Work once again took me to Anchorage this summer, so I figured I’d
just tack on another week to spend chasing the Alaska Railroad. It was,
after all, over the summer solstice and give me more daylight than I
could handle… or so I thought. As things turned out, most of the trip
was filled with clouds, cold, and rain, with only a few solid days of
blue skies and sun. There were enough breaks in the clouds, however, to
still make things worthwhile.
The first few days were mainly filled with work. The only time I got
to chase the ARR was usually in the evening or in a few hours over
lunch. Fortunately for me, most of my coworkers had never been to
Alaska and wanted to take a little time off before they left to do
things like see Seward and visit Exit Glacier. Figuring this would be a
good chance to fan during the day, I drove myself down and wound up
chasing a southbound coal load from Moose Pass to Seward on the first
Thursday. Once everyone else was headed home on Friday, I returned to
the lines south of Anchorage to capture the operation of the daily
passenger trains. Saturday went similarly – chasing passenger traffic
along the Turnagain Arm.
Sunday marked a move – the trip north to Fairbanks, following on the
heels of the northbound Denali Star. The day started sunny, but turned
into a downpour north of Broad Pass. Monday, my day to stay around
Fairbanks, was very similar. Consequently, I spent most of the day
driving around and exploring places I’d never visited, not railfanning.
About the only railfanning on Monday was catching the outbound Denali
Star near Happy, and then a few shots from the road on the south side of
the yard. On Tuesday, I headed back to Anchorage to chase the
southbound Denali Star, basically reversing what I’d done on Sunday.
Guess what? Rain, rain, rain, as far as Broad Pass again.
The remainder of my week – Wednesday and Thursday – was spent along
the Turnagain Arm again. Part of this is a cloudless day out to
Whittier. In four trips to Alaska and numerous tries, I’ve never gotten
a clear day in Whittier until now. Not only did I get a clear day, but
I got three trains in town within a short time – a freight loading a
barge and two passenger trains. Thursday didn’t actually involve much
railfanning – it was more about a drive to Homer and the eternal search
for the world’s best fish and chips. Friday marked the end of the trip,
with my flight leaving town a bit after 1300h (which, ironically,
didn’t leave until it was some two hours late).
Overall, it was a good trip, despite the weather. I came home with a
couple thousand shots, of which maybe a dozen were good, and another
hundred were presentable. It’s taken a long time to get this trip
report put together, largely due to the amount of material to sort
through. (Unfortunately, that passage of time has probably lead to a
few inaccuracies creeping in – particularly with trying to figure out
exact positions along the Turnagain Arm. For those of you who know the
area better than me, please feel free to sent corrections.) I hope you
I will warn future fans of one thing – the ARR is a very different creature than it was three years ago. This new Alaska RR is very security sensitive, and is crawling with special agents. I’m not sure what’s responsible for the sudden change, but it’s as clear as night and day. I saw SAs out and about more in two weeks on the ARR than I’ve seen in my entire life in the lower 48. To steal a line from the a post on the ARR Railfans’ mailing list, it’s now not a question of if you’ll be approached, but when. They’re often driving along in their Suburbans just ahead of trains, checking for potential problems, particularly at grade crossings. It makes my usual advice – don’t stay put too long – null and void, as they show up just before train time. Just always stay on public property, be safe, and be straightforward with them when they show up – remember, they’re full law enforcement officers. The two I encountered were both very polite and professional, and gave me no trouble once they were pretty sure I wasn’t any sort of threat nor was I going to do anything unsafe. I will admit, though, that it’s very unnerving and did tend to throw off my photography for at least a few hours afterwards. I wouldn’t let it sway your decision to railfan the ARR too much, but it’s something you should definitely be aware of before you visit.
Anchorage-Seward – Jun 19-24, 2006
Back in Alaska after nearly four years! Unfortunately, the weather isn’t cooperating much, as you can see in this shot. Here’s the first train of the trip – ARR 4318 northbound at Portage on Monday night, 19-Jun-2006.
The other thing is that I’m technically working the first week, so I don’t have much time to ‘fan. After dinner with coworkers on Tuesday, though, I find the southbound Denali Star having arrived at the Anchorage depot with 4324 and 4321 on the point.
The make-up of the train has really changed since the last time I was up here. These are RCIX 1002 and 1003, two of the Royal Carribean cars built by Colorado Railcar.
Some of the other Colorado Railcar products plying Alaskan rails were the new Holland America McKinley Explorer cars, built in 2003 and 2004.
Meanwhile, as I was checking out the passenger train, these units were wandering around the freight yard, assembling cars for what appeared to be a Whittier barge train. You have to love the L-shaped windshield and the unusual Alaskan lighting package on GP40 3001.
Wednesday yielded another day of work, accompanied by yet more clouds and rain. Since it was the longest day of the year, though, I went out anyway. Believe it or not, this is 4318 returning with the Seward train south of Potter at a bit after 10pm.
Bringing up the rear is this one-of-a-kind car – the Alaska Railroad’s Aurora (ARR 2000), a glass-topped open end observation car. Now that’s riding in style!
On Thursday, I got a bit of a reprieve from spending all day at FedEx’s Anchorage hub. After checking on the morning sort and having breakfast, my coworkers decided they wanted to see a glacier. So, off to Seward and Exit Glacier we went! Along the way, I picked up this coal load southbound at Moose Pass.
So I’d be a little late getting to the glacier – I’d been there before. But a southbound coal train, that was worth some delay! Here it is just south of Moose Pass, having just passed over the Trail River.
A bit of a wider shot. The train has SD70MACs 4008, 4005, and 4015 on the front…
…and 4013 pushing on the rear
I’ve always wanted to photograph a freight on the Snow River bridge (milepost 14.3), and on Thursday, 22-Jun-2006, I finally got my chance.
A wider view of the Snow River bridge, taken from atop the culvert where the railway passes under the Seward Highway.
These are some of the folks I was travelling with, trying to avoid getting wet… Should have worn waterproof boots, folks! (From front to back – Lynn from Memphis, Mark’s wife Kate, and Dave from Oakland.)
Okay, that sign is practically calling to me to go up and poke the glacier…
After a couple hours at the base of Exit Glacier, we all packed up and headed out. Stephanie wanted to drop down into Seward and just see the town, and that gave me a good excuse to check out our coal drag again. Here it is at the north end of town, power on the rear end and ready to shove back to be unloaded.
And down at the Seward depot is the daily Seward train, due to depart any time. After that, it was time to head back, with a stop at the Double Musky in Girdwood for what I think is the best steak I have ever eaten. (Helps to have the locals recommending places and the company footing the bill…)
The software test was over after Friday morning, and everybody else was flying out. However, I figured I’d take advantage of that and stay for another week in order to do some serious railfanning. Here’s Friday’s first catch, the southbound Glacier Discovery (service between Anchorage, Whittier, and Grandview) just out of Brookman.
One sure way to know the Glacier Discovery when you see it is Alaska 711 – a Budd Rail Diesel Car – tacked on the back end. Since the train cannot turn at Grandview or Whittier, they use the 711 as a cab car when moving backwards.
A bit further down the Arm, 3010 and the Glacier Discovery pass under the Girdwood defect detector.
With the skies now overcast and rain starting to fall, I leave 3010 south with this final view at Portage, just before it will cross Twenty Mile River bridge and enter the station. I have some other stuff to do in Anchorage, so it’s back to town. The weather makes railfanning hardly worth it anyway.
Finally! Saturday dawns perfectly clear and sunny. Having been out late the night before, I wasn’t exactly up at the break of dawn. Consequently, I caught this unexpected northbound near Indian around 0900h. It’s a cruise ship shuttle train to the airport, with 4317 on the front and ARR ex-F40PH cab car 32 on the rear.
ARR 32, an ex-F40PH cab car, brings up the rear. These trains run to shuttle passengers from cruise ships at Seward and Whittier up to the airport and downtown depot in Anchorage.
4317 approaching Potter with the cruise ship train on Saturday morning, with the still snow-covered mountains south of the Turnagain Arm visible in the distance.
Another look at 32 rounding one of the last bends before the fill across the marshes at Potter.
And 4317 north arrives at the south end of the Anchorage. Within a few seconds, the train will enter the sound end of the Alaska Railroad’s CTC-controlled territory. From there, it’ll head up to airport branch junction.
The nice thing about the south end of the Alaska Railroad in the summer is that it’s a very busy place. It’s almost hard to not find a train somewhere along the line. Shortly after I quit following the cruise ship train, 3010 showed up with Saturday’s southbound Glacier Discovery.
3010 and the Glacier Discovery further down the arm, closer to Rainbow.
Just a slightly different view, showing the waters of the Turnagain Arm in the background.
The biggest surprise over the radio was that 3010 south would be meeting 3013 north at Rainbow (I think…) I shot ahead to catch this mystery train, which turned out to be another northbound cruise ship train, with 3013 and 3015 on the front and 31 on the back.
Like I said, 31 bringing up the rear.
Having met the 3013 north, 3010 south is again rolling north of Indian.
The Glacier Discovery, lead by 3010, rolling along just north of Girdwood
Approaching the Girdwood station platform, with the Chugach Mountains in the background
Crossing the Twenty Mile River just north of Portage
Once at Portage, the train runs through the wye to put the RDC (ARR 711) in the lead. From there, they’ll head up into the mountains to Grandview before coming back and travelling down the branch to Whittier.
And they’re off! Taken just south of Portage, this is the last point you can see the line until both reach the other side of the mountains at Moose Pass. Meanwhile, it was nearly lunchtime, so I headed back to Girdwood for food and fuel.
Hey, look! It’s that cruise ship train from earlier, returning southward just past Indian. One of the side effects of the Alaska Railroad now using DTC rather than TWC is that they tend to be rather chatty. Thanks to that, I had plenty of warning this was coming.
3013 and 3015 nearing Brookman alongside the Seward Highway
Just north of Girdwood, a few miles of highway and railway have been straightened out. Both enjoy a few miles of straight, flat running on an otherwise very winding route.
Rounding the famed corner at Portage. Based on radio chatter, it sounds like this one’s headed to Seward. There’s nothing else out to chase, so I might as well follow along!
As has been mentioned before, the line is virtually inaccessible between Portage and Moose Pass. So, here we are at Moose Pass, and after about 20 minutes, the train finally showed up. A few minutes before the train, an Alaska RR Special Agent came wandering through in his Suburban, checking for folks on the bridge. This would become a pattern…
A few miles south of Moose Pass, crossing over the Trail River near the Alaska RR location of Crown Point
A little wider shot at the same spot
Looking the other direction as the train passes, and we see 31 bringing up the rear again
Back at the Snow River bridge, again in deteriorating weather. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sunny day on this side of the mountains.
Another shot with the same bridge. I couldn’t decide which one I liked better, so you get to suffer through both…
Coming off the bridge, the line now goes under the highway as it starts the short climb to Divide.
Down in Seward, the train reaches its destination – the dock beside Celebrity Cruises’ ship “Summit”.
Meanwhile in Seward, the Coastal Classic train is about to depart for Anchorage behind ARR 4318.
I figure why waste an opportunity, even if the light is lousy? So, I set up for another shot I’ve always wanted – a train coming through the Divide siding.
Two Wilderness Explorer (Celebrity Cruises / Royal Carribean) ultradomes bring up the rear today.
Ducking under the Seward Highway at the Snow River bridge.
North of Kenai lake, the train comes around the bend into the Crown Point siding.
Coming around the curve into Moose Pass, headed for the bridge over the lake
North of Moose Pass, the train hits a very small patch of brilliant sunlight
Back in Portage, we find not 4318, but 4317 with another cruise ship train (the same one from the morning). I can’t remember exactly what became of this train, but I think it just shoved back in the siding to let 4318 and the northbound Coastal Classic pass by.
Some time later, 4318 comes on across the Twenty Mile River north of Portage.
Being as late as it was, there were very few spots on the Arm with enough light yet to shoot 4318. Not sure where this is, but it was one of only a handful of workable shots.
One last look at 4318 for the day, as it nears Potter.
Anchorage-Fairbanks – Jun 25-27, 2006
Sunday morning meant that it was time to head for Fairbanks. Since I heard the northbound Denali Star already depart the depot, I hightailed it to the Birchwood crossing. Sitting in the yard was the coal train from last Thursday, with 4015 still on the front.
Within a few minutes, 4324 and 4321 came blasting through with the day’s passenger train behind them. Note the signals – yes, Birchwood is now under CTC control! How far the railroad has come, even since my 2002 visit.
I missed the shot on the old Glenn Hwy bridge, so it was on to Wasilla. Here’s our train just east of town.
This is the trip’s train-chasing vehicle – a relatively new Ford Fusion.
About to pass under the Parks Highway just south of Willow. I tried for another shot north of here, but found a railroad special agent already at the crossing. Deciding I didn’t really want to talk, I just moved on.
Having no topo map (I’d left it in the Anchorage hotel by accident), I tried a few side roads on the way to Talkeetna that just didn’t pan out. Consequently, 4324 north beat me into town. Fortunately it’s a station stop, so I had more than enough time to set up on the far side of the depot.
With the northbound train running a bit late, the day’s meet would be at Colorado. I arrived at the crossing between Broad Pass and Colorado just in time to see the southbound Denali Star, lead by 4319, come through.
Having met the southbound, our northbound is on the move again, headed up to Broad Pass.
Here we are at Cantwell. While it looks like a summit just under the detector, it’s not. It might be a small lump, but this train is on the long 1.4% descending grade from Broad Pass.
As you could see at Cantwell, the weather was turning rainy. Between Broad Pass and Denali, there was actually some pretty good downpours. However, past Denali that was largely behind us, as you can see from this shot of the train approaching the depot.
Here are the two motors of the northbound (4324 and 4322) passing through the relatively new depot facilities at Denali National Park.
There’s a few folks waiting to get on northbound…
After a decently long station stop, 4324 is again northbound at the north end of the Denali siding.
The call went out over the radio that a few folks missed the train. This was a good thing, as with park traffic, the train has already gotten several miles ahead. However, they stopped at Healy to pick up their missed guests.
After passing through yet more rain (which was a good thing, as it was helping to bring the Nenana forest fire under control), we see the train again passing through downtown Nenana.
Making the bend to climb up to the Mears Memorial Bridge over the Tanana River… This alignment may soon be a thing of the past, with the ARR proposing a more direct alignment to the bridge, starting south of town. This would take the rails out of downtown Nenana entirely.
Stepping out onto the Mears bridge…
This should help you get an idea of the immenseness of this span. The main truss is 700 feet long, and is still an engineering wonder.
Nothing like sitting back, waiting for the train, and suddenly having a railroad special agent knocking on your window. That’s how Monday started. The officer was professional and polite, just wanting to make sure I stayed back from the tracks. The oddest thing was when he asked if the crew knew I was there. I thought to myself, “Ummm, how exactly would they know that, or why would they care?” He offered to radio in and let them know. Seemed a little obsessed with wanting the crew to know where I’d be taking pictures. Strange…
The southbound met this empty northbound OX (Oil Express) somewere south of Happy (Saulich, probably). I stopped for a shot, fully expecting to see my ARR Special Agent buddy again. Fortunately, no. Still, police encounters tend to unnerve me just a bit, so I decided to go do other stuff for a while and regroup.
One of the ARR’s rare GP49s sitting in the Fairbanks yard. I’m glad I photographed a few of these on this trip. As of December 2006, all the GP49s have been sold and will be off the ARR shortly.
Most of the day was spent in a downpour, so it didn’t really matter I was off my game a bit. By the evening, I drove out to Nenana to catch the northbound again with a slightly different shot – this one with the highway bridge in the background.
Here we are on the opposite side of the Tanana where the road and railway come back together for a short distance.
Alas, the old sign at the end of the main line no longer sees daily passenger trains. The old Fairbanks depot was replaced by a new, gorgeous structure in 2005 located on the north side of the yards. Here’s the northbound Denali Star arriving on Monday, 26-Jun-2006.
This is the new Fairbanks station. Shortly after I took this, the Special Agent showed up again. I waved, and we got to talking about various things – the new station, my trip, the fact he was a cop in Fort Collins, CO, at one point…
Looking east inside the station
Looking west inside… I’m glad to see that the Tanana Valley Model Railroad Club was given a new home. I always enjoyed their layout in the old depot.
The west end of the new building
The west end of the passenger canopy, complete with the just-arrived Denali Star.
The east end of the new station, showing the power from today’s train (as well as some very wet ground – it really has been raining all day!)
Tuesday’s southbound Denali Star departing Fairbanks, just past the University. Yes, I admit, I wasn’t prepared and he got past me… 652, that second car back, is one of the Alaska RR’s new ultradomes purchased in 2005.
Tuesday started out a bit rainy in Fairbanks, so I was pleasantly surprised to see a bit of sun breaking through at Nenana.
Passing the old Nenana depot, now a museum. This is another shot I desperately wanted on this trip, since with the upcoming realignment, trains will no longer pass the old station.
Passing under Nenana’s other big bridge – the one that carries the Parks Highway over the Tanana.
Continuing south, it’s back into the gloom and rain. Here’s the bridge over the Nenana River at Ferry. About a minute later, as the train arrived, my camera unexplainably malfunctioned, missing the real shot. Doh!
Healy was another lost cause on account of pouring rain, so I moved on to the Garner Tunnel shot. Sure, I’ve got a zillion from here and so does everybody else, but can you really skip this famous angle?
Coming south through the Nenana River canyon between Garner and Oliver
Through the canyon, the line crosses a couple deep side chasms. This one has always been my favorite, on account of the interesting wooden trestle.
I was starving by the time I reached the Denali village area, so I stopped for a sandwich while the train stopped for passengers. Again, due to heavy rain and poor light, I just drove until I was out of it – which turned out to be just north of Cantwell. As I was parked and watching for the train, this guy landed…
Like I promised, the next shot is the train approaching Cantwell…
This is a bit wider shot of Cantwell than on Sunday. No, I have no idea what the new building is, but it might be railroad-related given proximity to the line and that gigantic door.
I think the north and south trains met at Summit that day, if I’m remembering correctly. After the meet, 4319 leads across a low bridge over what I believe is the Middle Fork of the Chulitna River.
Around the curve and into the Talkeetna station stop…
Near Willow, southbound at MP 185.5
Passing through Wasilla, I got held up by traffic, giving 4319 south a significant lead. However, I heard 4010 on a gravel train out near Palmer, so I shot out to grab a shot of it quick.
Coming out of the trees at Birchwood, nearly back to Anchorage
While it’s a lousy picture, I wanted to clearly show one of the double headed signals used on the CTC-signalled section. That wraps up the Fairbanks-Anchorage trip, unfortunately largely in foul weather.
Anchorage-Whittier – Jun 28, 2006
Lest you think all I photograph is trains…
It’s 3010 and the Glacier Discovery… again!
3010 just south of Rainbow. You can see the fluorescent yellow/green block signs for the new DTC system in the background.
Continuing south, the train passes through the pony truss bridge over what I think is Bird Creek, just south of Indian.
Meanwhile, I heard discussion on the radio about the impending departure of another cruise ship train from Anchorage. Since I’ve shot the Glacier Discovery and 3010 ad nauseam this week, back to Anchorage we go! Here it is, just passing a park south of downtown.
A wreck on the Seward Highway backed up traffic and put me quite a ways behind. I didn’t see the train again until nearly Girdwood.
The powered end of the train – 4317 running backwards, with what I believe is Mount Alyeska in the background (just beyond Girdwood)
Crossing the oft-photographed Twentymile bridge near Portage…
F40s in Alaska – who would have thought? Well, it’s not really an F40. 32 was created from Amtrak F40PH 268, and the Alaska engineering department has apparently nicknamed them as “capers” – short for “CAb and PowER” – as they provide an operating cab and an 800kW HEP unit in the back.
While most of the cruise ship trains seem to go to Seward, this one threw me a curve ball – it took off down the Whittier branch. Fortunately, there was plenty of time to get set up to photograph it passing over Bridge F5.7, aka the Placer Creek bridge.
I’d often wondered how this unique structure had lasted so long. What I didn’t know at the time was that the end was near – in early October 2006, the ARR started replacement of this structure.
I didn’t get through the tollbooth fast enough to get a photo of the train entering the tunnel, but nonetheless, here’s the Bear Valley portal.
After waiting about 15 minutes, through the tunnel we go!
Arriving on the other side, I find the cruise ship train parked at the cruise ship platform. Makes sense, right? I also found something exceedingly rare in Whittier – sunlight!
A look back at the train and the reason it’s in town – the “Seven Seas Mariner” is in port.
The crew of the cruise ship train wanted to make the next tunnel window, so they wasted no time in heading back to the portal.
Cab car 32, now trailing, sits under the majestic mountain ridge separating Whittier from the Bear Valley and the Seward Highway corridor. It’s because of this thing, which my map calls Maynard Mountain, that they needed to tunnel 12,996 feet to reach tidewater.
And there’s the light – highball!
And now back to Whittier… Normally there’d be nothing unusual about a woman out walking her pets, and especially nothing that would warrant inclusion here when I could put in another train. However, everything changes when you’re walking a pair of caribou…
While I was in Whittier, there was a freight in town loading up one of the barges to the lower 48. Here are 2805 and 3001 working the barge slip.
And here’s the barge itself – railcars on the bottom deck, containers up top. Pretty ingenious way to get better utilization of space.
These two motors – 2002 and 3007 – were likely part of the train from Anchorage, but were left in the yard. I guess you just don’t need four motors to switch a barge.
I’d like to buy a vowel – how about an A? (I won’t even start to ask why there’s a tornado-looking thing painted on one end…)
As I’m sitting in line for the return trip through the bore, the Glacier Discovery bursts from the darkness with RDC 711 on the point.
Having little else of importance to do, I sat around the Twentymile bridge awaiting 3010’s return. So, you get blessed with the eight-zillionth shot of Twentymile in this trip report.
This almost belongs in the “shots that didn’t work” pile, but I decided to throw it in anyway. It’s one of the little backwaters between Portage and Girdwood, formed when the fill for the highway isolated these little coves from the sea.
The train in late day light, just leaving the Girdwood station.
This is some of the realigned track north of Girdwood. Note the concrete ties – this is the first section I’ve seen done with these in Alaska.
On my last day in Anchorage, I decided to mostly forgo the railfanning and do something I’d always wanted to do – drive out to Kenai and Homer. So I did. First, I had to stop at the Anchorage depot gift shop and pick up a new Alaska Railroad shirt. When I arrived, I found this work train.
GP49 2803 on the front, GP40-2 3012 on the back, with a trainload of concrete ties bound for points south at Anchorage.
The entire train, waiting to go south.
Out front of the Anchorage station is Alaska Railroad 1, an 0-4-0T. It started life as a narrow gauge engine on the Panama Canal project, before being transferred to Alaska in 1917. In 1930, it was converted from narrow to standard gauge, and renumbered as Alaska #1.
Here’s the great part about ARR 1… I never realized it was a Davenport. This thing has been all over the Western Hemisphere, and it was built 15 miles from where I grew up.
On my way back from Homer the last night, I managed to catch up with 3010 and a little bit of light a couple miles south of Potter. Here’s the returning Glacier Discovery one more time. Note that the tide is coming in very quickly below the train.
Just another shot of 3010 on the 29th. I fly out the next morning, so this was the last train for the trip. How fitting it was the same train as my first shot for the trip nearly two weeks earlier, at very close to the same spot.
This doesn’t belong here, but I thought it was a decent way to wrap up the trip report – particularly because this page is a little sparse on “scenic” photos. I hope you’ve enjoyed my trip to the ARR in 2006.
All photographs in this trip report were taken with a Canon EOS 20D using either a Canon 24-105mm F4 L IS/USM or a Canon 75-300mm f4-5.6 IS/USM.
This work is copyright 2020 by Nathan D. Holmes, but all text and images are licensed and reusable under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. Basically you’re welcome to use any of this as long as it’s not for commercial purposes, you credit me as the source, and you share any derivative works under the same license. I’d encourage others to consider similar licenses for their works.