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2013 NRHS Convention -- Fairbanks to North Pole and Public Trips to Saulich ~ September 15th, 2013

by Elizabeth Guenzler

Today was my first introduction to the Alaska Railroad and the start of five days' worth of early mornings since I was a car host on all but the first trip. I wanted to ride the trip to North Pole and learn how to open a trap and 'shadow' one of the seasoned hosts before doing it solo. After a buffet breakfast, the car hosts and the other NRHS committee members boarded a motorcoach to Fairbanks station and had a safety meeting en route. Such safety briefings were held each morning. Upon arrival, we were each given radios and safety vests, the collecting of tickets was explained then we all walked through the train to familiarize ourselves with the layout and features of each car. Once that was done, there was an opportunity to photograph the train before the passengers arrived.

Alaska Railroad train at Fairbanks in the early morning ready for the trip to North Pole.

Alaska Railroad GP40-2 3003 on the point of the train at Fairbanks.

The train and the pink hues of sunrise.

Alaska Railroad Gold Star bi-level coach 653.

Alaska Railroad counter-cafe 301 (ex. Florida Fun Train Tiki Bar, exx. Amtrak 9011, exxx. Amtrak 9601, nee Chicago and North Western 903).

Alaska Railroad coach 205.

Alaska Railroad F40 32 (nee Amtrak 268) at the rear of the consist.

Alaska Railroad SD70 4320 was on an adjacent track.

Alaska Railroad dome-coach 501 (nee Union Pacific 7008).

A side view of the new Fairbanks station which opened on May 15th, 2005. I returned to the train and assisted with taking the tickets as the NRHS members boarded. At 8:00, the train departed.

Alaska Railroad History

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 (AEC).

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 resupply 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, U.S. 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 3-foot gauge railroad in the Fairbanks area. Initial construction on the railroad near Fairbanks began in late summer of 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 4th, 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 15th, 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 1st, 1917, the railroad was sold at a bankruptcy sale for $200,000. The buyer resold the TVRR to the Alaska Engineering Commission (AEC) for $300,000 on December 31st, 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 th, 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 1th, 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 15th, 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 mph. 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 27th , 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. 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 (DTC) 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 (CTC) 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 (8)./P>

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, and 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 Tillamook 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 2003-2005, 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.

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 GP-38-2 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.

Note: The above and other location details were taken from the NRHS Convention 2013 Guidebook, the authoritative mile-by-mile guide to the Alaska Railroad, written by Bart Jennings and offered complimentary to all registrants.

Interior of one of the former Union Pacific coaches.

A view into the Korean Daewoo coach.

Our route passed by Fort Wainright, originally an Army Air Corps cold-weather experimental station named Ladd Field. Photography was not allowed in this area but once we were passed, scenes such as passing this creek in autumn colours were enjoyed by all.

At MP G15.9, the Spirit of Nole Pole is located. In 1944, Bon V. Davis home-steaded thisa area but sold out to the Dahl and Gaske Development Company, which sub- divided it into a town. It was first incorporated as a city in 1953 as "North Pole" with the idea of attracting the toy industry to manufacture articles from "The North Pole". While this plan failed, the town became the social centre for surrounding military bases.

A static photo stop at North Pole.

The train was then spotted beside the Spirit of North Pole sign.

ARR GP40-2 3003.

ARR Gold Star bi-level coach 653.

ARR dome coach 523 (ex. AMTK 9404, exx. AMTK 9483, exxx. BN 6423, nee NP 556).

The rear of the train at North Pole.

Looking toward the front of the train. Everyone re-boarded and the train continued to MP 16.4.

The Chapados station sign, site of the North Pole Refinery. We stopped here for a photo runby and were the first ticketed passenger train to run on this line.

The photo runby led by Alaska Railroad GP40 3003.

Part of the reversing move to pick everyone up.

Part of the 5,569' siding at Chapados.

The main line. Our train then started more rare mileage as we went east to MP 17.6 where we turned around to head to the Fairbanks International Airport Branch upon which we will travel a few miles. We will be the first passenger train ever to run over these tracks.

At the junction and a couple of miles down the Fairbanks International Airport branch. We then returned to the mainline and started the trip back to Fairbanks.

Autumn colours on the way back.

Crossing Richardson Highway at MP G20.7

Signs for Alaska Highway 2.

I spent some time in the vestibule on the return and the late morning sun and brilliant blue sky combined with the autumn colours made for a fantastic return journey. Upon arrival at Fairbanks, I assisted in cleaning the train and was ready to be a car host for the first time.

The FBKS abbreviation on one of the passenger cars.

The Alaska Railroad logo. The afternoon trips were primarily public ones, but conventioneers could join if desired. These were forty-five minute trips to Saulich and return, MP 450.8. A 14:00 and 16:00 departure was offered and both trips were almost sold out. Many families, some children riding the train for the first time. came out for this unique event. After giving a safety talk then engaging the passengers in conversation, I split my time between watching out for my charges and venturing out to the vestibule for some photographs.

Scenery on the way to Saulich.

Looking toward the rear of the train.

Crossing Goldstream Creek.

The siding at Ester, MP 459.0.

Curving on the way to Saulich.

We reached Saulich, MP 450.8, once the site of a station and now just a 6,374' siding to the east.

The siding as we started the return journey to Fairbanks.

Views on the way back.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks, the world's northernmsot institution of higher education, which was established in 1915. This is MP 467.1 - College. Upon our arrival, the passengers de-trained and I cleaned the coach then welcomed the next set of passengers for their journey to Saulich.

Views from the second afternoon trip to Saulich. I repeated what I had done on the first trip and all passengers had an excellent time. The train returned everyone safely to Fairbanks and a group of tired car hosts made their way back to the motor coach for the ride back to the hotel. We had dinner in the hotel's bar as restaurants were closed on a Sunday evening and it was the end of the season. I relaxed and caught up on the Internet then assisted Chris with writing his story before calling it a night.

What an introduction to the Alaska Railroad! I felt completely at home being a car host but the responsibility and duties were (and are) always something that I take seriously and am always honoured and pleased to take on such role whenever the opportunity arises.