Two Weeks on the Alaska Railroad – Jun 2006

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 enjoy it.

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

Anchorage-Fairbanks – Jun 25-27, 2006

Anchorage-Whittier – Jun 28, 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.

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