Written by: Gary Dolzall
The incomparable and majestic Alaska Railroad is coming soon to Train Simulator!
Across the entire globe, there are precious few demonstrations of railroading more majestic, more challenging, and more memorable than the remarkable Alaska Railroad – and soon, the southern portion of this incomparable rail line will be coming to Train Simulator with the Alaska Railroad – Seward to Anchorage route!
Created through the Dovetail Games Partner Programme by Train & Drivers with masterful contributions by Jonathan Lewis (of Milepost Simulations) and Michael Stephan (of the VNHRR team), the upcoming Train Simulator Alaska Railroad – Seward to Anchorage route will include the Alaska Railroad’s artery from Anchorage via Portage to Seward (114 route miles) as well as the important ARR line from Portage (Whittier Junction) to Whittier, Alaska (12 route miles). As an engineer of the upcoming route, you’ll have the opportunity to take the throttle of ARR’s powerful Electro-Motive SD70MACs and versatile EMD GP38-2s, working duties ranging from lugging massive unit coal trains and manifests over the Kenai Mountains to extensive switching activities at Anchorage and the busy deep-water ports of Seward and Whittier.
Over the coming weeks here at Train-Simulator.com, we’ll be taking a close look at the Alaska Railroad and the upcoming Train Simulator Alaska Railroad – Seward to Anchorage route, with coverage of the line’s history, features, operations, and equipment. Let’s begin by recalling the history of this extraordinary enterprise that came to be known as “Uncle Sam’s Railroad.”
The motto of the state of Alaska today reads “North to the Future,” and surely similar aspirations were in the minds of the group of entrepreneurs more than a century ago who, in 1902, formed the Alaska Central Railway with the goal of building a standard-gauge line from Seward, on the waters of Resurrection Bay, into the vast and untapped Alaska interior. Facing the mountainous rigors of the Kenai Peninsula, the Alaska Central began construction in 1903 and built 51 miles of railroad, but before the decade was out, the company succumbed to bankruptcy. Re-organized as the Alaska Northern Railway, the rail line was soon extended to Kern Creek, 71 miles from Seward and on the shores of the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet. Then the United States government – “Uncle Sam” – came calling.
In 1912, Alaska was a U. S. territory (it would gain statehood in 1959), but the U. S. was already growingly aware of the vast potential of what had once been called “Seward’s Folly”. U. S. President William Howard Taft that year initiated a study for the federal constructed of a rail line into the Alaska interior, and his successor, Woodrow Wilson, then concluded that the U. S. government should not only build but operate the railroad. In 1914, the U. S. Congress authorized $35 million for the railroad’s creation and among the first steps by the government was the 1915 purchase of the Alaska Northern route (as well as that of a narrow-gauge short line, the Tanana Railway, that had been completed in 1904 running from Fairbanks, Alaska).
With the nearly unbridled resources of the United States, the Alaska Railroad took form, stretching from Seward (upon a heavily rebuilt Alaska Northern right-of-way) to the newly born railroad construction town of Anchorage, then onward to Fairbanks on the Chena River. It is a measure of the magnitude and grandeur of the Alaska Railroad’s construction that much of the equipment – including steam shovels, locomotives, and dump cars – that had been involved in the then-just-completed construction of the Panama Canal were forwarded to Alaska for the work at hand! By the time the Alaska Railroad, stretching 550 miles in length and with a total cost of $56 million, was ceremoniously opened, it was June 1923 and the U. S. Presidency was occupied by Warren G. Harding, who in proclaimed, “[The builders] have given us a splendid railroad, and as they have built it miraculously. It is our determination to … operate it wisely.”
For its first decade and more, operating the Alaska Railroad “wisely” proved difficult primarily because it suffered from a dearth of traffic (as late as 1930, the combined populations of Seward, Anchorage and Fairbanks totaled only 4,500 people!) and the railroad’s operating ratio (cost-to-revenue) sometimes exceed 200 percent. In 1938, though, the railroad turned its first annual profit — and then soon came World War II. With Alaska’s geographic position high atop the North Pacific, the territory took on enormous strategic importance for the U. S. military, and Alaska – and its railroad — suddenly bustled with activity. To sustain the railroad during the war, the U. S. Army’s 714th Railway Operating Battalion, including some 1,100 men and a roster of War Department design, Baldwin-built 2-8-0s arrived, and the WWII years also marked the arrival of the railroad’s first diesels, a group of Alco road-switchers.
Indeed, WWII would forever leave an important mark on the Alaska Railroad with the construction of a 12-mile branch from the main line at Portage to the deep-water port of Whittier on the Passage Canal. The Whittier line was constructed in 1943-44 as a military imperative, providing the ARR a second deep-water port that was ice free in winter (in addition to Seward) and one that was better protected than Seward during the war in the Pacific from the risks of Japanese submarine attacks. During the WWII, Whittier would serve as a major U. S. military and fuel depot. Creation of the line to Whittier required two great tunnels, 4,910-foot-long Portage Tunnel and 13,090-foot-long Whittier Tunnel, be drilled through the southern spine of the Chugach Mountains.
As the anticipation builds for the release of the Train Simulator Alaska Railroad – Seward to Anchorage route, we’ll continue to explore the history of the ARR in an upcoming article, then explore the route’s many fascinating features and operations! – Gary Dolzall ■