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Alaska Railroad looking for federal grant money to improve tracks

Posted: Thursday, April 26, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Track problems caused 19 accidents on the Alaska Railroad over the past decade, costing millions of dollars.

The railroad's top-ranking officials were in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, looking for more federal financial help to underwrite improvements.

Patrick Gamble urged a House Transportation subcommittee to pass legislation setting up a new grant program for track work on small railroads. Gamble, who took over as president of the Alaska Railroad two weeks ago, also encouraged Congress to make sure the corporation would be eligible for the grants.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Jack Quinn, R-New York. It's intended to resolve track problems small railroads say they're having in part because of new, larger cars being used by major rail companies. The new cars weigh 286,000 pounds apiece.

''The Alaska Railroad does not have a 286,000-pound car problem as such,'' Gamble told the subcommittee.

''However, our geographic and climatic situation being what it is, we, too, have compelling track and freight infrastructure needs,'' the former Air Force general said.

The Alaska Railroad has received tens of millions of dollars since 1996 through congressional earmarks added to budget bills by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Adding such money is fair, Stevens has said. Other passenger rail lines in the country receive federal funds for track improvements, and the federally owned Amtrak Corporation is heavily subsidized.

Also, the federal government failed to maintain the track and facilities before it sold the railroad to Alaska in 1985, he contends. Nevertheless, after the sale, federal agencies declined to help the corporation, Stevens said.

Quinn's bill would expand federal support to small freight railroads, perhaps including Alaska's.

''We hope the bill will clearly state that our track and other infrastructure needs will be eligible,'' Gamble told the subcommittee.

The railroad has about $200 million in improvements on its work list, Gamble told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. ''Safety the underlying big issue,'' he said.

The Federal Railroad Administration said the Alaska Railroad had 50 accidents between January of 1991 and January of this year.

Nineteen were caused by track problems, six by equipment and nine by human error. Twelve accidents were caused by other problems and four occurred at crossings, the agency said.



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