Heyday of railroad not over

It's time for everyone to get on board Alaska, Pacific & Canada line

Posted: Wednesday, January 21, 2004

As an Alaskan and especially as a parent and grandparent I believe the time has come to build the Alaska, Pacific and Canada Railroad, first envisioned by a wealthy New Yorker named Asa Whitney in the 1860s.

The 19th century brought an era of railroad building in the United States, when Manifest Destiny became a catchphrase to define continental expansion west. While the Central Pacific and Union Pacific battled to become the first railroad to connect the Atlantic and Pacific shores, Whitney proposed a trans-global railroad that would connect the hemispheres through Alaska.

To the north (Alaska's east), Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald harbored a similarly passionate dream of a railroad from sea to sea. Macdonald worried that completion of the transcontinental railroad to the south would encourage the United States to expand into western Canada. His fear was aggravated in 1867, when U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward purchased Alaska from the Russians.

Canada worried that British Columbia would provide a direct route between the United States and Alaska, and if the United States decided to march north, Canada would have no choice but to call on British troops to help defend Crown lands. At the time, barely 23,000 Canadians lived west of Lake Superior.

But if British Columbia still a British colony could be persuaded to become a new province, that might prevent a confrontation with the Americans. British Columbia became Canada's sixth province in 1871, settling that issue. Part of B.C.'s agreement with Ottawa was that the nation complete a transcontinental railroad within 10 years.

In 1878 construction began. "Until a railway is completed," Prime Minister McDonald said, "our Dominion is little more than a geographical expression. (With) the railway, once finished, we become one great united country with a large inter-provincial trade and a common interest."

The Canadian Pacific Railway Co. was incorporated in 1881, receiving a federal grant of $25 million and approximately 25 million acres of land. Ottawa also defrayed $37 million, the cost of surveying the land along the railroad route and exempted the Canadian Pacific from property taxes for 20 years.

In 1882, workers from the east were hacking through the Canadian Shield, ancient rock formation that covers more than half of Canada. They dealt with prairie heat and filled in huge boggy areas of muskeg. For their part, workers in British Columbia blasted through massive mountains and spectacular canyons, using thousands of Chinese laborers. Many died, crushed in rockslides and collapsing bridges and tunnels while others perished from disease and racial attacks.

This is a lot of history, and man may be walking on Mars before Whitney's dream of a globe-circling railroad is realized.

But the time has come to complete North America's fourth transcontinental railroad, from Alaska into western Canada and connecting with the rail network throughout the Lower 48 and Mexico. In honor of Whitney we can call it the Alaska, Pacific & Canada Railroad.

Building this railroad will be nothing beyond the capabilities of skillful engineers and modern technology. Jim Kubitz, a vice president of the Alaska Railroad, has commented, "The advantages of doing this are starting to pile up, quite frankly." And Mike LaForet, a Yukoner from Whitehorse has said, "If the Panama Canal was physically feasible, this (project) would be a snap."

The Alaska, Pacific & Canada Railroad will require construction of about 1,200 miles of track, with 270 miles in Alaska extending the rail terminus at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks east to the Canadian border. The remaining 930 miles would be constructed by Canada. There are currently two options to connect the Alaska railway with the Canadian system, either at Fort Nelson or Fort St. James, B.C.

Gov. Frank Murkowski signed an accord with Yukon Premier Dennis Fentie last fall committing our governments to work cooperatively on transportation issues. Both leaders agreed that we can create a modern transportation and communications corridor for the railroad, the proposed gas pipeline from the North Slope and even a fiber-optic communications system.

In related discussions, Premier Fentie and the governor are considering the advantages of restoring the White Pass and Yukon Route rail service all the way from Skagway to White-horse, as well as increasing tourism development, maintenance improvements on the Taylor Highway and construction of a bridge at Dawson to cross the Yukon River.

You may consider building the Alaska, Pacific & Canada Railroad preordained, part of Alaskas manifest destiny. Or, you may simply consider it realistic development for the future. Either way, our priority need, today, is to build public understanding and support. We can deal with the complex planning, engineering and permitting processes that will cross state, federal and international boundaries. And, we will prevail through the inevitable obstructionist lawsuits.

Visualize what life will be like when the Alaska, Pacific & Canada Railroad is up and running: access to a wealth of natural resources gold, silver, lead, zinc, copper, forests, fish and wildlife, likely including energy resources waiting to be discovered. Then imagine the new and expanded markets the AP & C line will reach, connecting customers, clients, friends and relatives from Cook Inlet to New York Harbor.

There are many reasons to build this railroad connection, from moving mineral concentrates to containerized freight to tourists. Railroads fit well with wilderness and fragile environments because they allow for a small footprint and limited access.

It's time to begin work on the last transcontinental railroad.

A century ago, a road to Alaska was unthinkable. Fifty years ago, direct flights to Alaska from the Lower 48 were rare and driving the Alaska Highway was an adventure demanding racks of spare tires and boxes of extra parts. Twenty-five years ago live television was rare, and building an oil pipeline demanded the newest of technology to complete.

The same time line applies to a the Alaska, Pacific & Canada Railroad. It's a vision now, but I am convinced it will be mundane reality for our grandchildren. And that's how it should be.

Sen. John J. Cowdery is a Republican from Anchorage. He was first elected to the Senate in 2000 and previously served in the House of Representatives. He is chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.

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