One of the most frequent questions I receive via email is "What is the best way to ride and/or photograph the Alaska Railroad?" The following are some tips I have received from fellow Alaska Railroad railfans which I have combined with my own. Please keep in mind free advise is worth exactly what you paid for it.

Riding the Rails

Question #1 What are my options for riding the Alaska Railroad?

There are four basic tours, each with a different perspective and destination. The railroad also offers a wide variety of "adventure packages" which combines rail travel with various excursions such as rafting, flightseeing, fishing, etc. The four basic tours are as follows:

  • The Coastal Classic travels from Anchorage to Seward.  The scenery is absolutely spectacular!  You'll see "magnificent walls of ice, jagged peaks and gorges along this route". Seward has cool non railroad things to do  (e.g., wildlife and glacier cruises, the Alaska Sealife Center, etc.) and is basically a day trip.  However, spending the night in Seward is definitely an option too.  When I took this trip with friends and family, one of them commented on wanting to take this train ride again before we left Alaska.  The scenery was really that spectacular. Stops: Anchorage ~ Girdwood ~ Seward.
  • The Glacier Discovery travels from Anchorage to Whittier winding its way along the scenic Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet.  Whittier has cool non railroad things to do  (e.g., wildlife and glacier cruises) and is basically a day trip.  Although Whittier isn't much of a tourist trap, there are those who love its solitude and uniqueness.. Stops: Anchorage ~ Girdwood ~ Whittier ~ Portage ~ Spencer
  • The Hurricane Turn which departs from Talkeetna.  In my opinion, one of the best kept secrets in the world is the Hurricane Turn excursion.  It serves as a vital link for the locals in the Alaskan bush as well as providing transportation for the outdoorsman and railfans.  Its laid back atmosphere and folksy appeal is truly a "once in a lifetime experience".  It departs near the section house in Talkeetna.  The locomotive will stop at various unmarked destinations and drop off local residents and their baggage (i.e. "Flag stop service").  The engineer and conductor will play paperboy and throw newspapers to MOW workers and locals.  The train generally terminates at the Hurricane section house and returns to Talkeetna.  However, if there is a little extra time and only tourists are aboard, the engineer may take the train out to the Hurricane Gulch Bridge.  On the trip I took,  a lady (Mary Lovel) standing beside the track flagged the train down and handed the engineer several dozen homemade peanut butter cookies who in turn shared them with all the passengers!

  • .
  • The Denali Star travels from Anchorage to Fairbanks.  This train leaves Anchorage daily and meets its opposite number coming south from Fairbanks about six hours into the trip.  The train makes stops at Wasilla (an hour north by car from Anchorage), Talkeetna (the launching point for all climbing expeditions on Denali), Denali National Park (a good place to overnight, enjoy the wonders of the park the next day, then continue north or south the following day) and finally Fairbanks.  This ride is 11-1/2 hours long (a little longer if the weather is nice, as the conductor will slow the train for photos of the scenery and wildlife) each direction.. Stops: Anchorage ~ Wasilla ~ Talkeetna ~ Denali ~ Fairbanks
  • There are four ways to travel on the Denali Star (Anchorage-Fairbanks) train:

  • Alaska Railroad portion of the train
  • Holland America Westours McKinley dome cars
  • Princess Tours dome cars
  • Royal Celebrity dome cars
  • The Denali Star is usually led by two SD70MACs, an Alaska Railroad bi-level GoldStar railcar, an ARR baggage car, ARR coach, ARR diner, ARR (ex-UP) dome, and usually a 2nd or 3rd ARR coach.  Then comes two Royal Celebrity dome cars, six Holland America (McKinley Explorer) dome cars, and five Princess Tours "Superdome" cars.  These are ex-bilevel commuter cars that were stripped to the chassis and completely rebuilt into luxury full length, bi-level dome cars.  Two of the cars have open observation platforms, the third, a full kitchen.

    Special note: There is also a special train called The Grandview which transports cruise ship passengers from Seward to Anchorage.  It was formerly the Florida Fun Train and its interior still reflects that motif.  The enormous windows on the passenger cars will absolutely blow your mind!  From my seat, I could see 360 degrees of mountains, rivers, glaciers and even the rest of the train.  The bottom line is this train combines the most scenic section of the railroad with the best viewing passenger car.  Unfortunately, it is only currently available to cruise ship passengers.

    Also, the Alaska Railroad employs local student tour guides on their passenger trains during the peak season.  They are very knowledgeable, friendly and add a great deal to the enjoyment of the trip.

    Question #2
    Which type of passenger car should I make reservations for?

    The answer here is a matter of personal opinion and taste.

    The Alaska Railroad cars have nice reclining seats, nice big windows and it is fun to take turns in the dome.  You can head to the dining cars for some reindeer sausage or stop by the gift shop for some great Alaska Railroad souvenirs.    And it is perfectly all right to hang out in the vestibules to feel the wind in your face or grab an unobstructed photograph.  The conductors are friendly and fun.

    For those willing to spend the extra cash, you might want to take a ride on the Alaska Railroad's GoldStar service which features bi-level superdomes with a second floor viewing platform and first floor dining area. These coaches are lined with crystal and gold and feature Alaskan art. It includes in-seat beverage service, full-time bar attendant and tour guide.

    Or how about the Princess Super Domes? Comfortable with great visibility from the upstairs full-length dome, or enjoy the wind in your face and better photograph opportunities from the open observation platform on the lower levels of the 4-car set. Great food and drinks. This service is only available between Anchorage and Fairbanks with stopovers allowed at Denali National Park.

    For those willing to spend extra cash, take the Holland America (McKinley Explorer) full length domes. Dining is top notch and the staff was very friendly.  This service is only available between Anchorage and Fairbanks with stopovers allowed at Denali National Park.

    You'll find more information on which car to choose here.

    Important note: It is important to realize that the trains are segregated, you aren't supposed to go between different company's cars. So, for example, if you are on Princess or Holland America, you can't eat in the ARR diner or shop in the dome car gift shop. My friend and I got an angry verbal reprimand from one of the tour companies for traveling from the ARR cars through the Holland America cars to the Princess cars.  This only makes sense.  I wouldn't want every passenger on the entire train wandering the isle of my car! 

    Also, check out AlaskaOnThe's Alaska Railroad Trips That Suit the Whole Family

    Question #3

    When is the best time of year to ride the train?

    May is brown and ugly north of Anchorage.  July and August are the wettest months of the year and iffy. June is the best month to visit since it has the best combination of sunshine, warmth and least precipitation. Early September is autumn here and also a great time to visit and travel. Unlike Amtrak, you can hang out in the vestibules for the whole trip. Some people have asked what summer month has the highest probability of forest fires whose smoke is known to have put a damper on many a trip. I have talked to many an Alaskan and they all insist forest fires can come during any summer month.

    Question #4
    How early should I get to the station to get the best seat?

    Alaska Railroad coaches: First, every seat is generally a good seat.  Therefore, showing up really early doesn't buy you anything (unless you are a crazy nut like me who wants photos of the train, the depot, the conductor, etc.).  Be at the depot for seat assignments at least 30 minutes (45 minutes if you have baggage) before departure. There are two tables at the front of the passenger cars with seats that face each other which are available for families first.  The dome car seats are not reserved and are available to everyone on a rotating or shared basis. The conductor tries to keep track and rotates folks every 20 to 30 minutes or so. Don't rush to the dining cars when you get aboard as there is plenty of time for eating on whatever trip you are taking.

    Tour Company dome cars: If you're on one of the tour company dome cars and have booked your whole trip through them, they will let you know what time to be up at your hotel and will then transport you via bus to the depot. If you ride the tour domes under any other conditions, be there no later than a half hour before departure - your seats are reserved - and this will give you time to see the train from outside before you board.

    John and Alice (dome)Question #5
    Where is the best place to take scenery and train pictures from while on board?

    Viewing the scenery from the dome is an awesome experience.  Hanging out in the vestibules is also phenomenal.  Be prepared to share that space with the smokers. Access doors open inward so you don't have to worry about them popping open when leaning out to get your photograph (see photo above).  From the Princess cars the best place is the observation deck. On the GoldStar it is the second floor viewing platform.

    Question #6
    What is the most scenic section of the Alaska Railroad?

    They are all pretty scenic!! If I had to pick one - the Seward trip has the best bang for the buck. Once the train passes through Portage it enters an area that for the next 40 miles has no roads. More better, bigger more beautiful glaciers, wildlife, rivers, mountains and tunnels. The Seward run combined with a Kenai Fjords boat tour can be the best one day trip of your life.

    If the weather is clear going to Fairbanks from Anchorage, the views of Mt. McKinley/Denali are stunning, as is much of the rest of the trip no matter what the weather. Also, the first hour north of Denali through the Nenana river canyon.

    Would you like to hear what others thought of their trip on the Alaska Railroad?  Check out any of the trip reports in my stories section.  In his trip report, Jim Hardy tells about riding every section of the Alaska Railroad.

    Question #7
    Where can I find train schedules, pricing and other information?

    On the Alaska Railroad website,

    Question #8
    Will I see wildlife on my trip?

    It depends on what you consider wildlife.  If there are small children onboard then you can say you've seen wildlife. <grin>  Seriously though, yes you will see some of God's beautiful creatures on your trip.  On my excursions, I saw moose, dally sheep, black bear, and eagles. Bad weather days tend to be the best days to see wildlife.

    Question #9
    If I bug the conductor enough, can I get free stuff like playing cards and plastic locomotives to pin on my kids?

    Nope. The only free stuff you get is train route map and railroad newspaper.  Sometimes the conductor may have balloons, stickers or tattoo's for the kids.

    Question #10
    Will the Alaska Railroad store my bags upon request?

    The only time they do this is in Seward. This is very helpful to those taking a one day round trip from Anchorage to Seward. You can leave your bags at the Seward depot and then do some sight-seeing.

    Question #11
    What are the distance along the routes?


  • Seward to Portage: 64 miles.
  • Portage to Whittier spur: 12 miles.
  • Anchorage to Portage: 50 miles.
  • Seward to Anchorage: 114 miles.
  • Anchorage to Talkeetna: 112 miles.
  • Anchorage to Denali National Park: 234 miles.
  • Denali to Fairbanks: 122 miles.
  • Anchorage to Fairbanks: 356 miles.
  • Question #12
    What is the HEX?

    Answer provided by James Ogden, ARR Conductor:

    I was just looking through the Photo of the Week feature on your website, and thought I would clear up something I noticed on the 9/29/2014 photo, which is of the HEX we ran this summer.

    "HEX" is basically internal slang we use on the railroad. It stands for "Healy Express," because that is the northern terminal for the train, at least for the crew. The train is run under contract with HAP Alaska-Yukon, which handles the land tours for many Holland America Line and Princess Cruise Line passengers. The train operates daily in the summer. The train makes passenger stops in Anchorage, Talkeetna, and Denali Park. Most of the Holland America passengers travel the entire distance between Anchorage and Denali Park in one day, while many of the Princess passengers do it in two, with a night or two at the Princess lodge near Talkeetna.

    On the north end, the train lays over for the night in Healy. Last spring, the wye was lengthened to accommodate the entire train, and a new track was built where HAP mechanics can service their passenger cars. Going north, the train leaves Denali Park with the train crew and guest service staff still on board. The guest service staff cleans up and closes everything down during the trip through the canyon, and then gets off near the Fire Hall in Healy. The train crew then wyes the train, does any switching required, and ties it down in the HAP track for the night. In the morning, before heading south, the train crew performs an air brake test, and then pulls down to the Fire Hall to pick up the guest service staff. Once they are aboard, the train goes to Denali Park to pick up the paying passengers.

    "Healy Express" would be a little misleading to the passengers, since they do not make it to Healy on the train, but that is the term most of the crew uses, since that is where they tie up. The passengers know the train as either the "McKinley Explorer" or "Midnight Sun Express," depending on whether they are travelling with Holland America or Princess.

    Question #13
    When one is traveling adventure class on the ARR, is some sort of lounge car available?  Or are the limited times in the dome car and the dining car the only other options?

    Answer provided by James Ogden, ARR Conductor:

    When traveling in adventure class, the dome is available to all passengers. The railroad asks passengers to limit their time in the dome so that everyone may use it, however we really only remind people of that when the demand for the dome is high. If no one else wants to sit up there, passengers can stay as long as they like. Additionally, some of our Bistro cars have lounge areas, which are also available to all passengers. They usually lack some of the appeal of the dome, except around meal times. We do not have any dedicated lounge cars, but we have lounge areas in other cars. Passengers may also ride in the vestibules between cars, though of course, there are no seats there. On many trains, at least a portion of the trip is not sold out, and passengers are allowed to move to different seats or even a different car if they are available.

    Also check out James Ogden's excellent article Trains of the Alaska Railroad.



    Good Photography Locations

    Click here for Chris Paulhamus' summer 2013 train schedule

    Before looking at good photography locations, you need to know when the train will arrive at a particular location.  A scanner will usually only give you a "heads up" once the train is several miles out.  Section 81.33  of the Alaska Railroad's timetable is a listing of all the highway crossings on the Alaska Railroad, listed both by Alaska Railroad milepost and highway milepost. Section 80.0 has a listing of sidings and other tracks.  Checking the train schedules on the Alaska Railroad website will give you approximate arrival and departure times for major stopping points.

    To help you orient yourself, I have provided a milepost overview, a clickable route map, some yard maps, and a siding chart.  Hey, you come to my website and you get free stuff!  Free is good!

    Just in case you need them, here are the Alaska Railroad's radio frequencies.

    Don't forget railroad security is pretty strict so make sure and stay off railroad property.

    An easy spot to photograph trains is the Anchorage Depot.  Trains arrive and depart sporadically from 6:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.  There is an empty lot across from the depot which provides a nice viewpoint for a "Kodak moment".

    Good photos of the Anchorage yard can be obtained from an overlook location near the car shops.  To reach this, take C Street out of Anchorage.  When the road splits, take the right curve.  As you begin driving up a hill, you will see the Anchorage yard on your right.

    Elderberry Park is truly a funspot. It is located about a half mile south of the Anchorage Depot. This location is within easy walking distance of most downtown Anchorage Hotels, or may be accessed by car. This is the location of the Ken Brovald Memorial Train Watching Bench. From downtown Anchorage, take Fifth Avenue west to N Street. Walking, continue west to the small building, then left to the first bench. By car, continue west on Fifth Ave. to the parking spots facing the park and again the bench will be the first one. You will be facing the Main Line just south of the depot and there will be action through out the day. Monitoring the ARR Dispatcher with a scanner is recommended.

    Seward is at the end of the Seward Highway, and is a three hour drive from Anchorage.  It is the destination for unit coal and log trains.  The coal comes from Healy (north of Denali National Park) and goes to Korea.  The unit train is usually about 75 to 80 cars long, and is normally headed by three to six units.  The logs come from Nenana (further north of Healy) and go to Japan.  There is also a daily passenger train which leaves Anchorage at 6:00 a.m. and arrives in Seward around 11:00 a.m.  It then leaves Seward at 6:00 p.m. and arrives in Anchorage around 10:30 p.m.

    The Anchorage to Seward run has two sections to grab some great photographs.  The first is a very beautiful section along Turnagain Arm from Potter to Portage.  It is all easily road accessible so train chasing is a breeze.  Once the train passes through Portage, the line breaks away from the road and climbs into the mountains thus ending your chase.  A stop at Potter should also be on your "to do" list.  Here you will find an old Rotary plow, a gas car and section house.

    The second section is from Moose Pass to Seward and is much harder for train chasing.  The mainline roughly parallels the road, but is usually not easily accessed.  However, there are a few good spots.  Railfan Robert Krol says, "If you catch the trains just right, Moose Pass has some good spots to  catch trains.  Crown Point is a good spot, there's a rail bridge right next to the highway.  There's a small spot to park near the Snow River Bridge the tracks go under the Seward Highway.  Snow River Bridge is about MP 18.  The rails cross the Snow River at about MP 15 on the highway.   About MP 13 of the highway there's a nice spot of Divide Hill, there's a rail siding there too. At about MP 6 on the highway, there's a nice spot to catch trains dropping down into Seward or climbing out of Seward."

    Once in Seward, you can hang around the depot and get some close up shots of the locomotives and freight cars.  Nearby you will find four passenger cars converted into a gift shop, bike rental, fishing charter and lodging rooms.  Around the docks area, you'll find the coal loading facility and a bunch old Alaska Railroad boxcars converted into storage sheds.

    The railroad doesn't really parallel the road very much on this section so photo ops are few.  However, the few spots where it does has some beautiful mountains in the background. Some easy access locations are Talkeetna depot and as the train runs through Cantwell.

    The Bible Camp Road a.k.a. Beach Lake Road grade crossing (ARR MP 133.2) is in the middle of a .42% upgrade (southbound, towards Anchorage) and the track speed limit there is 35 mph. To get there, take the South Birchwood Exit, the one for Chugiak High School. Go past the high school on Birchwood Loop Road and about a quarter to half mile down, turn left on Beach Road. Just a quarter mile or so from there is the grade crossing. There are parking areas on either side of the road if your vehicle has good ground clearance. Don't try it in a sports car. Catching a train on the curve can be very striking.

    I have many favorite photo ops locations for this section.  The first one is in Denali National Park.  Enter the park and go past the Visitor's Center.  Keep an eye in your rear view mirror until you see a long black train bridge.  Pull your car off the road, put on your parking brake, turn on your emergency flashers and walk back down the road about 30 feet.  The bridge you are viewing is Riley Creek Trestle.  A train crossing this bridge makes for a truly spectacular photo!  Check with the Denali Depot folks to find out arrival and departure times.  You can also hang around the depot and photograph the trains as they drop off all the tourists.

    My second favorite spot is just north of Denali National Park at Windy Bridge.  The wind can be so strong here that a wind sock was placed at one end to give truck drivers a "heads up" for controlling their vehicles.  From the middle of the bridge, you have great views of the train as it emerges from Moody Tunnel on one side and Million Dollar Curve and Nenana Canyon on the other.  Please exercise great caution while on this bridge!  It is a long fall from the bridge with a sudden stop at the bottom plus there is nothing between you and the vehicular traffic crossing the bridge.

    How about a photo of the train crossing the historic Mears Memorial Bridge in Nenana!  The photo location is just outside the Nenana Depot and thus easily accessible by car.  For you hardcore railfans, there are several old passengers located in a parking lot between the depot and the bridge.

    Lastly, the diehard railfan can grab some pix of the Fairbanks yard at various locations along the roads that bound it.


    Fairbanks gets only a freight train or two during the day. So just sitting around and waiting for one is not recommended. The train comes in from Anchorage anywhere from 7 am to 9 am. Usually something is heading south early to mid afternoon. The oil train to the North Pole refinery usually heads out around 10 am, returning between 1-3. Some days sees a coal train to Eielson as well. There is a coal train to Nenana about 3 times a week. Usually down in the evening and back in the morning. And the passenger train arrives Saturday evening, and leaves Sunday morning.

    So where to go? There is an overpass on the west end, and you can see a fair amount from the new depot. There is also a public road that parallels the railroad access road on the west end as well (at the end of Peger Road). Most switching of the airport spur is at night. There is also a nice overpass off Loftus, the access road off of Geist to the University. At grade crossings are on University Ave, College Ave, Old Steese and New Steese highways and on the Richardson highway near North Pole. The line to North Pole and Eielson parallels the old Richardson Highway as well from Badger Road.

    Added 8/17/15: There are a few spots on the main at Sheep Creek Road, Happy, and the new Ester siding is all accessible by road If the person likes beer HooDoo Brewing has killer beer and is a stones throw from the yard office, can enjoy a burger and craft beer and watch the railroad Goldstream Road to Murphy Dome Road and there is a short dirt road to a old gold mine that is now a gravel pit, should have a big sign out front it will be on the left side. The private property line starts at the big gate across the tracks. Not a good place to photograph morning southbound though be shooting into the sun. Sheep Creek Road, there is a nice driveway on the right you can park at, it turns into an ATV trail so make sure people can pass, and you can walk across the road to Happy. Since the railroad went to DTC most if not all of the spur and maintenance stuff has been pulled out.

    Whittier is accessed from the Seward Highway.  At one time, the only way to reach the town over land was via the Alaska Railroad.  You could even drive your vehicle onto a railroad flatcar and be part of the train into Whittier.  Toot!  Toot!  Unfortunately, those exciting days came to an end in 2000 when an $80 million transportation project (do I smell pork barrel?) made it possible for vehicles and trains to share the same tunnel. Be that as it may, a shot of a train emerging from the tunnel can quicken the pulse of any hardcore railfan.

    Whittier is the port where the Alaska Railroad receives its interchange traffic via ocean-going rail barge from both the CN in Prince Rupert and the UP/BNSF in Seattle.  There used to be some great photo ops at the dock, but the railroad has now fenced the entire area off and mans the gate with private security.

    Whittier also has a small train yard that has super easy access.  If you're a hardcore railfan, check out the old refrigeration car converted into a storage shed.


    Train Schedules between Anchorage and Fairbanks

    Added by James Ogden on 9/6/16

    I'll start with the train schedules. We will still be operating on our summer schedule, so there should be plenty to see.

    Overnight Express
    Departs Anchorage northbound at 8:00pm on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
    Departs Fairbanks southbound at 8:00pm on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.
    The running time for the freight is typically about eleven hours.
    AS&G Gravel
    The AS&G gravel train operates between Palmer and south Anchorage, typically Monday through Saturday. It leaves Anchorage empty, going north, by 5:00am, arriving at the tipple in Palmer at about 6:30 or 7:00am. It is typically done loading around 10:00am and heads south, passing through Anchorage around noon. At the end of the shift, typically no sooner than 4:00pm, the train ties up in Anchorage.
    QAP Gravel
    The QAP has been on a highly irregular schedule this year, but it typically operates two times per week, leaving Anchorage around 11:00am. It goes north to Kashwitna to load, then returns to south Anchorage to unload. Depending on time available, and space available int he yard, this train can tie up in Anchorage or Birchwood.
    In addition, the work train is out and about, though its exact whereabouts and schedule vary a lot depending on the different projects going on around the railroad. There is also a QAP rock train that operates occasionally between Broad Pass and Pittman. There is also a local coal train that operates between Fairbanks and Usibelli, on an as needed basis. The north end coal usually runs five times per week, but the times vary from one day to the next to accommodate passenger train schedules.

    Complete passenger schedules can be found at

    Denali Star
    Denali Star departs Anchorage and Fairbanks daily at 8:15am, running time is 11:45.
    The last day of operation will be September 17 northbound and September 18 southbound.

    Hurricane Turn
    The Hurricane Turn departs Talkeetna northbound at 12:45pm, returning at 7:15pm, Thursday through Monday.
    The last day of operation will be September 19th.

    Healy Express
    The Healy Express (HEX) is a charter operated daily by HAP Alaska/Yukon's rail division. It typically consists of one 4300 series SD70MAC and one to ten Holland America and/or Princess coaches.
    The HEX departs Anchorage northbound at 9:15am and follows the northbound Denali Star by about one hour. All passengers disembark in Denali Park and the train deadheads with employees only to Healy.
    The HEX departs Healy southbound at 7:50am, and departs Denali Park with passengers at 9:15am.
    Here is the complete HEX schedule:
    Anchorage - 9:15am NB/5:00pm SB
    Talkeetna - 12:15pm/2:00pm
    Denali Park - 4:40pm/9:15am
    Healy - 5:45pm/7:50am
    The last day of operation will be September 22nd.

    Denali Express
    The Denali Express (DEX) is a chartered train operated on Princess cruise ship days by HAP Alaska/Yukon. It typically consists of one 4300 series SD70MAC, one Alaska Railroad Gold Star coach, and three to nine Holland America and Princess coaches. One train operates in each direction on cruise ship days. See below for dates. Passengers ride between Denali Park and Whittier, but the train operates between Anchorage, Whittier, and Fairbanks. See the schedule below. The HAP coaches do not operate north of Healy. Only the locomotive and the Gold Star car operate all the way to Fairbanks. They are used on the Denali Star when the DEX is not running.
    On this schedule, the northbound train is the one that terminates in Fairbanks, while the southbound one is the one that originates in Fairbanks. Both trains operate in both directions during the course of their trip. The southbound schedule is an approximation because I do not have that me in front of me at the moment.
    Anchorage - 4:00am NB/10:45pm SB
    Portage - 6:15am/9:00pm
    Whittier - 7:05am/5:00pm
    Anchorage - 10:30am/3:00pm
    Talkeetna - 1:30pm/12:00pm (no stop)
    Denali Park - 5:45pm/7:30am
    Healy - 7:15pm/6:00am
    Fairbanks - 10:15pm/2:00am
    Dates of operation are every Saturday until September 17th, and Wednesday September 7th.

    McKinley Express
    The McKinley Express (MEX) is a chartered train operated on Princess cruise ship days by HAP Alaska/Yukon. The equipment is based in Seward, but operates north of Anchorage on the charter. It typically consists of one 4300 series SD70MAC (usually 4328), four single level Ultra Dome coaches, one Bistro car, three more single level Ultra Dome coaches, and a GP40-2 (usually 3015). The train deadheads to Whittier where passengers board, then it operates north to McKinley, which is a few miles south of Talkeetna. There passengers disembark and are shuttled off to their hotel or other tour excursions. A new crowd boards, the the train heads back to Whittier to empty its load of people, then it is deadheaded back to Seward. This train operates on the same days as the DEX, listed above. Unfortunately I do not have access to the schedule right now, but I can tell you that northbound, it is just ahead of the DEX. It gets squeezed in between the northbound HEX and the northbound DEX. Coming south, it follows the southbound DEX, just after that train goes by McKinley.

    Now, for places to look at trains, of which there are quite a few. This is what I can think of off the top of my head, it is certainly not an exhaustive list. I really ought to just make a map of the places on Google Earth or something, then you could just put that on your website. But since I have not done that (yet), this is what I can think of at the moment.

    In Anchorage, there are quite a few places where the railroad can be easily seen from overpasses or public crossings at grade. There are streets that run along the yard, Whitney Road and Post Road, and there is an overpass that provides a good view of the south end of the yard. The overpass has no place to pull a vehicle off the road, but there is a sidewalk, so one could park downtown and walk out on the bridge. Immediately north of the yard, the railroad crosses Elmendorf Air Force Base and Fort Richardson, which are not accessible to the public. There are public crossings in Birchwood and Eklutna. The north Birchwood exit off the Glenn Highway provides access to the yard there and a public crossing. North of Eklutna, the Glenn Highway parallels the railroad across the Knik and Matanuska rivers, to the Parks highway interchange. The Old Glenn Highway, just north of Eklutna, has an overpass that provides a pretty good view of trains coming through that area. If one stays on the Glenn Highway past the interchange, it parallels the Palmer Branch for a couple of miles until the tracks reach Palmer.

    The Parks highway heads into Wasilla and roughly parallels the railroad all the way to Fairbanks. There are quite a few places in Wasilla where the railroad can be easily seen. The railroad and the Parks Highway are just feet apart through most of Wasilla. Heading north from there, the highway crosses the railroad near Pittman, and there is a crossing and a bike trail that crosses the railroad in that area as well. In Houston the highway goes under the railroad, and there is a pull out just north of town which is just a short walk from the new wye there. The wye itself is railroad property and off limits, but the pull out is above it, so even without getting down to railroad property, there is a pretty good view of the area there. North of there, there are a few crossings off the highway. Willow Station Road is probably the next spot with any kind of view. If Denali is visible, it is pretty impressive from the railroad crossing there. The view down the tracks is not that long, but it is decent, but track speed through there is 49/59, so trains are generally moving right along.

    North of Willow, the highway crosses the railroad a few times. Most of those crossings have been replaced with overpasses this summer, and I have not had a chance to scope them out. They could be good places to see trains, but there are probably better places too. The Talkeetna depot is easily accessible. The platform there s long enough for 25 coaches so there is plenty of room to see what is going on without being in the way of any of the activity. Just north of there, there is a trail along the tracks, which actually crosses several railroad bridges. That is the Chase Trail. It goes for several miles into the woods right along the tracks, and it is perfectly legal to be there to take pictures. Because you have to walk or bike in there, it is not a commonly photographed area. North of there, the only way in is by rail until Hurricane. There is a section house and some related equipment stored at Hurricane, as well as a highway crossing and a decent size pull out just north of the highway crossing. Hurricane Bridge is just a short distance north of the siding there, but it is only accessible by hiking through the woods. (One of these days I am going to get someone to take me out there!) North of Hurricane, the highway and the railroad are parallel, but the distance between them varies. Honolulu is accessible by hiking about a mile from the Little Coal Creek area. Colorado and Broad Pass are much closer, but the railroad is not obvious from the highway, despite being less than half a mile away through that area. Summit Airport is across the highway from the railroad's highest point, also named Summit. That is just a short hike through the brush from the highway, and there are a few places to pull off the road in that area. Cantwell has a public crossing off the Denali Highway, west of the Parks Highway, which is pretty easily accessible. Trains there will be slowing down or accelerating, and not moving too fast, as there is a 25mph area just north of Cantwell. North of there, the railroad and the highway run parallel but on opposite sides of the Jack and then Nenana Rivers, until just outside of Denali Park.

    In the Denali Park area there are a few good spots to see the railroad. There is a highway crossing just south of the park entrance. If one takes the park entrance road back to the visitor's center, the parking lot is just a short walk from the train station there. From the train station, it is just a short walk down to Riley Creek, which is a great place to see the railroad. West of the railroad bridge over Riley Creek is a small rocky hill, which has a great view of the entire railroad bridge. Getting up the hill requires one to be in reasonably good shape, but the view is worth the climb. I am told there are places farther up the Park Road which allow a view of the Riley Creek bridge as well, but require a longer camera lens or binoculars to really bring the view close.

    North of Denali Park, the highway and railroad end up on opposite sides of the river again for a bit. The railroad can be seen from the hotels in the park entrance area, it is up on the bluff across the river. North of the hotels, the railroad and highway enter Healy Canyon. About halfway through the canyon, the highway climbs up high and crosses the railroad near where Moody Tunnel used to be located. The highway bridge offers a good view of the railroad, but there is nowhere to pull a vehicle off the road there. A vehicle would have to be parked on either end of the bridge, where there are pull outs, and then one would have to walk out on the bridge, which has some shoulder, but no sidewalk. It can also be very windy on the bridge. In Healy, the yard is accessible a few miles off the highway, on the road that goes out toward the coal mine. It is the only place to turn in Healy, towards the east.

    North of Healy, the railroad and highway cross a few more times before getting to Fairbanks. In most places however, the railroad is not very accessible. Nenana is probably the best place to see the railroad north of Healy. The highway passes to the west of town, turning off into town will take one to the old depot, and it is possible to get right under the Tanana River bridge there as well. There are several crossings and streets which allow for a pretty good view of the railroad there. North of Nenana, there are more places where the railroad and highway cross, but they are not right next to each other again for the remainder of the distance to Fairbanks. In and around Fairbanks there are a few places where the railroad can be seen. Near the University of Alaska Fairbanks, there is a road that parallels the railroad for a mile or two. It is a pretty lightly used road, so despite not having wide shoulders, it probably would not cause too many problems iff someone pulled over for a minute to take a picture. In Fairbanks, there are numerous crossings and a few overpasses which have a pretty good view as well. The Johansen Expressway passes over the north end of the yard. I believe there is a bike trail on the side of that bridge, facing south, so there should be a decent view of the yard there.

    As I mentioned, this list is far from exhaustive. There are probably more places that I do not know about too. My advice is to look around, done be afraid to walk through the woods a short distance, and use Google Earth or some other aerial imagery to explore an area ahead of time. There are a lot of great places to see trains along the railroad, but some require a bit more planning than others.


    Train Schedules between Anchorage and Seward/Whittier

    Added by James Ogden on 9/8/16

    Freight schedules to Whittier and Seward are completely dependent on barge schedules and the tonnage being loaded onto or unloaded from the barge. As such, it is impossible to give specific days and times that trains operate, because they can vary considerably from one week to the next.

    The Seattle barges are generally the most consistent, at least during the summer, when the weather is good. Barges depart Seattle on a weekly schedule, so typically a barge arrives from Seattle every week, generally later in the week. There is only one barge on the Prince Rupert to Whittier route, so it basically makes continuous round trips, unless there are delays waiting for rail cars or mechanical problems. The barge from Prince Rupert is generally in Whittier every ten days to two weeks.

    The barges from Seattle carry shipping containers, in addition to rail cars. Most of those containers leave Whittier by rail, so the freight trains that service those barges have considerably more to haul than just the cars arriving and departing on the barge. We typically run two freights in each direction to support the Seattle barges. The first train to leave Anchorage usually is scheduled so that it will arrive in Whittier around the same time as the barge. It is also scheduled to minimize conflict with passenger trains, so it is usually run in the middle of the day or at night. That train is usually mostly empty shipping containers leaving the state. There are usually also a few loaded fuel cars for Shoreside Petroleum, in Whittier, on that train. When that train arrives in Whittier, the flatcars are spotted for unloading in the yard, and that crew then uses the locomotives to unload the barge. If time permits, they switch the cars coming off the barge to minimize switching in Anchorage. When their twelve hours are up, they tie up at a hotel in Whittier. This train is often referred to as the "Whittier Tie Up" by crews, since they will be tying up away from home.

    While the Tie Up crew rests, the stevedores unload containers from the barge and load them on the now empty flatcars in the yard. The empty containers, which came off the flatcars, get loaded onto the barge.

    Around the time that the Whittier Tie Up crew goes off duty, another crew is usually coming on duty in Anchorage. They bring a second freight into Whittier, which may have more containers but also includes the cars to leave Alaska Railroad, on the barge. When they get to Whittier, they leave the outbound cars in the yard, respot flatcars if needed for unloading, and then build a northbound train. They usually take all the cars that came off the barge and as many loaded flatcars as they can. The size and tonnage of this northbound train is limited only by the horsepower the train has available. Once the train is built, this crew takes it back to Anchorage. This is known as the "Whittier Turn" because the crew brings a train down, and then turns around and goes home.

    About the time the Whittier Turn is heading back to Anchorage, the Tie Up crew comes back on duty, in Whittier. They load all the outbound cars on the barge and then build another northbound train. This train basically collects whatever was left by the Tie Up crew. It is usually almost all flatcars with containers on them.

    When all of this freight from both trains, gets to Anchorage, it is switched by yard crews there. Some cars go only as far as Anchorage, while others are added to northbound freight trains for transit to Fairbanks and points north. This whole operation of freights to and from Whittier typically occurs over two days, but it can be longer depending on a few factors. Sometimes barges have containers for Cordova or Valdez, and they'll come to Whittier, unload partially, then head across the sound. When they get back to Whittier, after that, they get loaded for the voyage back to Seattle.

    The Canadian barge, which operates to Prince Rupert, BC, carries only rail cars. The operation is similar but smaller in scale. Generally that barge requires only the efforts of one crew. They take a freight train south, unload the barge, load the barge, and bring a freight train back to Anchorage. Depending on the size of the load, they may do all that in one shift, or they may tie up in Whittier and then load the barge and head north on a second shift.

    There are numerous other factors that contribute to the train schedule as well. Equipment maintenance, tunnel schedules, passenger train and charter schedules, weather (particularly in the winter), track maintenance, work train activity, and of course barge schedules all have an effect on when the freight trains operate between Anchorage and Whittier.


    Thanks to Jeff Childs, Frank Dewey, Casey Durand, Mike Ferguson, Curt Fortenberry, Frank Keller, James Ogden
    Marty Quaas,
    Andy Tejral, Randy Thompson and John Combs for providing this information!


    Created 7/27/98 and last updated 9/8/16
    © 1997-2016 John Combs unless otherwise noted