Railfan Sites in Alaska
A self-guiding railfan tour
Railfan, railfan--where do you see trains in Alaska?
Cities And Sites
(1) Thanks to Jeff Childs for this information.
(2) Thanks to Casey Durand for this information.
Probably the number one way to railfan the Alaska RR is to ride the passenger trains. Each of the three trains offers a different perspective and destination. Two run south from Anchorage, one to the port of Seward, the other to the port of Whittier. The scenery is spectacular, there are cool non-railroad things to do at both ports (e.g., wildlife and glacier cruises) and both are basically day trips.
The other train is the one to Fairbanks. This train leaves Anchorage daily and meets its opposite number coming south from Fairbanks about six hours into the trip. The train makes stops at Wasilla (an hour north by car from Anchorage), Talkeena (the launching point for all climbing expeditions on Denali), Denali National Park (a good place to overnight, enjoy the wonders of the park the next day, then continue north or south the following day) and finally Fairbanks. This ride is 11-1/2 hours long (a little longer if the weather is nice, as the conductor will slow the train for photos ops of the scenery and wildlife) each direction.
There are three ways to travel on the Anchorage-Fairbanks train: 1) in the ARR portion of the train, 2) in a West Tours McKinley dome car, or 3) in a Princess Tours dome car. The train is led by 2 GP40-2's, an ARR baggage car, ARR coach, ARR diner, ARR (ex-UP) dome, and usually a 2nd ARR coach. Then come four McKinley Tour full length, ex-ATSF dome cars, refurbished into custom lounge cars, and finally, three Princess Tours "Superdome" cars. These are ex-bilevel commuter cars that were stripped to the chassis and completely rebuilt into luxury full length, bi-level dome cars. Two of the cars have open observation platforms, the third, a full kitchen. I have traveled on the ARR cars and on the Princess cars and highly recommend either. I have yet to ride the McKinley cars, though they can't be much different from Princess, as they offer the same amenities.
Best time to ride the train? May is probably the best. The weather here is entirely too flukey to predict for more than 24 hours. May usually provides the most sunny days. June can be good also, but into July, all bets are off. Some summers it feels like the monsoon season, especially by the time mid-August rolls around. Bring lots of film. Unlike Amtrak, you can hang out in the ARR vestibules for the whole trip - likewise the Princess observation decks. This is fun when meets with the freight trains occur - usually at least once during the Anchorage-Fairbanks run. Also, there are many great locations to catch the train in curves for photos.
This excellent information about the Alaska Railroad's passenger trains is from Jeff Childs of Anchorage, Alaska.
Mapwork: If you're going to be looking for railfan locations, you'll need an industrial strength map resource. I definitely recommend you get a DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer, study it before your trip, and copy pertinent pages for your field work. You can find information here about Railfan Maps that are available.
This is the hub of the Alaska Railroad. Located between milepost 114 and 118, the yard itself is the largest on the system. Anchorage is the site of the corporation's administrative headquarters and shops. The shops themselves consist of a heavy equipment shop, locomotive engine house, light locomotive repair shop, and a storage shed for passenger equipment. The yard is somewhat unique, in that you can drive alongside and around the entire yard (Post Road and Whitney Road are recommended) . As if that weren't enough, you can go all the way over the yard on the C Street Bridge.
During the day, you can expect to see 3 passenger trains leave between 6-9 AM, and then return 6-10PM. You can see the unit coal train tied-up every other day, and the daily gravel trains will be going north and south all day. The nightly FOX (Freight Overnight Express), and the OX (oilworker express), are also regulars, as are the Wednesday and Saturday southbound Whittier Freights.
LODGING Shoot, man, there's only one place for a railfan to doss down in Anchorage, and that's the Ship Creek Comfort Inn (Tel: (907) 277-6887). You can fish out the back door, and watch trains at the same time! They also have an indoor pool and free cable TV (especially helpful in December and January).
Located at ARR milepost 64.2, and an hour's drive south of Anchorage, Portage is the point where the Whittier branch branches off from the mainline. Here you can see the daily rail shuttle providing the only land access to Whittier. You can also see Whittier freights that are going to and from the rail barges in Whittier.
Seward is the destination for unit coal and log trains. The coal comes from Healy (north of Denali Nat'l. Park) and goes to Korea. The unit train is usually about 75 - 80 cars long, and is normally headed by six units, most often the only true GP49's in the country. The logs come from Nenana (further north of Healy) and go to Japan. Most times, the log flats run with other freight to Seward.
Seward is at the end of the Seward Highway, and is a three hour drive from Anchorage. There is a daily train from Anchorage to Seward that leaves Anchorage at 6AM, and arrives in Seward at 11AM. Along the ride to Seward, the mainline follows the highway until the town of Portage, where the line then climbs to make it up a pass. There is good railfanning all along the Anchorage- Portage section of the highway. The return to Anchorage departs at 6PM, and arrives in Anchorage at 11AM.
[Webmaster's comments: It seems to me to be a great day -- don't you agree? Take a 6-11 AM train ride, watch trains and explore Seward, eat a good meal or two, and then take a 6-11 PM train ride, and sack out back in your hotel. If you can't enjoy a day like that, you've probably already assumed room temperature.]
Whittier is the port where the Alaska RR receives its interchange traffic via ocean-going rail barge from both the CN in Prince Rupert and the UP/BNSF in Seattle. Due to the incredibly fast and high/low tides, the window of time to unload and reload the barge is rather short, leading to an intricate ballet of trains, barge, tug and their crews.