Alaska flagstop train service to continue

Posted: Friday, October 04, 2002

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- The last regularly scheduled flag stop service in the country is safe once more.

The Alaska Railroad Corp.'s board was considering drastic cuts to its popular but money-losing Hurricane Turn train, which stops for people who wave it down along a remote 55-mile stretch of rail. Railroad officials said the proposed reductions were necessary following the loss of a $4 million coal hauling contract.

But board chairman Johne Binkley sided with outraged local residents who say the flagstop service is the only practical way through dense wilderness between Talkeetna and Hurricane, 130 miles north of Anchorage. Binkley told the state-owned railroad to look elsewhere to save money -- and the rest of the board agreed Thursday without taking a formal vote.

''I think it was demonstrated by people how unique this is and how special it is to Alaska,'' Binkley said at the board's meeting in Fairbanks. ''We want to do everything we can to maintain that.''

Binkley said he was influenced by an overwhelming public response to the proposed reductions involving the service, which uses self-propelled diesel railroad cars. But he did not dismiss the possibility of future fare hikes, among the changes being considered.

The board was considering cutting summer runs from four days a week to weekends only. The seven-member panel also was considering eliminating the limited winter service, but not weekend flagstop service available all winter on a locomotive between Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Railroad officials said the cuts were necessary to offset losses. Operating the flagstop cost $200,000 in 2001, but the railroad made only $64,000 in ticket sales. The proposed cuts would have halved operational costs and brought ticket revenue to $48,000.

People with homes and recreational cabins along the flagstop service flooded the railroad with letters and e-mails urging the board to maintain the current service. The railroad also heard from people nationwide requesting reservations on the train or expressing dismay over its proposed decrease in service.

During a public comment session Thursday, residents aired their sentiments, some by phone and some in person.

Among those who testified was Mark Butler, who owns one of the 175 cabins along the route and led a grass-roots effort opposing the changes.

''We're just asking for reasonable service at reasonable rates,'' Butler said. He and others suggested the railroad look at ways to better market the service -- a delight to tourists who discover it, they said.

''Don't take the Alaska out of the Alaska Railroad,'' Butler said.

Binkley agreed with residents who said reduced service would force them to ride snowmobiles or four-wheelers along the train track.

''It's a safety issue, really,'' Binkley said. ''It's going to force people into trespassing and we don't want to do that.''



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