August 7-17, 2004
After my visit I walk outside the station to find that our train has been spotted at the station. This is the daily southbound for Anchorage. We will only be going as far as Denali National Park where we will spend the night before continuing to Anchorage tomorrow morning.
This train is actually two trains in one. On the front, behind two Alaska Railroad road diesels is the Alaska Railroad portion of the train. The lead engine is one of ARR,s new SD70MAC's. The second engine is an older model but clean and freshly painted. One thing I noticed about all of the ARR power that I saw was that it was clean and had a good paint job. Behind that is the Cruise line and tour portion of the train. The cruise part of the trains is made up of 2 types of cars. Some are the rebuilt Super Domes which were the original equipment; these were bought from various RR's and completely rebuilt to include dining facilities on the lower level. The newer cars are built to order for this service. They are very similar to the cars which run on the Rocky Mountaineer trains from Vancouver to Jasper and Calgary in southern Canada.
This morning the consist, of the ARR part of the train, is made up of the following types of cars. Behind the engines is a baggage car converted to a HEP car, 2 coaches, a long dome, coach, 2 short domes and a coach for a total of 7 cars in this part. It is probable that one or more of the cars which I have listed as a coach is a diner or lounge car. I could never get close enough to the front of the train for a good look. Following the AAR part was the Cruise part which today was made up of 2 new of high level cars lettered for Wilderness Express, 2 rebuilt super dome's lettered for Princess Cruise Lines, 4 new high level cars lettered for Holland American Cruise lines, and 4 new high level cars lettered for Princess. All of these Tour cars are owned by Westours which is owned by Carnival.
We board our car, which is the second of the Holland American cars, and settle in for the 4 hour ride to Denali. The Fairbanks station is at mile 470 and Denali is at mile 347. Mile 0 is at Seward with Anchorage at mile 114. Today we will go 147 miles not quite half way to Anchorage. We are greeted by our car attendant who will provide commentary for the trip. One thing that I like is that in the front of the car is a computer running a GPS program which provides a real time view of our location keyed to mile posts. Each seat is provided with a Rail Guide with a map of the route and a written commentary of points of interest.
We leave on time and go through the yard at Fairbanks where I get a look at some of the ARR equipment over the top of some tank cars.
We go through an area which looks like the outskirts of any medium sized city. We pass the University of Alaska on the right side. A short time later we pass one of the electric generating stations for Fairbanks. This is a coal fired station. Our car attendant tells us that along the route later we will see large deposits of coal. One of the main sources of freight for the ARR is coal for the power plants and to Seward for export. Also oil from the Alaska pipeline is hauled to refinerys for domestic use.
This part of Alaska looks a lot like Montana or North Dakota.
We pass through several small towns and former sites of gold rush towns. Many of these have the remains of narrow and standard gauge railroads which led to the gold camps.
We cross the Parks Highway for the first time just before making our first stop at the flag stop station in Manley. The Parks Highway is the main highway in Alaska; it connects the two City's of Anchorage and Fairbanks. We will follow and cross it numerous tines before we get to Anchorage tomorrow.
We cross the Tanana River and enter the town of Nenana. This is a flag stop which we make. This river crossing is made on a 702 foot long single span railroad bridge. One of the longest bridges of that type in the U.S. This is also the site at which President Warren G. Harding drove the golden spike, to commemorate the completion of the railroad, on July 15, 1923.
At his point the Nenana River flows into the Tanana, we will follow the Nenana for the rest of the way to Denali. All of these rivers start in glaciers and are full of glacier flour. This is rock which is ground by the movement to the consistency of flour. It makes the rivers and streams to appear gray or white. This is true of almost all rivers and streams in Alaska and northern Canada.
We pass through several small towns and arrive at Clear. Clear originally called Clear Site is the site of one of three of the world's early warning ballistic missile sites. It is the home of about 125 Air Force personnel who receive overseas pay and are not allowed to have families on the base. We can see the large radar array to the west as we pass. There is also a siding into the base. We are told that ARR personnel are not allowed to operate trains onto the base. They stop at the siding and military crews take the trains into the base. Today there is a ballast train parked on the "Y" at the siding.
After passing through some more small town sites we arrive at the town of Ferry site of a ferry which has been replaced with a bridge over the river. Our car attendant tells us to watch out for the Fannies of Ferry as we go through. This is a group of locals who make it a practice to "Moon" trains as they go through. We are lucky today though and no "fannies" are seen.
We now enter an area of flat and marshy land which marks the start of the Alaska coal mining area. This area has been mined since 1916, first by underground and now open pit mines. Large coal seams are visible on the east side of the river.
We pass through the town site of Lignite and pass the Usibelli Tipple where a conveyer belt carries the coal across the river where it is dumped into ARR hopper cars.
Healy is the heart of the Nenana River Coal Field. Mining this coal was one of the things that drove the building of the ARR and today about one fifth of the AAR freight revenue comes from this coal. Each year about 670,000 tons, 132 train loads, are shipped to Seward bound for the Korea Electric company, In addition more than 560,000 tons of coal is transported to Fairbanks each year.
The tracks leave the coal area and enter the Nenana River canyon. We pass flag stops at Garner and Moody. This canyon would look familiar to anyone who has ridden the Durango and Silverton, in Colorado. The ARR is of course standard gage. The railroad is built along a shelf on the west canyon wall. There are several bridges, crossing rivers and streams flowing into the river. There ale also numerous tunnels. The train runs this portion of the route at reduced speed. I found it one of the most interesting parts of the trip.Continued in next section