Alaska Railroad keeps peninsula connected to Anchorage, Interior

Posted: Saturday, March 02, 2002

There has been a railway to carry Alaskans, visitors and freight between the Kenai Peninsula and the Interior for nearly 80 years. The only full service rail system in the state, the Alaska Railroad is a vital lifeline between the much of the inner regions of the state and Seward, where the line ends at Resurrection Bay.

The train is an important part of Seward's economy, said Seward Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Helen Marrs says the train is important to the city's economy.

"We love having the train come," she said. "It benefits Seward in a big way because of the people that it brings. A big part of business here is based on tourism. We want more trains."

During summer months, cruise ships come into Resurrection Bay, bringing tourists, who will take scenic tours of the state or travel to the major stops along the line in Anchorage and Fairbanks. With the railroad linking tourist dollars in Southcentral Alaska and the Interior, Seward is one of the hubs of leisure travel from Outside.

"We're all sort of joined at the hip between the Seward business community, the cruise ships and the railroad," said Alaska Railroad spokesperson Patrick Flynn.

Flynn said the railroad initially began in 1903 as Alaska Central Railroad, when 50 miles of track were laid from Seward. The owners went bankrupt four years later and ended the project. The train line was again attempted in 1910 by an organization called Alaska Northern Railway Co. This company added another 72 miles to the track, ending just south of Girdwood.

In 1914 the federal government commissioned the Department of the Interior to have the line completed to Fairbanks, and work was completed on the line in 1923. Control of the railway changed hands to the federal Department of Transportation in 1967, and in 1985 Alaska Railroad became a state-owned, independent operation.

"You could say we've been running for almost 100 years," Flynn said.

He said the railroad spares summer wear and tear on the Seward Highway because it reduces the amount of heavy vehicle traffic traveling between Anchorage and Seward.

"There are about 70,000 people that ride the train to and from the peninsula, annually," Flynn said. "If you put those people on the buses, at about 50 people per bus, that equals 1,400 buses to carry all of those people. And mostly in the summer months."

There is more, however, to the connection between Seward and the Interior. The docking facility in Resurrection Bay has recently been refurbished to accommodate freight trains throughout the year. Alaska Railroad exports coal from the Usibelli mine near Healy south to Seward to be off-loaded onto boats traveling to South Korea, Flynn said. He said the cars typically carry 800 pounds of freight on each trip.

The trains also carry lumber, Sheetrock and a variety of trucks. Seward Dock Manager Louie Bencardino said freight ships that can't make it through the frozen waters near Anchorage, dock in Seward during winter months.

"What is so special about Seward," Bencardino said, "is that it's mainly an ice-free port, and it has deep water."

Flynn said the rail system is important to the entire state, and provisions are being made to expand on what the train can do for Ted Stevens Anchorage Interna-tional Airport.

"The lion's share of the fuel used at Anchorage International is carried from the Interior on our trains," he said. "It is pulled off the trans-Alaska pipes at North Pole. The airport wouldn't go without it."

Refineries in Nikiski and tourism from the central peninsula to Homer could possibly benefit from having railroad connections, but Flynn said there have been no plans made to extend the train system beyond its current path, nor have there been requests to do so.

"The refineries (in Nikiski) have pretty easy access to a port," he said. "The railroad cost between $2 and $3 million per mile to construct. Extension of the rail to other areas of the peninsula would be dependent on those areas calling for the need."

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