FAIRBANKS (AP) -- While thousands of Alaska hunters are prowling the country for a moose, a handful of agents for the Alaska Railroad are patrolling the woods looking for hunters who illegally use the railroad tracks.
''Hunting is probably our worst time of the year for four-wheelers,'' said Dan Frerich, chief special agent for the Alaska Railroad in Anchorage. ''They are a big problem.''
According to state statute, it is illegal to trespass on the railroad right-of-way, which extends 100 feet on each side from the track's center line. But hunters often take advantage of the railroad to get to places they otherwise couldn't reach.
Fairbanks special agent Gary Wing spent a recent weekend patrolling the railroad crossing on Standard Creek Road, which winds through a large woodcutting area about 20 miles south of Fairbanks. The area is popular among moose hunters, many of which use the railroad track to scout for moose.
''I was amazed at the number of people who passed through the area,'' Wing said.
He encountered people walking, riding mountain bikes and driving four-wheelers and motorcycles along the railroad tracks.
''They were all on the track and they were all hunting,'' Wing said.
In one case, Wing said he intends to file a complaint with the Fairbanks district attorney's office and bring charges against the hunter, though he declined to discuss the details of the incident.
Hunters using railroad tracks is a problem every year, agents said.
''Some years are worse than others,'' Wing said. ''This year seems to be exceptional.''
The railroad covers almost 500 miles from Fairbanks to Seward and cuts a giant trail through some prime and remote moose hunting territory.
''It's a helluva a path,'' acknowledged railroad public affairs officer Scott Banks.
The 25-mile section of railroad track from Murphy Dome to Dunbar, which includes the Standard Creek Road crossing, is the biggest problem area in the Interior for trespassing, Wing said.
The problem of people trespassing on railroad tracks is not confined to hunting season, Banks said.
''If it's not hunting season it's fishing season,'' he said. ''If it's not fishing season it's snowmachines. It's a concern to us every day.''
Trespassing on the railroad tracks is a Class B misdemeanor and is punishable with a fine of $1,000 and up to a year in jail. Violators typically pay a $500 fine, according to Frerich.
More often than not, hunters are issued a warning to stay off the tracks. Repeat offenders are cited.
''Our goal is not to go out there and arrest people and fine them and take them to court,'' Banks said. ''Our concern is the safety of people out there and the safety of our crews.''
Four-wheelers pose the greatest hazard for the railroad during the hunting season.
''They're big and bulky,'' Frerich said. ''If you get them stuck on the rail it's hard to get them off.''
There have been cases when hunters have abandoned four-wheelers in the face of oncoming trains. It takes a fully-loaded train 1-1 1/81/2 3/8 miles to come to an emergency stop, Banks said.
''Generally at the last second they'll abandon the four-wheeler and get out of the way,'' Frerich said. ''We've had them keep on running and never come back for the machine.''
Of course, if the four-wheeler has been run over by a train, which has happened on several occasions, there's not much to come back for.
''When a train hits a four-wheeler at 40 mph there's not much left,'' Frerich said.
One incident near Broad Pass several years ago sticks out in Frerich's memory.
''The most remarkable incident I can remember was a guy with a four-wheeler towing a trailer with a 100-pound propane tank in the trailer and the trailer got stuck in the middle of the trail,'' Frerich said. ''A passenger train came around the corner and hit the trailer. Luckily the bottle didn't burst.''
As for the hunter, ''As soon as he saw the train he just started running,'' the agent said.
Four-wheelers also cause damage by eating away gravel around the ends of railroad ties, Frerich said, which increases the chance for derailment.
''The person driving the four-wheeler doesn't have a clue he's putting lives in danger by doing damage to the rail bed,'' Frerich said.
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