Sometimes a forgotten carrier because of location, the Alaska Railroad (ARR) today is a Class II, Regional operation with nearly 400 miles of trackage. Its lines are essentially a single mainline stretching from Seward in the south to Fairbanks in the north. Since its beginnings in the early 1900s the railroad has done much to bring prosperity and a transportation need to a region and state that lacks infrastructure because of topography. While it may not seem likely the Alaska Railroad does have a lot of freight business with wide range of customers part of which is thanks to its two port connections. And, with recent expansions the company is looking to even further develop its services. Today the ARR is owned by the State of Alaska (since 1985) and is one of only a few private railroads in the country to still host passenger trains regularly (especially during the summer months, serving vacationers), adorned in a beautiful dark blue and yellow livery with ALASKA flanking the sides of its locomotives.
The State of Alaska's rail heritage dates back to 1898 when the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad completed its 111-mile route between Skagway and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. Not long after, in 1903 the Alaska Central Railroad (the state's first) completed its main line between Seward and 51 miles to the north near what is now Anchorage (a point known as the Ship Creek). This was essentially the beginning of what is today widely recognized as the Alaska Railroad. While the AC only important connection was at Steward, service to the port city was nonetheless a vital transportation artery for region that was so rugged viable horse trails and roads were scarce. Still, with limited online business the railroad went bankrupt just four years later and was reorganized as the Alaska Northern Railway in 1909.
The Alaska Northern extended the system to Kern Creek, 71 miles from Seward by 1910. The Alaska Railroad came into being in 1914 when Congress purchased the Alaska Northern and authorized funding to complete a line from Seward to Fairbanks, realizing that a privately funded railroad probably could not complete the link to the state's largest cities due to the high cost and relative low return on investment (in other words, the new business gained would not be able to cover construction expenses). With the government takeover and new funding the first step was to purchase the narrow-gauge Tanana Valley Railroad near Fairbanks, which operated about a 45-mile system serving nearby mines.
From that point, forward, the task of linking Anchorage and Fairbanks began. After the purchase of the Tanana Valley Railroad it took construction crews six years to link the two cities completing the line, officially, on July 15, 1923. By 1944 with the establishment of a second port at Whittier (the other being at Anchorage, which after 1915 was the Alaska Northern's headquarters, and remains so today under the ARR), the Alaska Railroad was all but complete and has changed little over the last 70+ years.
The ARR became state owned in the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan, in 1983, signed legislation transferring ownership of the railroad to the State of Alaska. The transfer was official on January 5th, 1985 when on that day the ARR came under ownership by the state. The state spent $22.3 million to purchase the railroad although the final price tag was nearly $100 million as Alaska had to spend an additional $70 million bringing the right-of-way up to proper standards due to many years of deferred maintenance.
In all, the Alaska's system runs roughly due north winding its way from Seward in the south to Eielson in the north, where the Alaska serves the Eielson Air Force Base. And, currently the Alaska Railroad’s roster consists entirely of EMD power from two F40PHs to more than two-dozen almost-new SD70MACs. Throughout the years the Alaska has a wide range of steam and diesel locomotives it has rostered. However, the above information covers only the current units on the fleet. To learn more about the Alaska Railroad please click here to visit their official website.