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 ■