A Railroad Comes of Age

Written by: Gary Dolzall

With the Alaska Railroad arriving soon for Train Simulator, we continue the history of this incomparable American railroad.

The Alaska Railroad – Seward to Anchorage route will be arriving soon for Train Simulator and will re-create the entire southern portion of the remarkable ARR, including 126 route miles from Anchorage to Seward and Whittier, Alaska, and put you to work at the throttle of Alaska Railroad’s powerful Electro-Motive SD70MACs and versatile EMD GP38-2s!

Here at Train-Simulator.com, we introduced this extraordinary upcoming route and shared the early history of the Alaska Railroad in the feature article “A Splendid Railroad”. And now, we continue the story of the incomparable ARR.

World War II had, to say the least, been a transformational time for the Alaska Railroad. The railroad had evolved from a rather sleepy, remote operation to one straining to handle the demands of wartime tonnage; diesels had made their debut; and the important Portage (Whittier Junction) – Whittier line had been constructed. WWII also left the railroad’s physical plant exhausted and in need of rehabilitation, a project that would go forward and be made possible by over $100 million in U. S. government funding. Increasing, the railroad also turned to diesel motive power, amassing a sizeable fleet of Alco RS1 and RSD1 road-switchers, most of ex-U. S. Army heritage, and in something that proved a harbinger of the railroad’s future devotion to passenger operations, in 1947 the ARR introduced a diesel-powered, streamlined train, the AuRoRa. Indeed, if WWII had brought life and energy to the ARR, the following decades would represent the railroad’s own coming of age.

The physical improvements and modernization of the Alaska Railroad begun shortly after WWII continued throughout much of the 1950s. In 1951-1952, the first of the railroad’s classic Electro-Motive F7s arrived (along with GP7s). As for key infrastructure improvements, one of the last was a line relocation on the north slope climb to Grandview which replaced an almost Tehachapi-like loop-and trestle alignment with today’s only slightly less impressive series of loops. The old configuration was less steep but more expensive to maintain than the newly chosen route, and ARR’s new diesels could successfully operate on the new alignment, which included a 3 percent gradient.

On the Alaska Railroad, the 1960s would be recalled for two significant events; one positive, one quite the opposite. In May 1962, regular car-barge service was inaugurated at Whittier, enabling railcars to move, without transloading of contents, between Alaska and the rest of the North American rail system. But on Good Friday, March 27, 1964, the railroad was, literally, shaken to its core by the 9.2 magnitude “Great Alaskan Earthquake.” The earthquake and its resulting tsunami claimed 139 lives and for the ARR resulted in severe damage, including at and around Seward, on the Whittier line, and along Turnagain Arm. It would be April 20 before the railroad returned to full operation. The Portage-Seward portion of the line had been so damaged that abandonment of that portion of the ARR was considered, but eventually the line was repaired at a cost of $11 million (repairs over the entire ARR ran to $27 million).

The 1970s through 1990s were relatively comfortable times for the Alaska Railroad. By the mid-1970s, second-generation EMD GP40-2s had become the railroad’s primary road power and the ARR was hauling 2 million revenue tons annually. While invisible from trackside, a major event in the railroad’s history occurred in 1984-1985 when the State of Alaska acquired the railroad from the U. S. Federal government at a cost of $22 million plus assumption of liabilities. What was quite visible -and dramatic – from trackside was the railroad’s haulage of coal from the Usibelli coal fields (located 350 miles north of Anchorage) to Seward for export, which was accounting for a quarter of the railroad’s annual tonnage. Also growing was ARR’s footprint in passenger services (which by 1990 reached nearly half-a-million passengers per year). In an interesting twist, in 1998-99 the 13,090-foot Whittier Tunnel was reconfigured and opened to auto traffic, replacing a long-time ARR operation that allowed autos to be transported on flat cars between Whittier and Portage (today, trains and autos cannot share the single-bore tunnel at the same time and there are scheduled times for directional auto traffic to use the tunnel).

With the new century, the face of the Alaska Railroad for train enthusiasts changed as the railroad’s first order of burly Electro-Motive SD70MACs (ARR 4001-4016) went into service, with a primary duty of hauling export coal (which by 2011 would total more than a million tons annually). The “Big Macs,” working on the head-end and as mid-train helpers, allowed the railroad to lug coal up the loops district to Grandview without, as had long been tradition, the need to “double the hill.” Today, the Alaska Railroad is a conveyor of a variety of freight tonnage including extensive containerized traffic, petroleum, aggregates, and building materials. Whittier, with frequent car-barge connections to Seattle (for interchange with BNSF and Union Pacific) and Prince Rupert, British Columbia (for interchange with Canadian National) has emerged as an ever-more-critical point on the ARR. In 2015, ARR totted more than 4 million tons of freight, although beginning in 2016 its heavy-tonnage staple of export coal tumbled due to the worldwide sluggish market for soft bituminous coal. And, of course, with the likes of the Glacier Discovery, Coast Classic, and Denali Star passenger services, the Alaska Railroad and its passenger trains have become known worldwide as a captivating tourism and travel experience.

Created through the Dovetail Games Partner Programme by Train & Drivers with 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). And along with these magnificent rail lines through the Chugach and Kenai Mountains, the route will include ARR’s EMD SD70MAC and GP38-2 diesels, plus a fine selection of freight equipment.

Stay tuned here at Train-Simulator.com and in our next advance look at the upcoming Train Simulator Alaska Railroad – Seward to Anchorage route, we’ll explore the railroad’s diverse and challenging contemporary freight operations! – Gary Dolzall

The dramatic operating challenges and magnificent beauty of railroading in Alaska is coming soon to Train Simulator with the Alaska Railroad – Seward to Anchorage route. Southbound along the scenic east shore of the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet, a pair of Alaska Railroad EMD SD70MACs have a manifest freight in tow. Screenshots by Gary Dolzall.

Anchorage is the operational headquarters and heartbeat of the Alaska Railroad. Night has fallen as ARR Electro-Motive GP38-2s congregate at the railroad’s modern Anchorage shops. The Alaska Railroad purchased eight second-hand GP38-2s (ARR 2001-2008) in 1986, and the versatile locomotive is one of two types (along with the EMD SD70MAC) that will be included with the Alaska Railroad – Seward to Anchorage route. Note: Screenshots depict content still in development.

Alaska Railroad GP38-2 2002 is working the industrial district around Anchorage (above), while further south, near Potter, Alaska, ARR SD70MAC 4016 leads tonnage southbound (below). The upcoming Alaska Railroad – Seward to Anchorage route will offer many opportunities for lineside industry, port, and yard-switching duties.

On the daunting north slope climb toward Grandview, the ARR relies upon multiple tunnels to make its way through rugged topography. With a unit coal train bound for Seward in tow, three SD70MACs on the point are grinding up a 2.2 percent grade as they emerge from a rock-faced tunnel and span the Placer River (above). Moments later, three more “Big Macs” are positioned mid-train (below) as the battle toward the 1,062-summit at Grandview continues.

The southbound climb toward Grandview is nearing its completion for a Seward-bound unit coal train as it snakes through the remarkable Loops district. The grade on the north slope reaches a grueling 3 percent and it was not until the arrival of the railroad’s 4,000-horsepower SD70MACs in 1999-2000 that such heavy trains could reach Grandview without “doubling the hill.”

Snow is falling atop the Kenai Peninsula as a northbound container train that originated in Seward nears Grandview behind ARR GP38-2 2002 (above). On another winter eve further south near Divide, Alaska, Seward-to-Anchorage container tonnage has been entrusted to a pair of ARR Electro-Motive SD70MACs (below).

A duo of Alaska Railroad SD70MACs are working coal tonnage at the Seward Loading Facility (SLF). A conveyor system at the SLF filled ocean-going ships with coal from the Usibelli coal fields delivered by the ARR. It would typically take seven-to-ten unit trains to fill a large ship.

The port of Whittier, with frequent car-barge service connecting the Alaska Railroad with the rest of North America’s rail system has become an increasingly vital point on the ARR. Along the shores of the Passage Canal at Whittier, a pair of GP38-2s work a barge (above). Certainly, the most unique feature of the 12-mile Portage-Whittier line is 13,090-foot Whittier Tunnel, which since 1999 has hosted both ARR rail and private auto traffic. With containers bound for Anchorage, ARR GP38-2 2002 emerges from the west portal of Whittier Tunnel (below). The remarkable operating challenges and compelling beauty of contemporary Alaskan railroading will be coming soon to Train Simulator with the Alaska Railroad – Seward to Anchorage route!

We’re always happy to receive your comments below but please ensure they are related to the subject of the article, we’ll remove any that appear to be unrelated.

Gary Dolzall

11 Comments

  • It would be nice if the devs made a TS Marketplace expansion pack with the SD70MAC’s that have flared radiators and HEP, plus the ARR passenger cars!

  • The route looks fantastic! Are you expecting an October 2017 release?

    • Potentially 1q though I can’t say when 🙂

    • Typically, it gets released about a week or two after articles like this.

  • As I said in that other article that seems to have disappeared, I know I speak for myself, and probably some other UK people, but without passenger equipment I am much much less likely to purchase the route. If I have seen one slow American freight, I’ve seen them all. But flying through the snow with the double deck passenger coaches, and the only single storey domed roof business car Aurora (ARR owns it) there is not much fun. Now if they announce an auxiliary content expansion pack with those items, then yes. I want to recreate 557’s return, which will have passenger coaches.

    • Bruh, you think we care? Some people like freight stuff others don’t.

  • good a route for the Alaskan S160

  • I guess there won’t be any ARR passenger stock on this route.

  • Wonderful! Are there plans to add any ARR Passenger equipment as well?

    • I don’t have any details on that ApatheticCareBear but I’ll certainly ask the developers for you

  • Dang it! It looks like the passenger cars won’t be included. But other than that, I can’t wait till the route comes out!

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