Discussion concerning the Alaska Railroad. Alaska Railways Website

Moderator: GOLDEN-ARM

  by jogden
In response to some of the other threads in this forum about Alaska Railroad operations, I thought I would post a summary of the trains that Alaska Railroad operates on a regular basis.

The easiest way to do this is probably terminal by terminal. I'll start at the south end and work my way north.

Seward is the south end of the railroad, milepost 0. There is a small yard and roundhouse. In the winter, all activity in Seward is based in Anchorage, but in the summer, there are crews and trains based in Seward.

Cruise Train/McKinley Express (MEX)
Summer Only, Schedule Varies
This train is chartered by different cruise lines on different days of the week. Both the train and its crew are based in Seward. Holland America Line, Celebrity Cruises, and Royal Caribbean International charter the train out of Seward. Typically HAL uses it on Sundays and Celebrity and RCI charter it on alternating Thursdays. For all three companies, the train operates northbound in the morning to Anchorage International Airport, returning to Seward in the afternoon. The crew usually goes to a hotel in Anchorage for a few hours while the train lays over at the airport.

On Saturdays and every other Wednesday, the train is chartered by Princess Cruises, who markets it as the "McKinley Express." On those days, the Seward crew deadheads the train to Whittier, where the northbound passengers board. With passengers aboard, the train continues north to Anchorage. In Anchorage, a fresh crew gets on and takes the train to McKinley, which is just south of Talkeetna. They unload everyone at McKinley, load a fresh group of passengers, and take the train to Whittier. Once all the southbound passengers disembark in Whittier, they bring the train to Portage, where the original Seward-based crew takes over and returns the train to Seward.

The consist for this train is all Alaska Railroad passenger cars.

Extra Board
In the summer, there is also an extra board in Seward, who typically handles any switching on the Cruise Train consist and occasionally unloads coal. Anchorage is MP 114.

Anchorage is the largest terminal on the railroad and home to the railroad's largest yard, roundhouse, and car shop. Most of the trains are based in Anchorage. The railroad headquarters, offices, and dispatch center are all located in Anchorage.

Anchorage-Fairbanks Freight
Sunday-Wednesday and Friday, Year Round
Known to most railroaders simply as "the freight," this train carries nearly all the freight traffic between Anchorage and Fairbanks. Crews are based in Anchorage, and travel north overnight, spend a day in a hotel, and return to Anchorage the following night. Typically the train runs five nights per week, but if traffic demands, it may be run on its normal off days with an extra board crew. Train length can vary from as small as 2,000 feet to well beyond 7,000 feet. In the winter, the train is sometimes split into multiple sections if the temperature in Fairbanks is cold enough. Typically the train departs Anchorage and Fairbanks around 8:00pm, and running time it usually between 11 and 12 hours.

Healy Coal Train
Weekly, Year Round
When operating, this train operates northbound to Healy at the beginning of the week. The road crew goes to a hotel, and a Healy-based extra board loads the train at the Usibelli Coal Mine. Once the train is loaded, the road crew returns the train to Anchorage. Typical running time is between nine and ten hours each way.

Note: This train is currently suspended because Usibelli Coal Mine does not have any contracts that require exporting coal. It is unknown when this train will operate again, but it looks like not until at least July 2015, possibly later.

Seward Coal Train
Weekly, Year Round
This train is usually called off the extra board. The crew takes the train to Seward, and usually unloads it, if time allows. Once the train is empty, the power is all put together and run to the north end of the train, and the train is tied down. The crew stays at a hotel in Seward. Once rested, the crew returns to Anchorage on the train. Typical running time for the loaded train is usually five to six hours, and four to five hours for the empty train. This is the same physical train as the Healy Coal Train, it is just the southern portion of its run. In the summer, this train is usually called to go south following the daily passenger train to Seward.

Note: This train is currently suspended because Usibelli Coal Mine does not have any contracts that require exporting coal.

Denali Star/Aurora
Daily in the Summer, Weekends in the Winter
This is the passenger train that operates between Anchorage and Fairbanks. While the Denali Star and Aurora operate a little differently, they both connect Anchorage and Fairbanks. The crew is based in Anchorage and overnights in Fairbanks.

The Denali Star operates in both directions daily during the summer, and operates as an express. Aside from the end points, the only passenger stops the train makes are Denali Park, Talkeetna, and Wasilla. This train often carries private dome cars owned by Premier Alaska Tours, known as the "Wilderness Express."

The Aurora operates northbound on Saturdays and southbound on Sundays through the winter. Midweek departures are usually added in February and March to accommodate spring break travelers. This train operates as a flag stop train, making passenger stops at most named points along the railroad, on an as needed basis. In additional to Denali Park, Talkeetna, and Wasilla, the train will also stop in Healy, Nenana, Willow, Sunshine, and many other places if there are passengers boarding or disembarking. In addition, the train will stop anywhere for passengers between Talkeetna and Hurricane, to accomodate the needs to people living "off the grid" in that area, since there is no road access. This is the only stretch of the railroad where the train will stop at any cabin or trail in the woods for passengers.

Anchorage Yard
Daily, Year Round
There are numerous yard jobs that work Anchorage yard. There is typically at least one yard crew on duty every hour of every day. In the summer there are more yard jobs than in the winter, to accommodate the increased traffic, but the yard is active all the time. Yard crews are allowed to work as far north as Pittman and as far south as Portage without the railroad incurring a penalty. Birchwood yard is switched by Anchorage based yard crews when necessary. Additionally, Anchorage yard crews do any required local work or switching at industries around the yard and port, off the Coastal siding, at Fort Richardson, and on the Palmer and Anchorage International Airport branches.

Whittier Freight
Approximately Weekly, Year Round
The exact schedule for these trains revolves around the arrivals of the rail barges from Seattle, WA, and Prince Rupert, BC, so there is not a set day or time of day for Whittier freights to operate. All of these trains are called off the Anchorage extra board.

For Alaska Marine Lines barges, there are typically two trains. AML barges carry both containers and rail cars, and all the cargo, whether containerized or in rail cars, leaves Whittier on a train. The first train, called the "tie up," usually consists of mostly flat cars loaded with empty containers, scheduled to go south on the barge. When the train arrives in Whittier, the crew spots the flat cars at the load zones, and then usually unloads the rail cars from the barge. While the railroad crew works on the barge, the stevedores unload the flat cars and stage the containers. After unloading the barge, the crew goes on rest. While they are resting, the stevedores unload the containers from the barge and begin loading all the flat cars.

While the Tie Up crew is resting, a second train is called, known as the "Turn." This train usually consists of a few more flat cars, loaded with empty containers, as well as the outbound rail cars to be loaded on the barge. When they get to Whittier, they spot their flats at the load zones, put all the outbound interchange cars in the yard somewhere, then gather up the interchange that just arrived on the barge and as many flats that are ready to go as their horsepower will allow. The crew then brings the train back to Anchorage.

When the Tie Up crew comes back on duty, the outbound containers have already been loaded on the barge and typically the railroad crew starts their shift by loading all the rail cars. Once the rail cars are aboard and lashed down, the barge usually departs. After loading the barge, the crew gathers up all the cars still in Whittier, usually mostly flat cars, builds and air tests the train, and then departs for Anchorage. Whittier operations could be their own lengthy thread, but this gives you an idea of what goes on there.

Coastal Classic
Daily, Summer Only
This is the daily passenger train between Anchorage and Seward. The train departs from Anchorage in the morning and heads south, making station stops as needed in Girdwood, Portage, and Spencer (Girdwood is the only published stop in the passenger timetable). Once everyone disembarks in Seward, the crew wyes the train, and then goes to a hotel for most of the afternoon. In the evening, the train returns to Anchorage with the same crew. Running time is usually right around four hours each way.

Glacier Discovery
Weekends, May and September; Daily, June-August
This is the daily passenger train between Anchorage, Whittier, and Chugach National Forest. The train departs from Anchorage in the morning and runs to Whittier. After a brief layover in Whittier, the train returns to Portage, then continues as far south as Hunter. At Hunter, the crew changes ends and the train operates northbound, back to Portage. From Portage, the train returns to Whittier, and after another brief layover, the train returns to Anchorage. This train makes station stops at Girdwood, Portage (four times), Spencer, Grandview, and Luebner Lake. The area south of Portage is only accessible by rail, and travelers go to those areas for hiking, canoeing, rafting, and camping. There is an organized tour company that operates some day tours out of the Spencer station. Grandview currently has no facilities, and we do not allow passengers to disembark there and remain there unless they have appropriate camping gear and bear protection. Passengers not geared up to camp may disembark there to take pictures and go for a little walk, but we make sure they get back on the train before we leave.

Healy Express (HEX)
Daily, Summer Only
This train is chartered by HAP Alaska|Yukon, which is a jointly owned subsidiary of Holland America Line and Princess Cruises. HAP operates all the land-based tours and transfers within the state of Alaska and Yukon Territory. They own 20 private dome cars which operate on Alaska Railroad, ten of which are painted up for Princess Cruises, and ten of which are painted up for Holland America Line. To the cruise passenger, it appears as if they are traveling with their respective cruise line the entire time, even though passengers of both lines are actually traveling on the same train and with the same company.

The HEX operates with only Holland America and Princess cars, no Alaska Railroad passenger cars. Passengers are loaded in Anchorage, and the train makes stops in Talkeetna and Denali Park. Typically only Princess passengers use the Talkeetna stop, as Princess Cruises has a lodge about 45 minutes away. There are no passengers on the train north of Denali Park. After disembarking everyone, the on board staff and train crew take the train another 45 minutes north, to Healy. The on board staff gets off there, and the train crew wyes the train. If necessary, they also perform any switching required to get the train ready for the southbound trip the next day. The train crew stays in a hotel in Healy.

The next day, the train crew gets on the train, performs an air test, then waits for the on board service staff. Once they are aboard, the train deadheads to Denali Park, where the first paying passengers board. Once again, the train stops in Talkeetna and Anchorage. After unloading all the passengers in Anchorage, the road crew brings the train to the coach yard. When switching is required in Anchorage, a yard crew handles it later.

Denali Express (DEX)
Summer Only
This train is chartered by Princess Cruises, and typically runs on Saturdays and every other Wednesday. The train schedule corresponds to the cruise ship schedule. The typical consist is one Alaska Railroad passenger car and several Princess dome cars.

A crew comes on duty in Anchorage and deadheads the train to Whittier. In Whittier, the passengers board, and the train heads north. In Anchorage, there is a crew change, and the fresh crew brings the train all the way to Fairbanks. The train stops in Talkeetna if needed, and Denali Park. All the passengers disembark in Denali Park, and the crew drops off the Princess cars in Healy. They bring the locomotive and one remaining Alaska Railroad passenger car to Fairbanks, where a yard crew adds them to the Denali Star consist during the night. They go south the next day as part of the Denali Star. The crew rests at a hotel in Fairbanks and then deadheads home the next morning by air.

Either the Healy extra board or the HEX crew handles switching of the Princess passenger cars in Healy.

I'll talk about the southbound DEX when I talk about Fairbanks, since that is based there.

AS&G Gravel
Summer Only
The schedule for this train varies from year to year, depending how much gravel Anchorage Sand and Gravel is contracted to move that summer. Typically gravel trains start running as soon as it is warm enough during the day, in April, and runs until it stays below freezing during the day, usually late in October. In 2014, this train rain six days a week, around the clock. There were two regular crews and several extra board crews involved in keeping it moving. It would stop for 24 hours on Sunday, and just long enough to change crew at 4:30am and 4:30pm during the week.

This train is typically parked either in Anchorage or in the Birchwood siding when it is not operating. The crew gets on it either at the crew change point, at the Anchorage depot, or wherever it is parked. They then head north to Matanuska. At Matanuska they head in the siding, then back up the north leg of the wye onto the Palmer Branch. AS&G has a loading tipple on the main track of the Palmer Branch, where the train is loaded in two cuts. Loading typically takes right around four hours.

Once loaded, the train heads to Anchorage, where Anchorage Sand & Gravel has a large gravel yard and block plant. The train is dumped there, on a dump track off the Coastal siding, on the south end of town. Dumping the train goes a bit faster than loading, and is usually accomplished in about three hours. During the dumping process, the power is run around the train. Once dumped, the train heads north, either to a crew change or a tie up location.

In 2014, this was the only revenue train on Alaska Railroad that operated with a caboose. Unfortunately, it looks like that will be going away in 2015. The caboose was mainly used for shoving to the loading tipple on the Palmer Branch, but it sure looked nice! :wink:

QAP Gravel
Summer Only
Just like with the AS&G gravel train, the schedule for this train also varies depending on how much gravel the company is trying to move. In 2014, this train ran four days per week, once per day.

Quality Asphalt Products ships gravel from Kashwitna to Anchorage. This train typically ties up in Anchorage at night. It usually runs north behind the Denali Star as far as Kashwitna. At Kashwitna, the train goes to the loading track, and the crew changes ends. The train operates with distributed power, so changing ends involves unlinking, getting a ride from the QAP foreman to the other end, then relinking the DP. When ARR approached Wabco about making a function within the DP system that allowed changing ends more easily, they thought it was a weird request. Apparently we are the only ones who use distributed power that way, but I digress...

Loading at Kashwitna usually takes a little over two hours. They have a bigger tipple than AS&G, so the train is loaded faster, even though both trains are the same number of cars (86). Once loaded, the train heads south, after the northbound HEX and DEX get by Kashwitna, to the QAP dump site, also off the Coastal siding, in Anchorage.

At the Quality Asphalt Products dump site, the train is split into three cuts and dumped. Dumping typically takes three to four hours. The train is put back together as it is dumped, and when dumping is complete, the crew changes ends again and heads north to the tie down location. Most often the train is tied down in Anchorage yard, but sometimes if the yard is plugged, they will put the train on Elmendorf siding to get it out of the way.

Work Trains
Generally Summer Only
We usually have two work trains in the summer. They are on duty five days per week and may tie up anywhere during the week. Sometimes they tie up in Anchorage, but often they tie up at other locations, so the crews are usually away from home a week at a time. If they tie up away from home during the weekend, the crew is deadheaded home. Officially these are called out of Anchorage, but since all terminals are listed as away from home terminals on the job bulletin, the railroad will deadhead a Fairbanks guy home if the train ties up in Anchorage for the weekend. The work trains are run to assist MOW crews in their projects, including tie replacement, rail replacement, ballasting, bridge work, etc.

Work trains that run in the winter are generally for snow removal, but rarely run regularly enough to get bulletined as a job. Winter work trains usually run with an extra board crew.

Whew, we made it through Anchorage! Talkeetna is a small town about 112 miles north of Anchorage, located at MP 226. Between Talkeetna and Hurricane, the railroad provides year round flag stop service.

Hurricane Turn
Thursday-Sunday, Summer Only
The Hurricane Turn operates Thursday through Sunday during the summer and provides the flag stop service to "off gridders" between Talkeetna and Hurricane. On the first Thursday of each month, the train operates round trip out of Anchorage, so on the Sunday prior to a first Thursday, the Talkeetna crew deadheads the train to Anchorage after that day's run. The train also runs on Memorial Day, Labor Day, and the Fourth of July if it falls on a Monday.

The first Thursday train operates year round. In the winter, the first Thursday train is operated by an Anchorage-based crew.

Healy is located at MP 358, and has a small yard and the remains of a roundhouse. It is also one end of the rarely used Suntrana Branch, and once was a crew change point for trains operating between Anchorage and Fairbanks. Today the only crew based in Healy is an extra board, made up of one engineer and one conductor. They most often handle coal loading, and in the summer they occasionally switch passenger cars for the HEX and DEX trains. When we have work for the Suntrana Branch, they usually handle that as well. There is no motive power assigned to Healy, so the extra board typically works with the power assigned to trains that arrives or lays over there, such as the coal train or the HEX. If they have to go down the Suntrana Branch, they have to do it while the coal train is there, so that they have a locomotive to do it with!

Sometimes the extra board is abolished during the winter, especially if the coal schedule is not frequent or regular enough to justify having a crew assigned there. When that happens, road crews load their own coal trains.

Fairbanks is the northernmost terminal on Alaska Railroad, located at MP 470. There is a yard, car shop, and roundhouse in Fairbanks. All work on the Fairbanks International Airport and Eielson branches is based in Fairbanks.

Coal Turn
Weekdays, Year Round
The coal turn is the only regular road job based in Fairbanks. The train usually operates during the day. An empty train leaves southbound, often with a pick up in Clear Site, and goes to Healy. The train is loaded with coal at the Usibelli Coal Mine, power is run around the train, and then the loaded train goes north. There is often a set out at Clear Site on the way. The road crew brings the train to the yard in Fairbanks, and is then done for the day. Running time is usually just over three hours each way, and loading usually takes an hour and a half to two hours.

Yard Jobs
Daily, Year Round
Fairbanks typically has a yard job on duty every hour of every day. Two yard jobs regularly get assigned to work the branches, so there is not always someone working in the yard around the clock.

The Eielson Branch typically gets daily service, during daylight hours. The crew always goes to the oil refinery at North Pole. In the past, they picked up loads of petroleum products there for delivery to Anchorage and Whittier, but the refinery stopped producing in the spring of 2014. Today it is used as a distribution center. Now the crew brings loads of petroleum products to the refinery, and pulls empty cars to return to Anchorage. A few times a week, they also continue north to Eielson Air Force Base, where coal is delivered to their power plant.

The Fairbanks International Airport Branch is home to several industrial customers and gets service Sunday through Thursday, during the night. While the Airport Branch is serviced out of Fairbanks, it physically is located at off of MP G6 of the Eielson Branch. There is also a coal power plant at Fort Wainwright that is serviced by either the crew working the Airport Branch or the Eielson Branch, depending on who has the most time to take care of it.

Denali Express (DEX)
Summer Only
This is the southbound version of the previously described DEX, and typically operates on Saturdays and every other Wednesday, in conjunction with the cruise ship schedule for Princess Cruises. The entire train is chartered by Princess Cruises.

Prior to the DEX crew coming on duty, a Fairbanks yard crew removes one locomotive and one Alaska Railroad passenger car from the Denali Star, while it lays over during the night. The DEX crew then takes that locomotive and passenger car south. In Healy, they pick up the remainder of their train, typically all Princess passenger cars. They then deadhead a little farther south, to Denali Park, where they pick up passengers. They then run to Wasilla, where an Anchorage-based crew relieves the Fairbanks crew. The Fairbanks crew is driven directly to the airport (in Anchorage) and flies home. The Anchorage crew takes the train to Whittier, where all the passengers disembark and get on their cruise ship. After everyone is off, the train is moved to the yard, to make room for the MEX which arrives just a little later. While in the yard, the on board service staff cleans up the train and disembarks. After the MEX leaves Whittier, the DEX backs out, goes around the wye at Portage, and returns to Anchorage. In Anchorage, a yard crew handles all the switching.


I think that is everything. Every year is a little different, so the information here is based off 2014 and 2013 primarily. Since several of the passenger trains in the summer depend on cruise ship schedules, the schedules of those chartered trains get adjusted a bit every year. The Alaska Railroad operated trains stay pretty consistent from one year to the next, since they are much less dependent on cruise ship schedules. The freight trains are the most consistent from year to year. Gravel can vary a lot. In 2014 QAP moved much less gravel than in 2013, and AS&G moved a lot more. The gravel schedules depend on construction contracts and who gets which ones.