By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor
The Alaska Railroad Corp. (ARRC) marked its 90th anniversary on July 15. President Warren G. Harding drove a golden spike in Nenana on July 15, 1923, to commemorate the completion of the U.S. government-owned railroad, which took eight years to construct.
Since that day, ARRC has experienced a number of changes, including a transfer in ownership from the feds to the state of Alaska. Yet, two things largely have remained the same for nine decades: ARRC’s network in south-central and interior Alaska that totals about 650 miles of track, and its dual mission to provide freight- and passenger-rail services in the nation’s largest state.
In a few years, even those holdouts will undergo some significant changes, if funding and governmental issues are resolved. In the meantime, ARRC leaders are trying to continue guiding the railroad along a business-growth path while minding some of the seminal experiences of the past.
Among the pivotal events that helped shape today’s ARRC:
• the railroad hauled military and civilian supplies and materials during World War II from 1940 to 1943, serving as a key logistics provider for the U.S. Army;
• car-barge service was established in 1962, followed by train-ship service in 1964, which enabled rail cars to be shipped from any rail point in the lower 48 states to any location along ARRC;
• Union Pacific passenger coaches were acquired in 1971, helping ARRC expand and improve passenger services;
• the railroad supported construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the early 1970s by receiving and hauling pipe, helping to boost ARRC’s workforce to more than 1,000 by 1975;
• the railroad began to qualify for federal funding in 1996 for planned projects and received $10 million in Congressional grants to install 87,000 ties; and
• tax-exempt bonds were issued for the first time in 2006 to enable the railroad to fund an aggressive track refurbishment program (to access a detailed timeline, click here).
Overall, ARRC has survived and thrived, something three private railroads failed to do in Alaska prior to the 1920s. The federal government, which had the resources private interests didn’t, stepped in to establish the Alaska Railroad because of the development of coal fields in the state, says James Blasingame, a more than 41-year ARRC veteran who joined the railroad in 1968 as a system engineer and retired in 2010 as an executive vice president.
“The government opened areas for development, and population centers grew along the railroad like in the [lower 48] states, says Blasingame.
The development of the railroad also drove how the city of Anchorage was laid out, he says.
Yet, ARRC’s most monumental achievement was the January 1985 ownership transfer from the federal government to the state of Alaska, which set the course for the railroad’s individuality and self-sustainment, says Blasingame, who is writing a book about the transfer that he expects to finish next year.
“The railroad became an independent enterprise with financial and legal obligations as a corporation, as it is today,” he says.
ARRC’s twin mission to perform well as a state-owned agency and self-sustaining entity sometimes dovetails and sometimes doesn’t, says ARRC Chief Operating Officer Bill O’Leary. Despite ongoing challenges, the railroad has a bright future, he says.
A large part of that brightness will be lit by two major extensions that figure to change the railroad’s network in a big way for the first time since 1923.
The four-phased Northern Rail Extension project calls for extending a line 80 miles from North Pole/Eielson southeast to Delta Junction. The new line would accommodate freight-rail operations and potentially support 79 mph passenger-rail operations between Fairbanks, North Pole, Salcha and Delta Junction.
The project’s first phase — the construction of a bridge over the Tanana River in Salcha — is under way and slated for completion in August 2014. The Tanana crossing will be the longest bridge in the state, says O’Leary.
ARRC is seeking funding for the other phases of work: new rail from Moose Creek near North Pole to the Tanana crossing; new rail from the crossing to Donnelly Military Training Area; and new rail from the military area to Delta Junction.
The railroad also is pursuing the Port MacKenzie Rail Extension, which is funded by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. The project calls for building a 32-mile line from Port MacKenzie to ARRC’s mainline south of Houston.
The railroad is a construction manager for the project, which is slated for completion in 2016, says O’Leary. The extension will create the longest rail-car loop in Alaska to accommodate efficient offloading of bulk resources at the port; shorten the distance to tidewater for interior shippers; stimulate freight-rail activity in the region; and provide ample room for staging and assembling materials for large construction projects, such as oilfield modules or pipeline assembly, according to ARRC.
There’s something else ARRC officials are contemplating that would help stimulate passenger-rail activity: commuter-rail service. ARRC is analyzing the potential to offer the service between Anchorage and Palmer/Wasila.
“We provide year-round passenger service but have not put in commuter rail,” says O’Leary. “It would be good for the populace and economy, but a challenge because we need to be self sustaining.”
About 30,000 commuters who live in Palmer and Wasila travel 40 to 45 miles to Anchorage each day, he says. But before the railroad could launch such a service, a regional transit organization would need to be formed and funding would have to be obtained, says O’Leary.
“There are a lot of things we could do if we had the funding,” he says.
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