Written by: Gary Dolzall
With the Alaska Railroad soon arriving for Train Simulator, we look at freight operations on the ARR.
Hauling heavy tonnage through the rugged wilds of Alaska represents big-time, challenging railroading at its best – and that remarkable experience will soon be yours with the upcoming Train Simulator Alaska Railroad – Seward to Anchorage route.
In recent weeks at Train-Simulator.com, we’ve introduced this remarkable route developed by partner programme member Trains & Drivers, which will include the 126-mile south end of the ARR between Anchorage, Whittier, and Seward Alaska, and we’ve shared the history of the line in the feature articles “A Splendid Railroad” and “A Railroad Comes of Age”. Now, let’s take a look at the railroad’s diverse and challenging contemporary freight operations.
Today’s Alaska Railroad has become quite noted for its stylish passenger services which delight travelers from around the world with the scenic magnificence of Alaska. But like virtually all North American railroads, the ARR’s primary purpose is hauling tonnage. Of the approximately $180 million in annual revenues generated by the ARR, about 60 percent is derived from freight services, and with a fleet of more than 50 locomotives and 850 freight cars, the Alaska Railroad hauls container and rail carload traffic, petroleum, coal, aggregates, bulk dry commodities, and construction supplies.
Anchorage is the nerve center of the ARR, home to a major yard, shops, large lineside industries, and the railroad’s modern Anchorage Operations Center (opened in 2005). To control traffic on the railroad’s south end, which is largely not signaled, the ARR primarily relies upon Direct Traffic Control (“DTC”) which involves dispatchers providing, via radio transmission, permission for trains to operating within assigned DTC blocks. The area immediately around Anchorage, however, is signaled and controlled via CTC. The upcoming Alaska Railroad – Seward to Anchorage route authentically re-creates ARR’s block system and DTC operations as well as the CTC signaling around Anchorage. Some sections of the ARR are authorized for 49-mph freight-train speeds, although much of the railroad, due to its steep gradients and tight curves, are more typically restricted to speeds in the range of 25-35 mph.
The area at and south of Anchorage provides for extensive yard and lineside switching duties, as do the ports of Whittier and Seward. The port of Whittier has become ever-more vital for the ARR, and today it is the point at which railcars are interchanged between Alaska and the rest of the North American rail system. Alaska Rail Marine handles railcar shipments between Alaska and Seattle for interchange with BNSF and Union Pacific. CN Barges move railcars between Alaska and Prince Rupert, B. C., for interchange with the Canadian National. Typically, the ARR dispatches trains between Anchorage and Whittier to coincide with the arrivals and departures of the rail barges. Traffic moving via Whittier typically includes containers as well as railcars often loaded with food and consumer goods.
Seward, in contrast, does not handle railcar interchange, but has been a source for coal, container, and transload tonnage for the railroad. Although coal traffic volume has become distressed, in recent years the movement of unit coal trains from Alaska’s Usibelli coal fields (located 350 miles north of Anchorage) to Seward for export, primarily to Korea, accounted for a quarter of the railroad’s annual tonnage. The upcoming Alaska Railroad – Seward to Anchorage route re-creates the Seward Loading Facility (SLF) equipped to transload coal delivered by ARR unit trains to ocean-going ships, and Seward also includes additional port and lineside industry operations.
To haul its tonnage, the Alaska Railroad currently relies on three Electro-Motive diesel types. The railroad’s heavy-haulers are its fleet of 4,000-horsepower SD70MACs, the first group of which (ARR 4001-4016) arrived in 1999-2000 and are included with this upcoming route. Also included with the Alaska Railroad – Seward to Anchorage route will be the road’s EMD GP38-2 diesel (ARR owns eight such units, road numbers 2001-2008, all of which were acquired second-hand and many of which are rebuilt GP38s). The ARR also employs 11 GP40-2s.
Along with the ARR SD70MAC and GP38-2, the upcoming Alaska Railroad – Seward to Anchorage route will also provide a variety of appropriate freight equipment, including flatbed container car, covered hoppers, center-beam flatcar, 4-chute coal hopper, timber flat, stack car, piggyback flat, boxcar, tank car, and ARR extended-vision cupola caboose.
Created by Train & Drivers with contributions by Jonathan Lewis (of Milepost Simulations) and Michael Stephan (of the VNHRR team), the upcoming and remarkable Alaska Railroad – Seward to Anchorage route will include the ARR’s rugged steel artery from Anchorage via Portage to Seward (114 route miles) as well as the important and bustling line from Portage (Whittier Junction) to Whittier, Alaska (12 route miles) – and it’s all coming soon to Train Simulator! – Gary Dolzall ■