In 1903 a company called the Alaska Central Railroad began to build a rail line beginning at Seward, near the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, northward. The company built 51 miles (82 km) of track by 1909 and went into 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. In 1909, another company, the Alaska Northern Railroad Company, bought the rail line and extended it another 21 miles (34 km) northward. From the new end, goods were floated down the Turnagain Arm in small boats. The Alaska Northern Railroad went into receivership in 1914.
About this time, the United States government was planning a railroad route from Seward to the interior town of Fairbanks. President Taft authorized a commission to survey a route in 1912. The line would be more than 470 miles long and provide an all-weather route to the interior. In 1914, the government bought the Alaska Northern Railroad and moved its headquarters to "Ship Creek," later called Anchorage. The government began to extend the rail line northward.
A 1915 photograph of the railroad under construction.
In 1917, the Tanana Valley Railroad in Fairbanks was heading into bankruptcy. It owned a small 45-mile (72 km) 3 ft (914 mm) (narrow gauge) line that serviced the towns of Fairbanks and the mining communities in the area as well as the boat docks on the Tanana River near Fairbanks.
The government bought the Tanana Valley Railroad, principally for its terminal facilities. The section between Fairbanks and Happy was converted to dual gauge in order to complete the 4 ft 81⁄2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge line from Seward to Fairbanks. The government extended the south portion of the track to Nenana and later converted the extension to standard gauge. The Alaska Railroad continued to operate the remaining TVRR narrow gauge line as the Chatanika Branch, until decommissioning it in 1930.
In 1923 they built the 700-foot (213 m) Mears Memorial Bridge across the Tanana River at Nenana. This was the final link in the Alaska Railroad and at the time, was the second longest single-span steel railroad bridge in the country. U. S. President Warren G. Harding drove the golden spike that completed the railroad on July 15, 1923, on the north side of the bridge. The railroad was part of the US Department of the Interior.
The railroad was greatly affected by the Good Friday Earthquake which struck southern Alaska in 1964. The yard and trackage around Seward buckled and the trackage along Turnagain Arm was damaged by floodwaters and landslides. It took several months to restore full service along the line.
In 1967, the railroad was transferred to the Federal Railroad Administration, an agency within the newly created US Department of Transportation.
In 1985, the state of Alaska bought the railroad from the U.S. government for $22.3 million, based on a valuation determined by the US Railway Association. The state immediately invested over $70 million on improvements and repairs that made up for years of deferred maintenance. The purchase agreement prohibits the Alaska Railroad from paying dividends or otherwise returning capital to the state of Alaska (unlike the other Alaska quasi-entities: Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation, Alaska Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC), and Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA)).
A northbound Alaska Railroad passenger train idles at the Seward, Alaska, depot on June 30, 2010
Proposed expansion in Alaska
As of April 2010, an extension of the railroad from Fairbanks to Delta Junction is planned, having been proposed as early as 2009. Originally, the extension was to be completed by 2010, but construction of a major bridge across the Tanana River has barely begun, and construction of track has not started. A proposed 2011 Alaska state budget would provide $40 million in funding for the bridge, which would initially be for vehicular use, but would support Alaska Railroad trains once construction of track to Delta Junction began. The United States Department of Defense would provide another $100 million in funds, as the bridge and subsequent rail line would provide year-round access to Fort Greely and the Joint Tanana Training Complex. A groundbreaking ceremony for the Tanana River Bridge took place on September 28, 2011.
There are plans to provide commuter rail service (Anchorage to Mat-Su Valley via Eagle River, north Anchorage to south Anchorage) but that requires additional tracks be laid due to a heavy freight schedule.
Proposed connection to the contiguous 48 states
The United States government during the Clinton administration formed an international commission to investigate the building of a rail link through the Yukon to connect the Alaska railroads with the rest of the North American Rail Network; Canada was asked to be part of the commission, but the Chrétien (1993–2004) and Martin (2004–2006) governments did not choose to join the commission and commit funds for the study. The Harper government has not yet acted; the Yukon government is interested.
A passenger train pulls into the Denali Station in July 1998.
The railroad is a major tourist attraction in the summer. Coach cars feature wide windows and domes for tourism peaks. Private cars owned by the major cruise companies are towed behind the Alaska Railroad's own cars, and trips are included with various cruise packages.
The Denali Star runs from Anchorage to Fairbanks (approximately 12 hours one-way) and back with stops in Talkeetna and Denali National Park, from which various flight and bus tours are available. The Denali Star only operates between May 15 and September 15. Although the trip is only about 356 miles (573 km), it takes 12 hours to travel from Anchorage to Fairbanks as the tracks wind through mountains and valleys; the train's top speed is 59 miles per hour but sometimes hovers closer to 30 miles per hour.
The Aurora Winter Train is available in winter months (September 15 - May 15) on a reduced weekend-only schedule (Northbound, Saturday mornings; Southbound, Sunday mornings) between Anchorage and Fairbanks on the same route as the Denali Star.
The Coastal Classic winds its way south from Anchorage along Turnagain Arm before turning south to the Kenai Peninsula, eventually reaching Seward. This 114-mile (183 km) trip takes around four and a half hours due to some slow trackage as the line winds its way over mountains.
The Glacier Discovery provides a short (2 hour) trip south from Anchorage to Whittier for a brief stop before reversing direction for a stop at Grandview before returning to Anchorage in the evening.
The Hurricane Turn provides rail service to people living between Talkeetna and the Hurricane area. This area has no roads, and the railroad provides the lifeline for residents who depend on the service to obtain food and supplies. One of the last flag-stop railway routes in the United States, passengers can board the Hurricane Turn anywhere along the route by waving a large white flag or cloth.
In 2011 the Alaska Railroad reacquired ARR 557, the last steam locomotive used by the railroad, with the intent to refurbish it and begin operating it in early 2012 as a special tourist train between Anchorage and Girdwood.
A type "2-8-0 Consolidation" engine built in 1943 by Baldwin Locomotive Works, 557 was originally coal-fired, but was converted to oil in 1955. It operated until 1964, when it was sold to the House of Poverty Museum in Moses Lake, Washington.
Jim and Vic Jansen bought 557 from the museum and returned to the Alaska Railroad on the condition it be restored to operation and put into service.
In popular culture
The Alaska Railroad was prominently featured in the movie Runaway Train.
The Simpson family rides the Alaska Railroad in The Simpsons Movie, although the colors and configuration of cars and engines are inaccurate. They also ride the train from Alaska to Seattle, Wash. which is not possible as there is no railroad link from Alaska to Canada and the southern 48 states.
43 U.S.C.§ 942-1 Rights of way in Alaska; railroad rights of way; reservations; water transportation connections; State title to submerged lands; Federal repossession as trustee; "navigable waters" defined; posting schedules of rates; changes in rates
43 U.S.C.§ 942-6 Rights of way for Alaskan wagon roads, wire rope, aerial, or other tramways; reservations; filing preliminary survey and map of locations; alteration, amendment, repeal, or grant of equal rights; forfeiture of rights; reversion of grant; liens