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Loading the barges that go to Alaska

Loading barges for Alaska Railroad

There is no direct rail connection from the lower 48 states to Alaska, so the Alaska Railroad must reach the outside world via a well-orchestrated car ferry system between Whittier and Seattle. This year I have been fortunate enough to watch the loading process of ARR 651 and 652, as well as Holland America 1058 and 1059. Some photos of the 651-652 loading were included in the tour of those cars, but the operation is interesting enough that I felt it warranted its own photo feature. If you missed the tour of the 1058 and 1059, you'll find it here.

After being carefully divided up into groups for loading based on length to maximize the space used on the barge, the cars are backed onto the barge by a Union Pacific crew. The barge is reached via this ramp, which is one of the only things that the Alaska Railroad actually owns in the facility. The ramp can be raised and lowered by pumping water in and out of the tubular pylons on either side, but it's not actually touching the floor of Puget Sound. It also can't support much weight on its own, and gets its strength by resting on a lip on the end of the barge. I am told that it would sink under the weight of a forklift if it wasn't connected to anything.

The barges have eight tracks, and are loaded more or less from the outside in. HALX 1058 and 1059 are rolling onto track two of the Anchorage Provider. The barge is owned by another company, and space is leased to the Alaska Railroad and two other companies. One company, Alaska Marine Lines, loads containers and other items in a rack above the track level.

With tracks two and three loaded, the barge takes on a pretty impressive list. There are depth marks on the sides of the keels, and the difference from one side to the other at this point was in the area of six feet. Loading tracks on the other side will even out the angle. The sight of the trucks, boat and other items on the upper level of the barge still surprises me.

The cables between the barge and the piers on the outer edges of the slip run down to four winches which are controlled from the small cabin on the ramp (visible at the left). They are used to move the barge back and forth during the loading process.

The ramp has been floated up and the heavily listing barge has been repositioned to load tracks six and seven. Once the final adjustments are made, the ramp will be lowered back down and locked into position so those tracks can be filled. While the barge would be almost impossible to capsize, they are loaded this way to keep the ramp from deforming.

Former Montana Rockies Daylight dome 9407 and three other cars were also Alaska-bound, and were loaded on track six to help even out the load. After loading those tracks, the crew loaded the middle tracks, then finished by loading the outer tracks.

Union Pacific uses a remote control locomotive to load the cars. The grain hopper and cabooses behind the unit are used as idlers. While the ramp can easily support the weight of the locomotive (as well as the new ones that the ARR has purchased recently) it won't tolerate the tractive forces of the unit. The idlers are used to keep the locomotive pulling on solid ground.

Getting the cars secured to the barge is an important part of the process. Not only are the cars lashed in place with chains and binders, but they are also jacked up slightly to put more of the cars' weight on the barge and less on the trucks, lessening the chance of the cars swaying on the truck springs.

In late afternoon, after all of the cars are loaded and tied down, the barge is guided away from the slip by a pair of tugs and begins its tow out of Puget Sound and up to Alaska. The trip will take about six days to complete. Here we see the fully loaded barge Southeast Provider, a rail-only barge that is used in fill-in service to Alaska during heavy traffic periods.

Loading barges for the Alaska Railroad is an incredible process that seems largely to have been ignored by most eyes. If you have ever wondered how CRM's domes get to Alaska, I hope that this tour has answered some of your questions. Thanks for visiting.

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