a half mile to enable us to cross over to the next track and run around a freight train. Two other passengers from our car appeared to have an interest in the proceedings and joined me in talking trains at the rear door for the next half hour. While looking out the back I snapped photos of two other freights we overtook. BNSF dispatchers really did a good job of keeping #7 moving along by passing and overtaking quite a few freights.

We again had selected the 6:45 dinner seating. Upon hearing the announcement by Jeanette, our outgoing hostess, we entered the car and were seated with two sisters heading for Portland. One of them does a lot of traveling with her husband who had dropped her at South Bend to catch Amtrak to Chicago. She had considered flying that leg but the airline wanted $258 for the flight. She paid about $17 on Amtrak and I mentioned the possibility of the South Shore Line with more frequent service and a lower fare. Suzanne and I again had the NY Strip steak which was excellent and would be our final meal with the marvelous crew in this diner. Since that car goes to Seattle, we would have what the timetable describes as "cold meal service" for breakfast in the lower level of the lounge car.

We turned in early and slept well. About 6am I awoke to realize that the train was twisting and turning as we ran through the Columbia River gorge. Indeed, washing and dressing was more complicated than usual because the train was constantly turning in different directions. At one point the train lurched violently while I was standing in the bathroom. Even though locked, the door didn't hold my weight and I crashed through falling over the chair in the bedroom. The aches from this continued for about 10 days during the trip.

After Spokane our Train 27 had shrunk to a mini-streamliner of but four cars. Once up and around I headed to the rear door to view the sunrise over the river and the railroad tracks. Several UP freights passed on the other side of the river and BNSF trains were waiting in sidings for our train to pass. Advised by our car attendant that "Some people really like the cold breakfast," we walked three cars forward to the "Observatory Car," as the friendly attendant there called it in his announcements. There was a line downstairs as this now was the only food service car on the train. Ahead of me was a young Amish fellow from the Toronto area. He had taken the Blue Water from Port Huron to CHI, thence #7 to Shelby, MT, where he had spent a few days before boarding our train for Portland. There he would change to the Coast Starlight en route to Martinez, CA.

Once I reached the head of the line the attendant had me sign a "sleeping car meal sheet" and gave me two packages as well as two coffees. Suzanne already had claimed a table downstairs and we ate our breakfasts there. Despite stories to the contrary, the meals were not bad. The package had a ham & cheese sandwich on a bagel, cup of yogurt, small fruit salad and a small cake. While we were eating, the conductor announced the Wishram stop and added that we were nearly on time and should reach Portland a few minutes early. Yes, this is a well run train due in no small part to the efforts of BNSF to keep it on schedule. Since the few tables were needed by others, when finished eating we moved back upstairs to view the magnificent scenery along the Columbia River.

The train moved along at good speed with numerous freights waiting in sidings. After viewing some more scenery, we soon pulled into Vancouver, WA, followed by crossing the wide Columbia and entry to Portland Union Station. Portland is a very nice city and I noticed quite a few new medium rise apartment houses a short distance north of the station. Some of those folks will have a great view from their balconies. Our arrival was at 9:51 (10:25). After saying goodby to Paul and rewarding him for his excellent service, we went inside the station and entered the Metropolitan Lounge. The one in Portland is one of the nicest in the Amtrak system and was built outside the walls of the original building, on the wide station platform. Our next train would be a Cascade, departing for Seattle at 12:15pm.

Although it was a beautiful day, we didn't ride the light rail line. While heading west we had decided to attempt to obtain a big (a/k/a "Deluxe") bedroom for the return trip out of Seattle on #8. I visited the ticket office and accomplished the change with the help of two agents and Amtrak's coffers were somewhat enriched as a result. We then read the paper and attempted to go online but the station had no internet connection and the two phone lines provided for this purpose didn't work. Soon we were told a line was forming for Train 506 to Seattle. Indeed, the line extended from the train gate through the station and almost out to the street! Two conductors were collecting the tickets and issuing seat checks with car and seat numbers. Ours were in Car 8, the next to the last car on the train.

Portland to Seattle Cascade Talgo Train

August 25th was my birthday and I had looked forward to spending four hours of it on the Cascade Talgo followed by a nice dinner in Seattle. Boarding started about noon and we highballed out exactly on time at 12:15. The ride was fast and smooth but we somehow lost time. North of Portland there were many freight trains but they didn't seem to delay us. An announcement was made for the Bistro car in the center of the train so we headed for it. WOW—another long line stretching well into the next car that was equipped with tables. Suzanne took a table seat while I waited on line for about 15 minutes. They had hot dogs and cheeseburgers but why have Northeast Corridor food when you can enjoy local specialties? I had a salad and Suzanne had a "special" sandwich. Unlike the California trains, the cash registers aren't equipped with credit card readers so the cashier had to make up a form on an old fashioned manual machine.

Just as we were sitting down for lunch the conductor made a long announcement that a freight train had derailed around Tacoma. He promised an update but said that "as of now" the plan is to hold the train at Centralia to await developments. Later he mentioned that a Greyhound bus departs there (about a mile from the station) at 3:30 and even advised the fares to Tacoma and Seattle. At this point quite a few detrained with luggage, etc., while others were shouting into cellphones in an attempt to get friends to pick them up. Finally, the word came that we would proceed to Olympia where cabs might be available. Once there, anyone having checked baggage was invited to come back to the baggage car to pick up their items. From there we headed north to a siding at Titlow where we would wait and see. At least half the passengers detrained at Olympia; when we pulled out there was one taxi sitting there and a line of about 75 people waiting.

We reached the Titlow Siding at 3:25 and pulled in alongside a northbound BNSF double stack train. It looked huge from our low Talgo train. I turned my radio on but heard nothing until about 4:45 when the Dispatcher advised "Well, they've got the Business Class car back on and now they're working on the power car." So, the derailment was not a freight but, rather, southbound Cascade Talgo train #513 which was due out of Tacoma at 12:05pm. During the wait several "smoke breaks" were held in the baggage car at the rear of the train. Later on a "fresh air break" was announced. About 20 people headed for the baggage car where the side doors had been opened. The man in charge of all of this was the Operations Manager for the Cascade service. He explained some of the things they are doing to attract customers and mentioned that several other Talgo cars had been damaged by a recent derailment. Actually the re-railing process with a crane is what did the damage. So they're now a little short of equipment—not a good situation with sold out trains.

Eventually I started hearing radio chatter about trains being moved and we started at 6:35. Although there were many freight trains in the area, we received priority and made good time once underway. The train that had derailed was sitting in the Tacoma station so those headed for that city had to continue on to Seattle and use taxis provided by Amtrak. We reached Seattle's King St. Station at 7:56, 4 hours and one minute late. Overall, though, the trip was a good experience because of the comfortable equipment and the friendly, helpful personnel.

Because of the late arrival we had to scrap some things we had wanted to do in Seattle and took a cab directly to our Marriott hotel overlooking Lake Union. My birthday dinner was at a nearby Outback.

Seattle-Vancouver Talgo Train

August 26, 2006 required an early start as we needed to get to King St. Station in time to claim our large suitcase that had been checked from CHI and check it and our smaller bag on to Vancouver, BC. This was handled efficiently by the baggage room staff who had large amounts of luggage to deal with. We then joined the check in line for our train. As in Portland, the conductors took our tickets in the station and issued seat checks with car and seat number. Although I dislike waiting in lines, it moved fast and I must admit this is a very civilized way of boarding a train since it omits the mad scramble to find seats. The ability to check baggage also helps and was used by many riders. Naturally another way to do this on reserved trains would be to have the tickets preprinted with car and seat numbers but this hasn't been done for many years. The station check in solves the "no show" problem.

Once again, the train was clean and made an attractive appearance. We boarded at the door for our car and found our seats in short order. Departure came at 7:39 which is a minute early but permitted as all passengers are required to be on board by 7:35. Shortly after departure an announcement was made that the train had both Bistro and dining cars and that the diner now was open. The crew also announced that the empty seats in two of the cars would be filled at the next two stops "so please don't move into them." As was yesterdays train, this one was sold out. We headed for the diner which was full so we added our names to the wait list. About 40 minutes later we were called over the PA system. The diner made an elegant appearance with linen tablecloths and a very attractive setting. We both enjoyed breakfast as the train ran along Puget Sound on a beautiful, clear day. The Bistro was run by one attendant and the diner by another who was quite busy clearing tables, taking orders, running the microwave and serving. A service manager also was on board and he helped with the reservations as well as assisting passengers with luggage and making some very upbeat announcements. If only we could have something like this in the Northeast Corridor!

After breakfast we returned to our seats to enjoy the scenic ride. I noted a new glass station at Everett and a new brick one at Mt. Vernon. Bellingham also had a modern brick station about a mile south of the old one which is still standing. Following the Bellingham stop, the manager passed through the train with Canadian Customs forms. We also were told that the checked baggage at Vancouver gets picked up on the platform by the baggage car as we must proceed through Customs with our own luggage.

As soon as the train reached the International Boundary at the affluent town of White Rock, BC, the ride became noticeably rougher as we entered jointed rail. At a few locations the train swayed from side to side and ran somewhat slowly. The ride quality changed from good to bad and back to good as we moved along. My conclusion is that the Talgos don't ride well on bad track. After a few stops for hand thrown switches near the Vancouver station we arrived there at 11:32 (11:40). Nice trip—no complaints! Many cars from VIA's Canadian, including the "Wolfe Manor" were parked on various station tracks.

A cage has been constructed around the track used by the international trains to ensure that everyone enters through Canada Customs. The cars are unloaded one at a time to prevent a long line. We gathered our two checked suitcases and got through Customs in short order. I told them this would be our shortest trip to Canada which it was.

GVS Summit

We had a brief snack at the Pacific International (former CN) station and got a cab to the pier. Our ship didn't use the new pier near the former CP station but an older one in an industrial area. We reached the pier shortly after 1pm. There we began to deal with a very well organized system of checking in, passing through security as well as US Immigration and getting on board. The security was incredibly excellent but also about the most courteous I've seen anywhere. Then, when finally aboard the vessel, a white gloved attendant took our carry on bags and escorted us to our stateroom on Deck 8 while another handed us glasses of champagne as we walked along. A nice welcome and indications of a first class operation!

As we were getting settled in, our attendant came by, introduced himself and explained the features and procedures. A buffet lunch was being served so there had been no need for the snack in the station. We unpacked, explored the ship and soon it was time for dinner. And what a dinner it was! Each night a full dinner of at least 5 courses was served and it was difficult to resist as everything was excellent. We generally ate breakfast in another restaurant or in our room and lunch in several other locations and had one dinner in the buffet when the next day would be an early start. Both of us had trouble getting to sleep after a few of those huge meals.

A lifeboat drill was conducted at 5:30 and shortly thereafter we were underway. The departure was so smooth we didn't even realize the ship was moving. The following day, Sunday, August 27, was a full day at sea. The only exercise I got was walking around one of the decks a few times each of which equated to 5/8 mile.

Our ship reached Juneau, the first port, at 11:30 on Monday, Aug. 28. A Holland America Line ship also was there and three other ships arrived later on. I had thought the place would be crawling with people but many of them were involved in different planned activities and the sidewalks were less crowded than in many towns. The big attraction here is the Mt. Roberts cable railway that leaves from the cruise ship terminal and travels 1800 feet to the top where there are a gift shop, restaurant, information center, trails and some great views. Later we explored the city which was one of the first cities in Alaska and the most populated during the Gold Rush. Originally named "Harrisburg," the city later was named after Joseph Juneau, one of the early settlers. One surprise was the state Capitol Building which has no dome but appears to be an office building with some high pillars at the entrance. More recently the city has lost much activity except for the state government and tourism. Juneau is one of many Alaska communities that can be accessed only by ship or air.

We also stopped in the public library so I could access my email. There were 242 messages, most of which were deleted. I read the important ones and replied to some of them.

There have been several referendums to relocate the Capitol to more populated parts of the state but these have failed to primarily to the high costs of such a move. The city has a bus transit system, Capital Transit. I picked up a few timetables and saw a few of their buses.

We returned to the ship about 6pm and had an early dinner because Tuesday would entail a 7am arrival in Skagway and we wanted to catch the White Pass & Yukon's 8:15am train from their depot, about a half mile from the pier. We could have purchased tickets on the ship to board the train at the pier but this would have cost about $45 more for each person, partly due to the 15% discount the railroad grants to NRHS members.

White Pass & Yukon RR

Our ship called at Skagway on a Tuesday. Unfortunately, WP&Y only runs their longer route on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays so we would have to settle for the shorter trip to Summit. I had called the WP&Y's ticket office a week earlier and was told that plenty of seats would be available on the regular train leaving at 8:15 am and that I could visit the Shops if I so desired. We disembarked from the ship about 7:45 as we would have to walk about a half mile to the station. A total of four ships were docked at three different piers, each served by a different railroad spur from which trains were being operated. A long train was loading at the station but the conductor told me this was an extra and the regular train was the three engines and two coaches spotted two tracks over. Suzanne boarded as I was buying the tickets.

At departure time our train backed to couple on to a string of about 6 cars parked at one of the piers. After a brake test we set off, following rather closely behind the earlier extra train. The normal announcements included advice that passengers cannot pass between cars but are welcome to take pictures from the open platforms at each end. Hearing that, I headed for the platform to get some photos as we passed the WP&Y's Shops, about 2 miles from Skagway.

The ride from Skagway to Summit on WP&Y certainly is one of the most spectacular in North America. The route starts at sea level and rises to 2,865 at Summit, 20.4 miles away. As the train heads north the Skagway River first is alongside but later far below. There are numerous horseshoe curves, high bridges and two tunnels which provided good photo ops. Best of all, the sun even came out. When I had called the WP&Y a week earlier I was told the weather was "rainy and windy." The people in town mentioned this had been one of their best days all season so we really lucked out with a beautiful day to view the magnificent scenery.

Shortly before Summit we passed the US-Canadian Boundary although there was no Customs check since nobody could detrain at Summit. Here there was a siding with a spring switch at each end. We waited at the North end for a southbound train, followed by another. These were the earlier departures from Skagway which had continued just far enough up the line to make room for the engine runaround. After those had passed, our three shovel faced diesel locomotives ran around the train, brakes were tested and we headed south. Our schedule:

Lv. Skagway 8:26 (8:15)
Ar. Summit 10:01
Lv. Summit 10:11
Denver 11:09 --MP5.8
Shops 11:23/11:29 –Steam engine #73 substituted
Ar. Skagway 11:35

The addition of the Mikado steam locomotive was a real surprise. This was done as an extra bonus for those interested in getting photos. The engine did some switching at the station and would later depart on a 12:40 train to Summit, operating only as far as Shops. After a game of golf many adjourn to the 19th hole; we adjourned to the station gift shop to view their offerings and obtain some items. Suzanne then sat in the depot while I photographed the Mikado backing up to a pier and then proceeding out of town with a long train. About 10 minutes after our arrival I noticed a train from Fraser, BC, with a US Immigration officer at a counter on the platform. It later departed for a "one way trip to Fraser." When I asked about this I was told it is sold only to cruise ship passengers in conjunction with something else like a rafting trip or bus tour. Later I noticed this in our cruise brochure, selling at $195 per person; we had paid about $162 for the two of us.

I also got chatting with some of the station employees and conductors who were most friendly people. One woman at the station did an amazing job of announcing different trains while walking around and directing passengers to the platforms. The operations intrigued me with trains originating on various spurs, coupling cars, and departing about 10 minutes apart. I was told it's done with track warrants monitored by a dispatcher in the station building. We were pleased that the day was so beautiful and that so many trains were operating. And I've got the pictures to prove it!

When finished we explored downtown Skagway which, of course, was a boomtown during the Gold Rush when the railroad was rushed to completion in 1900. The railroad had operated up the principal business street but was relocated around 1916. Despite seemingly insurmountable odds, the line was finished ahead of schedule and below budget. As in Durango, CO, and similar towns, many stories are told about the "Wild West" days. Year round population is under 800.

We reboarded our ship about 5pm so as to rest a little before dinner. Departure from Skagway was at 8pm. Unlike Juneau or Sitka, Skagway can be accessed from the outside world by land. To reach the "Lower 48," however, entails a drive North to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, thence a very long drive through Western Canada.


The ship reached the harbor outside Sitka about 8:30 while we were having breakfast (yes, eating again). There is no dock for large ships here so we went ashore by "tender," arriving there about 10:15. We found the "Tribal Tours" loop bus stop and purchased day tickets for $10 each. We first rode to the end of the line to visit the Raptor Rehabilitation Center, later went back downtown, and still later to the US Parks Service history museum where many totem poles are found.

One of the main points of interest is the Russian Orthodox church which was destroyed in a downtown fire in 1989 and rebuilt exactly as it had been. The Russians came in 1799, gradually taking control from the native Tlingits and then selling to the USA in 1867. Some Tlingits wondered how the Russians could sell what they never had purchased but nobody worried about such niceties in those days. Late in the afternoon we returned to the ship via tender; the "big ship" departed at 6pm, exactly as scheduled. Sitka is on an island having only about 16 miles of roads. The only access in or out is by ship or plane. As we departed I noted some rather large houses on some very small islands in the harbor; I wonder what those folks do in the winter?


The following morning, August 31, we found ourselves anchored outside of Icy Point Strait, near the town of Hoona, having a metropolitan area population of about 1400. As at Sitka, there is no deepwater port so small "tender" boats are used to transport the passengers to shore. The temperature was about 55E and it was drizzling. Some of the whale watching and other trips were cancelled but we had not planned on going on any of them. At the dock was an old salmon cannery, now restored and containing much of the equipment used to process and "can" salmon. This place shut down some years ago because it used too much scarce water to process the salmon but the buildings now have been restored. Naturally in addition to the numerous tours offered, there were numerous shops to be patronized by the passengers. There also was a bus service operating into the village at $5 round trip but I didn't ride it.

Back on GVS Summit

Suzanne didn't join me on the trip to shore as she wanted to rest. When I returned about 2:30 there was a note that she had gone to one of the restaurants. I then joined her there for a light lunch if such a thing is possible on this ship. We departed Icy Strait Point at 5pm. Thursday evening was the Captain's Dinner, regarded as formal but a suit and tie would suffice. We were told in advance that the chef would have some gastronomical delights for us and indeed he did. The best choices were lobster tail and prime rib and I sampled a little too much of each. The sixth course was baked Alaska brought in by the waiters to the accompaniment of the band.

We really lucked out with this ship. Everything--especially the service and food—was outstanding! To a person the crew was helpful and friendly. Their enthusiasm rubbed off on the passengers who gradually became more friendly and polite toward each other. As expected, movies and shows were presented. We attended five of the shows and they were very professionally done with good actors, actresses and dancers. There also was a unit from the Cirque Du Soleil. On the last night the Cruise (Entertainment) Director advised that this ship has been designated by Conde Nast as one of the very top ships on the seas and as #1 for friendliness and helpfulness of the crews. The organization of the crew also was impressive. When something was to start at 10:30, that's when it started. Moreover, the service was such that whenever we left the stateroom even for a short while, someone had entered and straightened up, changed towels or whatever, during the absence. So what we originally had selected primarily for transportation from Vancouver to Seward turned out to be a vacation in and of itself. According to a builder's plate, the ship was built by Alstom in 2001. They build both good railroad cars and ships. We both gave the ship and crew "excellent" ratings. The only draw back was that since we were not experienced cruise passengers we had not thought of the dinner seating selection until our papers arrived with "Second Seating" indicated. This was at 8:30pm, a little too late for us but we managed.

Friday, September 1 was a full day at sea. In the morning we ran very close to the Hubbard Glacier where the ship slowly turned 360E so everyone could get a good view. Since it was raining, we photographed it from Deck 10 which was enclosed but had large openable windows. We then had breakfast as the ship slowly turned around. During breakfast Suzanne spilled a little coffee on to her saucer and a waiter immediately appeared with a replacement saucer. And this was in the buffet, not the more formal restaurant! The sun came out at noon and the remainder of the day was beautiful. At mid-morning a "disembarkation meeting" was held in the theater to introduce more of the crew and review the procedures for about 2300 passengers to leave the ship at Seward. The process was different depending on what you were doing after that. Since we were taking the chartered Alaska RR train to Anchorage, we later found a package in our stateroom explaining where to meet and providing the appropriate tags for our luggage. At dinner we said goodby to our table companions and proceeded to turn in because of the necessary early rise the following day.

Alaska RR–Seward to Anchorage

We had set the alarm for 4:35am on Saturday, Sept. 2nd because we needed to meet at a certain location at 5:55am. We managed to get up early enough to enjoy another breakfast and reached the disembarkation point by the appointed hour. Soon we were off the ship on an open pier. Employees directed us under a canopy for a very short walk to the modern Alaska RR station where our tickets were checked and we were given boarding passes with seat assignments. The train started at the very end of the ARR and consisted of two GP40-2 units pulling a TikiBar car, two former UP coaches, a former Amtrak dome car, two new coaches built by Daewoo in Korea, a high level lounge car and an F40 bringing up the rear. The F40 was up against the "end of track" bumper block. I later learned that it's a former Amtrak F40, now rebuilt into a cab control and power car. ARR has two of them and they no longer call them F40's.

Since it was dark and raining, I didn't attempt any photos. I had been told that the train would depart at 9:30 which was incorrect. The conductor advised "We'll go as soon as everyone's on board" and that's what happened. The train started moving at 6:47am; since it was dark we both dropped off to sleep for about an hour. Schedule:

Lv. Seward 6:47am
Ps. Moose Pass 7:52
Ps. Grandview 8:23
Spencer 9:01/9:10 –Meet southbound Seward train
Ps. Whittier Jct. 9:28
Jct. Airport Spur 10:48/10:54
Ar. Anchorage 11:15 –Airport Station

This ride was wonderfully scenic with mountains, glaciers, rivers, tunnels, and later the Turnaround Arm and the Cook Inlet were alongside. The rain let up from time to time. Before Spencer the conductor mentioned that we would be meeting the regular Anchorage to Seward train; we took the siding and shortly thereafter the train passed. Once the rain stopped photos from the Dutch doors were no problem as they were left half open most of the time. The operation was single track with track warrants until about 10 miles out of Anchorage where CTC territory started. The big surprise was the former Florida FunTrain "TikiBar" car up front. The crew members were interested to hear about the Florida operation. The rear car was a mystery and I suspect was a rebuild of a former SP "Commute" coach from San Francisco.

The Consist: Engines 3009 & 3015
Cars: ___ ex. UP coach
201 ex. UP coach
___ ex. Amtrak, ex ? dome/coach/lounge car
209 new Daewoo coach
210 new Daewoo coach
452 two level bar/lounge car
Engine 32 –F40 rebuild into cab/power car

A few miles south of Anchorage we stopped at the junction with the branch leading to the airport. The engineer walked to the rear end to control the train from the "F40" and we then "backed" up the branch and into the Airport station. Here was another surprise: The station was two tracks on a concrete elevated structure with an island high level platform. Just looking at it and forgetting the location, it could be a LIRR station along the Montauk Branch. We walked into the terminal, retrieved our luggage that had been delivered by truck, and called our hotel for a pickup. As we were pulling out in the hotel's courtesy van I noted the new line had entailed a rather expensive construction job with a high fill and several overhead bridges. I wonder if it was built with the idea of commuter train service from the airport to downtown Anchorage? The train was still sitting in the station when we departed so I assume it had been chartered by Celebrity Cruises for a return trip to Seward with passengers for this evening's departure of the Summit, the last for this season.


After checking in we walked over to the Alaska History Museum, a few block away, which had a current exhibit on the history of the Alaska Railroad. The Museum also contains much interesting material about the settlement of Alaska. While we were inside the sun came out and was shining brightly at 7:40 when I had thought of walking to the station to photograph the southbound Denali Star. However, I thought the better of doing that as a steep hill is involved and we were getting quite tired.

The following day, September 3, we explored Anchorage. The downtown is small and one can easily cover it on foot. There are only a few high rise buildings downtown. Although the City's population is about 275,000, it covers a huge geographic area. The site was settled by workers constructing the Alaska RR. Several names were used for parts of the settlement. Later the citizens wanted to name their city "Alaska City" but the Post Office already had adopted "Anchorage" and refused to change it. We did an hour's tour in a fake trolley and rode a free fake trolley shuttle around downtown.

In the evening I walked down the very steep hill to the railroad station to photograph the arriving train from Fairbanks. It pulled in at 8pm, exactly on time behind two SD70MAC 70 diesel locomotives built by EMD in 2004. The first seven cars were Alaska RR cars. These were a baggage car, Goldstar service car, Diner, Daewoo built coach, two coach dome cars and a former UP coach. Behind these were nine bilevel cars lettered for Mt. McKinley Explorer and other tour operators. When the train stopped it was blocking a crossing but the "Alaska RR" section soon was uncoupled and pulled further down. The tour cars were left north of the crossing at a gravel parking area where a large number of buses were staged. Those riders detrained here and most of them boarded the buses. I then walked up the steep hill to return to the hotel. There is a "loop bus" serving the area but it doesn't run on weekends. Likewise, there is a transit network called "People Mover" but no route serves the railroad station and weekend service is spotty. On Labor Day the entire system was shut down!

On Labor Day we did some more sightseeing around Anchorage. This was an extra day as we had not realized we would arrive so early on Saturday morning and we also had provided time for a possible train trip to Whittier. We decided against the Whittier trip as the only new mileage would be the 12.4 miles from the mainline at Whittier Jct. While the ride through the rail-road tunnels would be unusual, we didn't want to spend most of a day at Whittier.

Alaska RR–Anchorage to Fairbanks

Tuesday, Sept. 5th was our day to ride the Alaska Railroad the 356 miles from Anchorage to Fairbanks. The timing was good as the "off season" fares became effective that day. The "season" as such actually ends about Sept. 15th when most of the tourist attractions, including Denali National Park's lodges, close and the Delali Star is replaced with a 2-car Budd car train running twice a week. Since the railroad asks riders to arrive at the depot an hour before train time, the hotel's van departed at 6:45am and delivered us and 7 others there about 6:55. Quite a few people already were on hand and plenty of baggage was being checked. AAR loads the checked baggage into containers that are placed in the baggage car with forklift trucks. Each destination has its own container(s) and they also are removed by forklift.

The ARR process is to check in at the ticket office where you show photo ID and obtain a boarding pass with car and seat numbers. After checking our two suitcases we obtained the boarding cards for two seats in Car C, a former UPRR half dome car. The station was filling up but the train wasn't yet in sight. About 7:40 the train backed down from the yards on a parallel track about 200 feet away. I went outside to the south side of the depot to photograph the train's arrival. Boarding commenced shortly thereafter. The consist was two SD70MAC 4000 hp diesels, a baggage car, GoldStar Service bilevel car, diner, a Daewoo coach, two half dome coaches and a former UP coach. That was the Alaska RR portion of the train. Behind that were ten tour company bilevel cars from Holland American, McKinley Explorer, Celebrity Cruises and others.

Departure came 3 minutes late and we proceeded north through AAR CTC territory at good speed. It's really impossible to describe the scenery—one must experience it. Suffice to say there was a never ending vista of mountains, streams, curves and various trees. In addition to the train crew, young guides were on board to describe points of interest along the way. These are high school and college students who travel only to wherever the north and southbound trains meet so they can change over to the other train and be home at night. Passengers were invited into the diner for breakfast one car at a time. Our turn came about 9:15 and we each enjoyed an "Alaska size" breakfast served by an energetic young waiter who hails from New Haven, CT, came to Alaska for a few summers and now has decided to stay. The crew consisted of a chef, kitchen helper and two waiters. China plates were used and both food and service were excellent. The diner was a stainless steel car and the lettering "Montana Star" was visible on the letterboard. The conductor said this was the first season for this car and had no idea as to its prior origin.

The conductor's office was located under one of the domes. After leaving CTC territory the conductor and his assistant often were busy copying and repeating track warrants. In the other dome car, the area under the dome contained a railroad gift shop which offered a 20% end of season discount.

We alternated between our seats and the dome. The conductor hung out there on occasion and was quite friendly. At one point a passenger offered to let him proceed first and he said, "No, you're the guest and I'm a freeloader." We made but three stops along the way. The first, at the original ARR station at Wasilla, was to pick up about 10 passengers. At 10:58 we reached Talkeetna, a resort area where some detrained from the ARR section and there was a big turnover in the tour cars. I headed for a vestibule before reaching Hurricane (MP 281.4) as I suspected the two RDC's used on the Hurricane Turn local train would be there and I also wanted to photograph the 296 foot high bridge at Hurricane Gulch. The Budd cars were there and I also got a good photo of the train on the bridge. It was completed in 1921 and was the final link in the Alaska Railroad.

We pulled into a siding at Oliver to meet a southbound freight, consisting mostly of tank cars. It arrived only a few minutes after we entered the siding so there was little delay. Next was Denali Park at 3:44 where there was a big turnover on both sections of the train. We remained there for 28 minutes while the diner and GoldClass cars were watered, baggage handled and passengers boarded. The rustic station there has shelters along the platform with boarding passengers waiting in the area where their cars would be spotted. Very well done.

The scene changed dramatically after Denali. For quite some distance we were running along a ledge above the Nenana River Canyon. First the Denali Lodge buildings could be spotted and later there were mountain and river vistas as the train twisted and curved along the canyon. After passing Nenana (MP 411.7), the train entered a long curve to gain altitude for crossing Tenana River on the 702 foot long Mears Memorial Bridge and its long approach trestle. This facility was completed by the American Bridge Company in February 1923. Prior to completion, the trains ran on temporary tracks on the ice in the winter and were ferried across the river in warmer weather. Further north the leaves on the trees gradually grew more colorful and the landscape flattened out. Our Denali Star pulled into the large, new Fairbanks depot four minutes late at 8:04pm.


Since we had to await the baggage, we were in the second trip by our hotel's van; the first was for the train crew and anyone else without much luggage. The baggage containers were unloaded expeditiously but for some reason our bags were the last to emerge. The hotel was just south of downtown, although there really isn't much of a "downtown" in Fairbanks. I had asked the city tourist guide at the station about a local bus service and she discouraged me saying, "It's very hard to use." She obviously didn't know me very well.

We slept a little late the following morning but wanted to explore downtown Fairbanks and visit the Museum of the North, located on the campus of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. The hotel only had a schedule for a bus route that served the area very sporadically. After selecting a bus I asked a desk clerk where it stops as we couldn't find any marked bus stop signs. She gave us the wrong information, telling us to wait across the street for a route that would make a big loop before getting downtown. Luckily we spotted a man with a long gray beard (lots of men in Alaska have them) standing on a corner as if awaiting a bus. He was waiting for the one we had been told not to take and explained the system. The vehicle came along as scheduled and we paid our 0.75 senior fares and obtained transfers. This took us downtown to a transit center with a small attended waiting room. I walked a few blocks to the Post Office and returned in time for the 11:15 Red Line bus to the University, a ride of about 25 minutes. When we boarded we asked the driver to let us off at the Museum and another couple had asked for a different location. Even though the bus changed drivers, the new one knew where each of us wanted to go. This was a world class museum, very recently expanded, and well worth the visit.

Alaska RR–Fairbanks to Denali

Departure from Fairbanks came the following day, Thursday September 7th. One of the desk clerks told us to take their van at 7:30—the same one that transports the train crew. But in the morning the staff said this was much too late. However we found the conductor in the lobby and he was quite relaxed about it. "Everyone else will be on the train so they'll only have your items to deal with." Indeed everyone was on the train so the agents quickly issued our boarding passes and took our luggage to be checked directly to our room at the Denali Princess Lodge. What service!

The consist was identical to the train we had taken north two days earlier, including the origin of the cars, except for the diner. The Fairbanks station is a large new facility outside of downtown. When we boarded the train was pointed in the same direction as when it had arrived in the evening. Departure came at 8:18 and we first slowly traversed a loop around the large yards to head west, and later south. We followed this schedule:

Lv. FAIRBANKS 8:18am (8:15)
Ps. Manley 9:58 –brief stop to line a switch
Clear Site 10:45/10:58 –Meet Northbound tank train
Healy 11:48 --Brief stop for employees
Ar. Denali 12:29 (12:15)

Denali Park

Here quite a few detrained, including what seemed to be a multitude from the tour cars on the rear of the train. We boarded one of the coach buses headed to the Princess Lodge; only one other couple on the bus had come in the ARR section of the train. All the other passengers were instructed to open their white packets to receive their room and tour assignments. Somehow we survived without a white packet! Since the arrival was before 3pm, the rooms were not yet ready. We checked our hand luggage and took a shuttle bus to the NPS Visitors Center where, after watching the good 18 minute movie, we boarded a free shuttle for a 15 mile trip into the park. Upon return we returned to the Lodge, picked up our room keys and found our luggage in the room. We had dinner in their nearby Summit Restaurant that afforded a good view of the river and mountains. We wonder if they realize it has the same name as our cruise ship, operated by a competitor?

The Lodge is a campus consisting of a main building and numerous other "log cabin" structures. Our room was on the ground floor of a 2 story structure a short distance from the main building. The Parks Highway passes in front of the complex and numerous independent shops are located there, again log cabin style construction. Everything closes about September 30th or sooner. The facilities and service here were close to excellent as they should be considering the price paid.

Friday, Sept. 8th was our full day to explore Denali Park. We had decided to take a National Park Service bus trip up to Milepost 64 which would take about 8 hours round trip. There are two types of tours into the Park. The first are called "NPS Shuttles" and use green school buses built by Thomas. The second use brown school buses and are much more expensive, actually $100 more than what we paid. In addition to the cost saving, the advantage of the NPS tours is that one can get on and off at various points along the way and board a later bus. The brown bus tours give you food and beverages along the way and pickup at the lodges.

We started by crossing the road to the Subway establishment to have breakfast and purchase Subs for the trip. As at some other establishments in the area, the employees were Russian kids and I had difficulty understanding the heavily accented English. We then took the hotel's shuttle to the boarding station for the NPS tours. Now it's interesting to note that the hotel people make no mention of the much cheaper NPS tours. In fact when someone asked a hotel bus driver about the "green buses," he replied "They're mostly for people going camping and hiking in the wilderness." No mention was made that one can cover the same ground for 1/5 the price on the green buses.

To continue, our vehicle was driven by an affable Texan from San Antonio. The scenery is magnificent but we saw little animal life. At one point a pack of wolves was spotted; after awhile we came upon a 600 pound grizzly bear. He was quite far away but gradually came closer. Thinking he might turn away, the cameras were clicking. But he keep moving along, chewing berries as he went, and soon was very close to the bus. He then walked right in front of it and continued along on the other side of the road. So we all got lots of bear photos! Further on we came upon one of the brown buses that had attempted to turn around and ended up in a ditch. All sorts of arguments took place on the radio about what to do; the two dispatchers were issuing contradictory orders and made it sound like amateur night. At one point I answered the radio and explained that our driver was walking to another bus "as per your instructions." After about an hour's delay the bus was shoved out of the way and we continued on. But in view of the delay, we elected to stay on for the return trip. In both directions stops were made when wild animals were spotted and there were three rest/leg stretching stops at scenic areas. We got back about 6pm, caught a hotel shuttle and had a pizza at the hotel's pizza place.

Alaska RR–Denali to Anchorage

Our return on the Lower 48 began on Saturday, Sept. 9th and concluded the following day. We packed our luggage Friday night and I set the alarm for 6:20 so as to have the two bags outside the door for pickup by 6:30. Earlier I had placed Alaska RR "ANCHORAGE" baggage tags on them. We slept a little late and had breakfast in the Summit dining room. After a little more exploring of the area, we got a shuttle bus to the railroad station. It had been raining but cleared up nicely right around train time. The southbound Denali Star chugged in at 12:16 and consisted of Engines 4321 and 4317 [SD70MAC] pulling a baggage car, Goldstar car, diner, Daewoo coach, former UP half dome coach, former Amtrak half dome coach former UP coach and only three tour cars. One of the Lodge employees had mentioned that the Princess cars would not be on today but would be on another train. The platform fence at this station enables a good photo of the arriving train without human interference. Our seats were in the former UP half dome car which is more spacious than the Daewoo car. After departure we just relaxed and enjoyed the spectacular scenery, sometimes from the dome and sometimes form the top half of the Dutch doors which always were left open.

Along the way I photographed a passing northbound tank car train as well as the northbound Denali Star with the usual change of tour guides at Summit Siding. Since the Hurricane Turn runs Thursdays through Sunday I assumed the two Budd cars would be at Hurricane and indeed they were there along with about 20 people who probably came up on it. Duly recorded on film. While we were having a late lunch/early dinner in the diner we passed a northbound special consisting of one locomotive pulling 4 Princess Tours cars. Sorry I missed that one! Upon reaching CTC territory we moved along faster and I thought we would reach Anchorage early but the arrival was at 8:03, after first cutting the 3 tour cars from the rear of the train so as to avoid blocking the crossing. Schedule of our farewell AAR ride, at least for this trip:

Lv. Denali 12:14/12:40 (12:15)
Summit Sdg 2:02/2:04 –switch tour guides
Ps. Hurricane 2:58 –2 RDC's at station
Talkeetna 4:44/4:55 (4:40) –about 65 boarded
Ar. Wasilla 6:34 (6:15) –3 detrained
Ar. Anchorage 8:03 (8:00)

For some distance north of Anchorage we ran along a recently rebuilt line that eliminated a number of curves. From the standpoint of scenery, passenger comfort, food and employees, the Alaska Railroad gets an "Excellent" rating in my book.

Continental Flight Anchorage – Seattle

I called the shuttle service pre arranged to take us to the airport and they arrived a few minutes after our baggage was delivered. We reached the airport about 8:40pm but couldn't check our luggage until 9:30 and later found that the security to our gate wouldn't open until 11pm. Since there was nothing to do and I couldn't seem to log on to the Internet, we had a snack, checked in about 10pm and went through security at 11:30. Anchorage has a lot of night "Red Eye" departures so the airport gets busy around this time. Continental has but two flights here—one at 8:35am to SEA and our Flight 223 at 12:55am, now rescheduled for 1:05am to SEA and Houston. Boarding of the sold out B-757-300 aircraft started about 12:20. I had hoped the lights would be turned out after takeoff but beverage service came first, followed by lights out and a light sleep. Since Alaska time is an hour behind Pacific time, we lost an hour in the process so actually had a 3 hour flight that didn't leave much time for sleep.

Schedule: Lv. ANC gate 1:04am
T/O 1:16
Ar. SEA land 5:08
Gate 5:13
Visiting in Seattle Area

After arrival we had a light breakfast at the airport food court and hunted for the shuttle van office for transportation to King St. Station. We reached the station at 7:36 just as the Cascade was departing for Vancouver, BC. I walked to the baggage counter and asked the attendant if that was the Vancouver train. "I'm sorry sir, but you've just missed it." "Then I guess it's good that we're going to Chicago." He had a good sense of humor and checked our jumbo suitcase to CHI and held the other suitcase and two carry ons at no charge. The large bag had been weighted at Anchorage Airport for the first time and we discovered it weighed 49.5 pounds, just under Continental's 50 pound limit for "free" baggage as well as under Amtrak's limit for carry on luggage.

We had been planning to visit with a couple who live in Indianola, WA. I called them and we agreed to take the Washington State Ferry 8:45 departure to Bainbridge Island where we would meet them for brunch. Since the bus now painted in the yellow/green scheme of the former Waterfront Trolley did not appear to be running this early, we walked over to the ferry dock via historic Pioneer Square. Once again the good weather was along with us and the 35 minute ferry ride was very scenic. Our friends greeted us on the other side and took us around the area after first having a delicious brunch at a famous local restaurant. It was good to see them again.

Our return was on the 12:20 trip of the vessel "Tacoma;" the going trip had been on the "Wenatchee." Since we both suffered from lack of sleep we decided to just walk around and end up at the station. Along the way, we visited the new Klondike Gold Rush Museum run by the National Park Service in a former old hotel building at Pioneer Square. This told some of the same story we heard in Skagway and Juneau but emphasized the role Seattle played as a transit and outfitting point for those heading to and from the Gold Rush areas.

Empire Builder Seattle to Chicago

We returned to King St. Station about 3:30 and were surprised to see two Sounder trains in the station as this was a Sunday. After photographing them, I learned they were baseball specials for a Seattle Mariners game then in progress. One would go to Tacoma, the other to Everett. Indeed, they both pulled out shortly before our train after the Mariners ended up losing to the Texas Rangers 3-2. I also noted that Cascade #506 from Portland was scheduled to arrive a little early at 3:51pm so went out to photograph its arrival behind a "Cabbage" unit—a former F40 now used as a cab/baggage car. A large crowd detrained and about 50 items of checked baggage came off as well. The Cascade trains provide a good service at reasonable fares and are well patronized.

The Builder pulled in about 4pm. It was immaculate and really looked like a first class train. Sleeping car passengers were invited to board at 4:15 and we soon located our car, the 4th behind the locomotives. At this point the consist was two P42 locomotives pulling a baggage car, transition crew sleeper, 2 sleepers, a diner and two coaches. Two ExpressTrak cars full of apples would be picked up at Wenatchee and a Sightseer Lounge car, 2 coaches and one sleeper from the Portland section [Train #28] would be added during the night at Spokane.

Our Room A in Car 830 was just in front of the diner so we didn't get much exercise. Prior to departure the crew made excellent announcements and the very efficient dining car Steward came through to make dinner reservations. We wanted to turn in early so chose the 6pm seating where we joined a couple in their early 80's en route from Seattle to Libby, MT. From there they would travel to CHI, thence WAS and to Richmond, VA, for some family functions. They had been married 42 years and had children and grandchildren in numerous locations. All at our table had the Flat Steak, priced at $21 (but "free" to us) which was OK but not spectacular.

After dinner the attendant had made up our room so we gradually settled in. On the Westbound trip we had Room C which is more spacious than Room A because the sink area in that room is at one side instead of in the center of the room. I climbed into the upper as the train was stopping at Wenatchee, WA, where we would stop for about 10 minutes before backing on to a yard track to pick up 2 cars of apples heading to the East Coast. I dropped off to sleep as the train was doing the back up move and barely remember the coupling.

Our car attendant was from Hong Kong and goes there periodically to visit his 95 year old mother. He jokingly mentioned that he will retire in 18 months will move back there to run a rickshaw. Earlier he has showed us a memo that our train will be subject to a 2 hour delay on Sept. 12 and 26 at Winona, Minnesota, station as the CP will be doing steel work on the Mississippi River bridge. As a result, those transferring to the Capitol Limited and four other trains at CHI would be "bussed" from St. Paul to CHI. Luckily for us the Lake Shore Limited departs four hours after #8 arrives so we didn't experience the pleasure of a "motor coach connection" ride. However, we would get a few hours at Winona where we had been for about 2 hours during a trip on the 2004 NRHS Convention. This time there was no bar-b-que.

Monday morning I awoke about 7:30am as the conductor was making the station announcement for Whitefish, MT. Thus I had slept from about 9:20pm until 7:30am to make up for the loss of sleep on the previous night's flight. Suzanne slept a few hours longer. My breakfast companions were a young interracial couple from Portland heading to Minneapolis and a gentleman from SEA also destined to MSP. My selection was the standard two scrambled eggs with sausages, croissant, OJ and coffee. Suzanne was still sleeping so I spent some time enjoying Western Montana from the Sightseer lounge which was nearly full. While in the diner we stopped at Essex, MT, and passed the famous Issak Walton Inn where many guests waived and others took photos. Western Montana is beautiful but the state becomes flat as you head east.

Soon it was time for yet another lunch. My table companions this time were an elderly lady with her daughter and son-in-law. They had boarded at Whitefish and were traveling to Williston, ND.

A few words about the train crews. Without exception the conductors and assistant conductors were courteous, friendly and helpful. They made good announcements and about 10pm would explain that no announcements would be made during the night but that detraining passengers would be advised before their stops. Everything started with, "Ladies & Gentlemen." By the announcements we could tell that we had the same conductor in both directions between Chicago and Winona. He would announce the station followed by, "If this is NOT your stop, please do not descend the stairway and unnecessarily delay this train." The diner was a very well run operation headed up by a very efficient lady named Fran. Her only fault was that she made some of the same announcements a little too often. Our car attendant from Hong Kong was raving about the growth of Hong Kong and mainland China and plans to move back there when he retires in 18 months.

About 3:30pm all sleeping car passengers were invited to a wine tasting event in the diner. We sampled 4 wines & 4 cheeses. I was seated with a couple from SEA and a lady whose husband was resting in his room. After we started talking she and her friends almost fell out of their chairs with laughter as her husband is a railfan and both of them had worked on WP&Y during one or two summers. They were going to St Paul. I later met her husband and we had some good conversation.

Before long it was dinnertime once again. We had 6:30 reservations which really was at 5:30 as the diner operates on Central Time in the area of the MT-ND boundary. We were joined by a couple from Concord, CA who had taken the Coast Starlight to SEA and stayed there overnight. They originally were from Philadelphia but moved to California 19 years ago. Since they were taking the Capitol Ltd to WAS and a Corridor train to PHL, they would be bussed from MSP, for which they would receive a $58 credit for the loss of their sleeping car space.

Later that evening I briefly detrained during the Minot, ND, stop which would be longer than normal because of the need to change out an air hose. Our beds had been made up and Suzanne already was resting in the lower; I climbed into the upper and dropped off just as we were departing Minot at 10:48 (9:57).

The next thing I remember is the conductor's 8 am announcement from a loudspeaker directly over my head that we were approaching MSP and that passengers for five enumerated trains must change to "alternative motor-coach transportation for Milwaukee where transfer will be made to a regional train to Chicago. The buses will be in front of the depot." So much for alternative motor-coaches. About 8:45 I went in for breakfast and was joined by a CP conductor deadheading from MSP to Portage, WI, to pick up a freight train delayed by the bridge work. He explained the nature of the heavy bridge work being done and mentioned that additional delays would occur since there was track work in progress in Wisconsin. This time I had pancakes with sausage links as well as my usual OJ and coffee.

When we reached Winona at 10:40 (10:01) we were told that only a brief stop would be made since the CP advised that we might be able to move through the work area earlier than anticipated. So after about 7 minutes everyone reboarded the train and it moved about 50 feet. There we sat again and were allowed to detrain until 12 noon when CPRail said they could take us. Nearer to the bridge, at River Jct., there was a long stop but we finally proceeded across the Mississippi.

At noon we joined a couple from Rapid City, SD, for lunch. The husband is English and author of children' books, mainly for Native Americans. When I mentioned that South Dakota now is the only US state I've not visited, they laughed and said they had boarded at Williston, ND, 350 miles north. Later they showed us some of the books he has written.

Back in our room, I asked the attendant for some ice to chill our second bottle of champaign. He returned with a new cold bottle and traded it for our warm one and brought Suzanne a Pepsi from his private stock. At this point we had reached Tomah, WI and I noted we were nearly 3 hours late. I still thought this would not be a problem although there would be no time to ride the "L" in Chicago but I probably would make it to a Citbank a few blocks away. Unfortunately, we encountered more track work and some signal problems due to recent rains and continued to lose time. Departure from Milwaukee was over 3 hours late and we reached Chicago's Union Station at 7:17 (3:55). Aside from the delay the trip was excellent and we duly rewarded our helpful car attendant to help fund his rickshaw.

Lake Shore Limited—Chicago to Croton-Harmon

The next and final leg of our trip was on Amtrak #48, the Lake Shore Limited from Chicago to our home station of Croton-Harmon. In view of the late arrival I was concerned that our checked suitcase might not reach the baggage carousel in time for me to grab it and catch our train. I explained this to the Amtrak people unloading #8's baggage car and added that I needed the bag since it couldn't be checked to my destination. They located the bag, I handed them the claim check and we entered the station. The Cardinal was being announced for its 7:30 departure but Train 48 also was loading so there was no time to head to Citibank or even the station's ATM machine.

As soon as we reached the train it was apparent that we had left the west. The platform was utter confusion and the attendant for the car next to ours wanted to see our tickets and then claimed there was no place for the large bag. I told her that since Amtrak does not check baggage to CRT and the bag is under 50 pounds it must come aboard. I suggested it ride in the vestibule with some other large pieces of luggage. Well, OK, but I'll have to check with your attendant. "Fine," said I and we walked inside to our rooms. What a contrast with all the trains out west where the crews are friendly and helpful. Here I had to figure out what to do for the service crew. Luckily the dining car LSA was in our car and gave us 8pm dinner reservations. Our orders were taken reasonably soon but the service was very slow and we gave up waiting to order dessert and just walked out without leaving a tip.

The train should have departed while we were in the diner but didn't move. At 8:15 the reason became apparent when Train 6, the California Zephyr, pulled in across the platform about 5 hours late with many connecting passengers. After all the baggage had been transferred we pulled out at 8:30, already 35 minutes late before leaving the station.

Rain had started as we neared Chicago on #8. Before South Bend we were held at an interlocking signal as it now was raining harder and there had been a report of a tree down on Track 2. After two freights and an Amtrak train had passed on Track 1, the word came that the tree did not foul our track and we continued. The rain was coming down in torrents at South Bend where about 25 boarded. Our beds were made up about this time and I climbed upstairs for the night and dropped off as we were leaving Elkhart at 12:02 (10:47).

For me Sept. 13, the last day of our trip, began when I heard passengers talking loudly about 7:30am. After dressing I entered the diner and was seated with a couple from Baldwin, NY, who were returning from Denver and a bus tour of National Parks. They had been on the previous day's California Zephyr that was late and missed #48 by about a half hour and had spent the night in Homewood, IL, where Amtrak houses its "missed connection" passengers. Their main complaint was a late arrival there when it was too late to get dinner. Suzanne soon joined us. The waiter was jovial and the service crew turned out to be better than I had first thought. In my view, though, they joked with some passengers a little too much.

The train had made up some time during the night and departure from Buffalo was at 8:00 (7:10). However, more delays ensued. The Rochester station stop consumed 19 minutes and there were two stops for a CSX track project west of Syracuse. Further single tracking delays occurred between there and Utica but after that we zipped along at track speed on very smooth track.

Suzanne passed on lunch. I was joined by a couple from Longview, TX, who had used the Texas Eagle to CHI and were heading to Boston. From there they would continue to Washington and eventually home. Shortly thereafter we were joined by a man from San Diego also enroute to Boston. He later mentioned that he had worked at MBTA while Dave Gunn headed the agency and further conversation developed that we had several other mutual friends.

Utica station came at 12:37 (10:22). Much equipment of the Adirondack Scenic RR was on hand on their station track. From there the train continued at good speed through the Mohawk Valley. However, around Amsterdam the conductor asked the engineer to radio for police assistance at Schenectady as a passenger allegedly was attempting to extort money from another rider. When we reach SDY, two city police officers were on hand and boarded the rear of the train. Soon Train 283 from NYP to Niagara Falls arrived on the opposite track and #292 running late from Rutland, VT was heard on the radio calling for a signal; it was waiting to access the connection from "The D&H."Hence gridlock with 3 trains at Schenectady. Eventually our train moved down a few car lengths to clear the north switch for #283 which soon departed. But almost immediately #292 came in on that track and was allowed to leave ahead of us.

Departure from SDY came at 2:25(11:39) after two passengers had been removed. Since we were following #292 the ride to ALB was slow; after waiting about 10 minutes for a track we entered the station at 3:03 (12:30). I rushed upstairs to use the ATM machine and noted the head end consist from the station windows. But there was no need to rush as nothing had changed when I returned to the platform. The station was gridlock. First #242 had to depart at 3:15. Then Engine 706 which was parked in front of the Boston connection (Train 448) pulled down. Only then were our two locomotives uncoupled and run south to clear the switch. Next, #448 for which the "last boarding announcement" had been made 15 minutes earlier pulled forward, then backed through a crossover to access the Boston track. It then departed for Beantown. Meanwhile Engine 706 backed down on to our train, the brake test was made and we were out of town by 3:42 (1:00).

The ride down the Hudson was fast. Our car attendant had become more chatty, especially after she heard me describe to someone how the switching moves were going to be made at Albany. She told me she would like to become a bartender at Metro-North and I gave her the name of the VP for Human Resources. She probably would make a better bartender than a car attendant.

Train 48 reached Croton-Harmon at 5:35 (2:38), shortly before a train from GCT pulled in. Thus plenty of cabs were on hand. We got our luggage and ourselves into one and were home about 7 minutes later after a delightful trip! Alaska is a beautiful state and we have nothing but the highest praise for the Alaska RR, WP&YRR and Celebrity Cruises' GVS Summit.

– September 16, 2006


© 2006 Walter E. Zullig Jr.