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The 2013 NRHS Convention - North Pole Excursion and Fairbanks to Saulich Excursion Trips 9/15/2013

by Chris Guenzler

This was the start of the first of many early monings in Alaska with Elizabeth and I working as car hosts on all of this year's convention trains. So at 4:45 AM, I was up putting codes on pictures for my stories and was having computer problems until I contacted Brian, my computer acquaintance, to access my computer remotely tonight. We went and had our last free breakfast of our stay in Fairbanks, returned to the room to get our stuff for the day then went out to the first bus where we had our first safety meeting of the Convention. We would have one of these meetings before each trip. Next we were bussed over to the new Alaska Railroad station and once there, radios and NRHS safety vests were handed out to each of the car hosts. We then went out to the train and chose the car to work, so I took Coach 210, a Korean-built car, with the extra large windows. Today I would work this car solo. I chose a seat with the working electrical outlet so I could try to work on stories today at some point. I did a walking check of my car and then when the order was given, opened the trap and waited for the passengers to arrive. Since they were not here yet, I could take a few pictures.

The rear of our train. The train consisted of Alaska Railroad GP40-2's 3013 and 3003, Goldstar 653, dining car 301 (built by Daewoo Heavy Industries in 1989), dome 521 (ex. Amtrak 9486, exx. Burlington Northern 4626, nee Spokane, Portland and Seattle 559), coach 210 (built by Daewoos Heavy Industries in 1989), dome 523 (ex. Amtrak 9483, exx. Burlington Northern 4623, nee Northern Pacific 556) coach 204 (nee Union Pacific 5424), dome 522 (ex. Amtrak 9482, ex. Burlington Northern 4622, nee Northern Pacific 555), dome 501 (nee Union Pacific 7008) and F40PH 32.

The Alaska Railroad Denali Star train would be departing after our train left.

Gold Star coach 653 built by Colorado Railcar in 2007. The passengers arrived and settled into their seats then I sent Elizabeth to the front of the train to get her pictures. When she returned, I walked down for my pictures.

History of the Alaska Railroad

The Alaska Railroad is the result of three basic efforts. To the south, construction was started by the Alaska Central/Alaska Northern, private companies that attempted to build the railroad using operating revenues. To the north, the Tanana Valley was built to serve the local mining boom and to connect the mines to local rivers which had steamboat service. Connecting the two were the efforts of the federal government, built under the management of the Alaska Engineering Commission.

The Alaska Central Railroad began to build a rail line northward from Seward in 1903. The company built 51 miles of track by 1909 before entering receivership. This route carried passengers, freight and mail to the upper Turnagain Arm. From there, goods were taken by boat at high tide and by dog team or pack train to Eklutna and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. The ultimate goal of the railroad were the coal seams north of today's Anchorage, coal that could be used to re-supply whaling and merchant ships sailing the northern Pacific Ocean.

The Alaska Northern Railway Company bought the rail line in 1909 and extended it another 21 miles northward. From the new end, goods were floated down the Turnagain Arm in small boats to reach the markets being created by several gold rushes in various parts of central Alaska. However, the business was insignificant and the Alaska Northern Railway went into receivership in 1914. Also in 1914, Congress passed the Enabling Act which empowered newly elected President Woodrow Wilson to locate and construct a railroad (or railroads) that would connect at least one Pacific Ocean port with a navigable river in interior Alaska and with one or more coalfields. This created an opportunity for the United States government to plan a railroad route from Seward to the interior town of Fairbanks. In 1914, the government bought the Alaska Northern Railway for $1.2 million and moved its headquarters to "Ship Creek", later called Anchorage. The government began to extend the rail line northward with an early goal being the coal mines near Palmer and Healy. At the time, United States Navy ships burned coal and the availability of reliable coal supplies would extend their voyage distances across the north Pacific.

The Tanana Valley Railroad was a three-foot gauge railroad in the Fairbanks area. Initial construction on the railroad near Fairbanks began in late summer 1904 as the Tanana Mines Railway, with financing from British investors who had financed several small industrial railroads in the Dawson, Yukon Territory, Canada area and the White Pass & Yukon Route. Chena, a settlement on the Tanana River, was the original headquarters, with the construction of a sawmill, rail yard and other support structures here.

Engine 1, which had been the first steam locomotive in the Yukon Territory, became the first steam locomotive in the interior of Alaska when it arrived on the railroad on July 4, 1905. (Engine 1, the very first steam locomotive purchased for the TVRR, was eventually placed on display in Fairbanks and ended up at Alaskaland, now known as Pioneer Park. Due to the efforts of local citizens, it has been restored and returned to operation at Pioneer Park.) The mainline was completed to Fairbanks by mid-July and the golden spike was driven on July 17. Construction continued on the branch up the Goldstream valley through Fox. That branch was completed to Gilmore in September.

In 1907, the railroad was refinanced under a new name, the Tanana Valley Railroad, and on May 15, 1907, construction began on the second phase of the TVRR, an extension of the trackage to Chatanika. The route eventually went via the Fox Creek Valley to reach mining territories in Dome, Vault, Ridgetop and Olnes. However, revenues were never stable, caused by a lack of local development and the uncertainty of the mining industry. On November 1, 1917, the railroad was sold at a bankruptcy sale for $200,000. The buyer resold the TVRR to the Alaska Engineering Commission for $300,000 on December 31, 1917. The government bought the Tanana Valley Railroad principally for its terminal facilities. The TVRR became the Chatanika Branch of the Alaska Engineering Commission Railroad, which became the Alaska Railroad in 1923.

To complete the railroad, the AEC built an extension to Nenana to meet the track coming north from Anchorage. This new section was completed on November 7, 1919 and then widened to standard gauge as soon as the Mears bridge over the Tanana River at Nenana was completed in February 1923. The track from Happy to Fairbanks remained dual gauge to allow narrow gauge trains to reach the branch running north from Happy. The narrow-gauge Chatanika Branch was finally closed on August 1, 1930.

The Tanana River bridge in Nenana, built in 1923, was the final link in the Alaska Railroad and at the time, was the second longest single-span steel railroad bridge in the country. President Warren G. Harding drove the golden spike that completed the railroad on July 15, 1923 on the north side of the bridge.

Many improvements were made to the Alaska Railroad by the federal government, generally to meet military needs within the state. These improvements included new branches, the opening of coal mines, new shops and even the port at Whittier. World War II had a major impact on the railroad. During World War II, the Alaska Railroad was used by the army to transport military personnel, supplies and construction materials between Seward, Whittier, Anchorage and Fairbanks. To facilitate these activities and to provide security for railroad operations, the 714th Railway Operating Battalion was assigned to operate the railroad in May 1943 in cooperation with civilian railroad personnel. In addition to its rail activities, the Alaska Railroad also operated a river line between the railhead at Nenana and Marshall on the Lower Yukon, and modernized and operated the Eska Coal Mines north of Palmer in order to adequately supply the coal needs of the army and the railroad during the war. In addition, the 1,150 men of the Battalion helped construct the Whittier Cutoff and 31 miles of branch lines from Fairbanks to nearby air bases. The army operation ended in May 1945.

After the war, the railroad was inspected and found to be worn out, a dangerous situation since almost all freight moved on the railroad, including all coal for heating at Fairbanks and the military bases across the state. A major rehabilitation program was created to rebuild the line between Portage and Fairbanks. This included replacing the worn 70-pound rail with 115-pound rail, installing treated-fir crossties to replace the untreated native-spruce ties, installing new steel bridges, eliminating line sags by raising the track as much as five feet, widening shoulders to a standard twenty feet and placing the new track structure on twelve inches of select pit-run gravel to permit speeds as high as 60 miles an hour. Additionally, new rolling stock and heavy construction equipment was acquired by the railroad. As this project was underway in 1954, a decision was made to rehabilitate the line from Portage to Seward.

While the railroad ran out of funds before the rehabilitation program was completed, many improvements were made. The Great Alaska Earthquake on March 27, 1964 also forced the railroad to make improvements as the lower 200 miles of track experienced damage. In some places, the railroad was completely rebuilt as the old grade was gone and rivers formed new channels.

In January 1985, the State of Alaska bought the railroad from the United States government for $22.3 million dollars. A number of improvements have been made since that time. New passenger cars have been acquired as an effort to promote tourism in the state. A fleet of new locomotives have arrived. New offices, shops and facilities have been acquired. Finally, major track improvements have taken place across the system with many plans for even more work.

Railroad Operations

Most of the railroad is operated using DTC blocks. Direct Traffic Control is a system for authorizing track occupancy used by the Alaska Railroad, whereby the railroad's dispatcher gives track authority directly to the train crew via radio or telephone instead of via trackside signals. Watch for the begin and end DTC block signs with a four-letter abbreviation for the block's name. Stretches of Centralized Traffic Control exist between near Coastal and Pittman (north of Wasilla) as well as at the siding of Hurricane.

During 2011, there were 412,197 passengers on various Alaska Railroad trains and 6.2 million tons of freight hauled. The railroad has 467 miles of mainline, 54 miles of branch line and 135 miles of yards and sidings, for a total of 656 miles of track. Employees are unionized, being members of the American Federation of Government Employees (274), United Transportation Union (132), International Brotherhood of Teamsters (61), Transportation Communications Union (39) and the American Train Dispatchers Association.

Alaska Railroad Passenger Trains

Passenger trains in Alaska have two clear and very different seasons - the heavy summer months with all of the Alaska Railroad's trains for tourists and the basic services of winter. The real Alaska passenger train is the Aurora, operating from mid-September through mid-May, providing basic weekend service between Anchorage and Fairbanks. Saturdays see the train operate northward and Sundays see it operate southward, both on a 12-hour schedule. Also operating in winter is a once-a-month Anchorage to Hurricane train to serve local needs.

With the coming of summer and its tourist and cruise ships, the Alaska Railroad adds a number of trains to the schedule. The primary train is the Denali Star running daily between Anchorage to Fairbanks on a 12-hour schedule. This train often has private passenger cars on the rear, owned by companies such as Celebrity Cruise, Royal Caribbean International and Royal Celebrity Tours. When volumes are heavy, these and other cruise companies often operate their own trains, especially Princess Cruises, which uses the Woodpecker Facility at McKinley Siding south of Talkeetna.

Possibly the most popular summer train is the Coastal Classic, a train that operates through the magnificent scenery south of Anchorage along Turnagain Arm and the Kenai Peninsula before reaching Seward. This train features a long layover at Seward so passengers can go fishing, whale watching or participate in many other tourist activities. Another train aimed at tourists is the Glacier Discovery, a train serving Anchorage-Whittier traffic, along with a loop south into Chugach National Forest. In an attempt to serve the National Forest, the Chugach Whistle Stop Project was created to provide access to the spectacular backcountry. Daytrips such as rafting and glacier hikes are available from the train.

The final summer tourist train is the Hurricane Turn, providing rail service between Talkeetna and the Hurricane area. This train serves summer residents, fishermen and campers and anyone looking for a daytrip through a scenic and rugged area with no road access. Crews on the train keep records of what camping and fishing spots along the line are being used and when they wish to be picked up, and often drop off supplies as they pass by. The train will stop anywhere when requested. The Hurricane Turn was the last home of the Alaska Railroad's RDC cars.

Besides the passenger cars owned and operated by the Alaska Railroad, several cruise ship companies have their own passenger cars on the railroad. Princess, painting their cars in a blue and white paint scheme, has a fleet of Ultra Domes with 88 seats under glass upstairs, 32 dining seats and an open platform downstairs. The coach seating is actually at tables that generally hold four adults, two facing in each direction. The newest cars (MSEX 7084-7089) were built 1992-1999 by Colorado Railcar. They also have four two-story cars (MSEX 7080-7083) built from former Southern Pacific gallery commuter cars in 1988 by Tilamook Railcar Repair. These cars seat 90 passengers each and are considered to be the largest passenger rail cars in the world.

Holland America and their McKinley Explorer railcars (painted in blue and silver with a rainbow stripe on the lower body) are also two-story cars built by Colorado Railcar. Built between 2003 and 2005, cars HALX 1050-1059 seat 88 in coach seats upstairs and 44 downstairs in the dining area. All of the cars have local names and have a small downstairs open platform.

The third owner of private passenger cars on the Alaska Railroad is Royal Celebrity Tours, a land tour division of Royal Caribbean Cruises. Known as the Wilderness Express, the two-story cars were also built by Colorado Railcar and seat 88 in coach upstairs and 36 downstairs in the dining area. The cars also have an open platform downstairs. When built in 2001-2002, the company boasted the cars had "the most dome glass of any double-deck rail cars in the world". The cars are numbered RCIX 1001-1004 and are painted white with a bear and landscape as part of the design. It should be noted that these cars are used by both Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises tours.

All three cruise companies have maintenance shops for their passenger cars just south of the Alaska Railroad shops in Anchorage.

Alaska Railroad Freight Trains

According to the website of the Alaska Railroad, the Alaska Railroad moved more than 6.2 million tons of freight over 641 miles of track in 2011. As they state, freight is the railroad's bread-and-butter, producing 69 percent of the operating revenue of the railroad. Many of the freight train schedules are based upon the sailing dates and times of the marine services that connect with Seattle and Prince Rupert. Unit trains moving coal and gravel generally operate based upon the customer's requirements, with gravel generally being delivered overnight for next day use.

There are normally about 1,200 freight cars on the Alaska Railroad, a mix of railroad owned and leased cars, as well as several hundred cars leased by customers. Cars on the railroad include more than 450 open top hoppers, 375 flat cars, almost 320 tank cars (all leased by customers except for two owned by the railroad), 50 covered hoppers, 20 air dump cars, about 15 boxcars and ten gondolas.

Major freight categories, and their share of freight revenue, include:

Petroleum (29.7 percent) - Petroleum products move from the North Pole Refinery to Anchorage. Fuel also moves from Anchorage to Fairbanks.

Barge and Interline Services (29.6 percent) - Alaska Rail Marine moves railcar shipments to/from Alaska via Seattle, interchanging with railroads in the Lower 48. Containers arriving by ARM barge move from Whittier to Anchorage or Fairbank. Canadian National barges move railcar shipments to/from Alaska via Prince Rupert, interchanging with Canadian National Railway.

Coal (22.1 percent) - Coal from Usibelli Coal Mine in Healy moves to the Fairbanks area (local, 8.9 percent) and to Seward, where it is shipped to overseas customers (export, 13.2 percent).

Gravel (6.9 percent) - Seasonally (April-October) aggregate products move from the Matanuska-Susitna Valley to Anchorage.

Trailers/Containers on Flat Cars (8.0 percent) - TOFC/COFC moves north and south between Seward, Whittier, Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Miscellaneous/In-state Local (3.7 percent) - Other freight includes specialty movements of very large or oddly-shaped equipment and materials, as well as in-state shipments of cement, scrap metal, military equipment and pipe.

Barge Service

The outside connection for the Alaska Railroad is regular barge service from Whittier to Prince Rupert and Seattle. The Seattle service, known as Alaska Railbelt Marine, operates weekly with a seven day transit time. The barges can handle approximately 50 railcars, plus numerous containers and other items on racks above the rail deck. Service from Prince Rupert connects with Canadian National and sees about 30 voyages per year. These barges can also handle about 50 railcars on a four-day transit time, but are not built with an upper level for containers. Both barge types are pulled by ocean going tows or lineboats, using cables hundreds of yards long. The distance allows the boats to be protected in case of high waves or winds.

Alaska Railroad Locomotives

The Alaska Railroad has 53 locomotives: 28 SD70MACs (12 equipped with head-end-power to supply electricity to passenger cars), 15 GP40s, eight GP38s and two cab/power cars. The EMD SD70MACs have been acquired in several groups starting in 1999-2000 for numbers 4001-4016, and 4317-4328 in 2004 and 2007. They all have the newer style wide-nose safety cabs. The EMD GP40-2 locomotives were also built new for the Alaska Railroad (1975-1978). Numbered 3001-3015, the entire fleet is still in service. It should be noted that locomotive 3006 was originally numbered 3000, but was quickly renumbered before the locomotives delivered in 1976 arrived.

Possibly the most interesting part of the fleet are the GP38-2 and GP38u locomotives. All were originally built for other railroads and have complicated histories. GP38-2 locomotives 2001 and 2002 are former Butte, Anaconda & Pacific Railway (108 and 109), later Rarus Railway. Locomotives 2003-2007 are all rebuilt from Penn Central locomotives delivered 1968-1969. Their original PC numbers were 7812, 7773, 7752, 7754 and 7780. Locomotive 2008 was actually built as a GP40 for the New York Central. All of these were acquired by the ARR in 1986.

Our Trip to North Pole and beyond.

The front of our train at Fairbanks.

GP40-2 3003 built by Electro-Motive Division in 1975.

GP40-2 3013 built by Electro-Motive Division in 1978. I returned to my door, thanking Elizabeth for watching it, and loaded my last few passengers. At 7:50 AM, I closed the vestibule then gave my car the safety talk as I always do. We departed at 8:00 AM and headed out of Fairbanks.

My car of passengers aboard our train on this first passenger trip to North Pole and beyond.

After leaving Fairbanks, we proceeded to Fort Wainwight where no photography was allowed until we crossed it. I had to be the photo police during our passage across the base and did catch one person trying to take a picture but stopped him. At MP 6.0, photography could resume.

Out into the forest we went.

A radar dish that we went by.

A recycling plant.

A pair of views from our train.

More trees in their fall colors.

A creek which we crossed on our way east.

More autumn colors. At North Pole we detrained for a static photo and this picture is on the way to the photo line.

The Spirit of North Pole sign before the static photo.

Our group walking to the photo line.

The Spirit of North Pole sign and train.

Our group waiting to rotate into the static photo line.

The Spirit of North Pole sign and train.

The train pulled forward to pick us up.

There are candy cane signs and light poles in North Pole.

This sign says North Pole Middle School to the right and North Pole High School to the left. We headed east to Chapados to do a photo runby.

The reverse move.

Bart Jennings (convention chairman), Steve Barry (Bear Bait I) and Greg Molloy (current NRHS President) at Chapados.

Photo runby at Chapados, Milepost 16.4.

The reverse move to pick us up. We headed east to MP 17.6 where we turned around to head to the Fairbanks International Airport Branch, on which we would travel a few miles and be the first passenger train to run over these tracks.

We returned to the junction with the Fairbanks International Airport Branch after clearing the switch and stopping to throw it.

We started out onto the branch and went out over two miles on the branch before stopping, then headed straight to Fairbanks.

We passed this lake before we returned to the Eielson Branch and went back to Fairbanks where we unloaded our passengers and I helped clean my car. I relaxed for just a few minutes before it was time to load our 2:00 PM trip of local passengers. Once the door was closed, I gave a much more detailed safety talk and the train was off for Saulich.

My 2:00 PM passengers were a great group of local people and we all had a good time together. I gave them a Trivia question of "What four states does Amtrak not serve? Hint, You are in one right now. The answer was Alaska, Hawaii, South Dakota and Wyoming. The winner was an older gentlemen who won one of my Amtrak Million Mile T-shirts. He will have the only one in the State of Alaska.

Once out of Fairbanks we headed out into the autumn color countryside.

Views on the way to Saulich.

The train at Saulich.

Views on the return trip to Fairbanks. Everyone enjoyed their ride and I did a quick clean of the car before we boarded the 4:00 PM group. I gave my safety talk to a car full of rugrats with wild behaviors. Sarah Jennings walked in to my car and asked if I needed any help and she was surprised when I said "No thank you". Here are some of my characters.

I took this group to Saulich and back. Once we returned to Fairbanks and they were off the train, a tired Chris secured his car before walking into the station to find a tired Bart on a bench and I joined him. Soon everyone was there and we walked out to the bus and returned to the hotel. We tried to find a place to eat in Fairbanks, but it was Sunday and everything was closed so ate in the hotel's bar and I worked on stories the rest of the evening before calling it a night.

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