The History of the Alaska Railroad

Winding its way through rugged mountains, cavernous valleys, thick forests, and miles of untamed wilderness, the Alaska Railroad is truly a one of a kind operation. For railfans though, it’s uniqueness extends well beyond its geography. 

Establishment of the Alaska Railroad

Old photo of the Alaska Railroad Old photo of the Alaska Railroad

While railroad building was prolific across most of North America during the 1800s, Alaska didn’t get its first railroad until the turn of the 20th century.

In 1903, the Alaska Railroad began construction of the first railroad in the territory, heading northward from the port at Seward on the Kenai Peninsula, with the goal of reaching interior communities. Construction progressed at a tedious pace, thanks to the formidable terrain of the region, and by 1909, the railroad was in receivership. By this time however, the route had managed to progress through 50 miles of mountainous terrain, and was already carrying passengers, freight, and mail up to the Turnagain Arm. From here, journeys would continue via boat or dog sled.

Scene from construction of the extension by the Alaska Northern Railroad Scene from construction of the extension by the Alaska Northern Railroad.

Upon the Alaska Central entering receivership, the Alaska Northern Railroad took over operations of the line. Encountering similar difficulties, the route was only extended by a further 24 miles, and by 1914 the railroad found itself in bankruptcy once again.

Purchasing the Alaska Railroad

President Taft of the United States of America An illustration of the proposed route for the Alaska Railroad

Fortuitously, railroading in the United States was entering its prime during this time, and the US Government, under the order of President Taft, was actively interested in building a railroad to connect Seward with the industrial interior community of Fairbanks. By the time the Alaska Northern declared bankruptcy, the US Government had already surveyed a 470 mile route for construction, which featured the trackage already in operation. 

In 1914, the US Government purchased Alaska Northern’s trackage, and moved the headquarters of the operation from Seward to Ship Creek. The economic boost that followed this move, combined with the railroad’s continued northern expansion under government oversight, accelerated the growth of Ship Creek. Renamed Anchorage in 1920, the city would soon grow to become the largest in Alaska, and is today the state’s main commercial, industrial, and economic hub.

Photo of the Tanana Valley Railroad Photo of the Mears Memorial Bridge

As construction advanced northward, the government purchased the narrow gauge Tanana Valley Railroad in 1917. Based in Fairbanks, the railroad was of interest to the government primarily for its terminals, and the route was converted to dual gauge to allow it to be incorporated into the Alaska Railroad. It was eventually converted to standard gauge and officially merged into the new railroad upon the completion of the full 470 mile route in 1923.

Struggles and Success of the Alaska Railroad

Photo of a fleet of US Army built S-160 steam locomotives on the Alaska Railroad. Photo of a fleet of US Army built S-160 steam locomotives on the Alaska Railroad.

While the newly completed railroad struggled to make a profit in its early years, World War Two brought a boom to the line, transforming it into a lifeline for the transportation of military and civilian supplies. During this period a spur line was built from Portage to connect with a new army facility at Camp Sullivan, later renamed Whittier. This would become one of the most important segments of railroad for the system. 

Despite its isolation, the Alaska Railroad continued to keep up with modernization trends seen on lower 48 railroads – a testament to the successful operation of the route by the US Government. The railroad received its first diesel locomotive in 1944, and withdrew its final steam locomotive in 1966.

First generation EMD FP7 running on the Alaska Railroad The unique ALCO RF1s running on the Alaska Railroad

In 1985, the state of Alaska purchased the railroad from the Federal Government for $22.3 million. It remains under state oversight to this day.

The Alaska Railroad Today

Freight Operations on the Alaska Railroad

Photo of the EMD SD70MACs running on the Alaska Railroad. Photo of the EMD SD70MACs running on the Alaska Railroad.

The Alaska Railroad’s trackage has remained largely unchanged since completion in 1923, and it has never gained a direct outside connection. For much of its early existence, it relied on transporting lumber and other materials within Alaska, or other commodities via ship from the ports at Seward and Anchorage. While these materials remain important commodities for the railroad today, service was greatly expanded with the opening of a railcar barge connection at Whittier in the 1960s. 

Thanks to the barge, the Alaska Railroad no longer has to rely solely on the movement of goods within the state, and regularly receives cars directly from other US and Canadian railroads from ports in Seattle and Prince Rupert, British Columbia. 

Typical commodities moved today include infrastructure materials, liquid chemicals, coal, scrap metal, and heavy machinery. Intermodal operations serving traditional container ships have also become an important aspect of the operation, with major terminals operating at Whittier, Anchorage, and Fairbanks.  

Some less conventional freight operations have also been undertaken, including the movement of snow from further north to Anchorage during a particularly warm winter, for the start of the Iditarod Dog Race in 2016.  

Passenger Operations on the Alaska Railroad

Passenger trains on the Alaska Railroad. Tourists waiting to board a passenger trains on the Alaska Railroad.

The Alaska Railroad is unique today in that it still runs its own passenger services. Scheduled trains run the length of the mainlines between Fairbanks, Anchorage, Seward, and Whittier, offering a lifeline connection to isolated communities, some of which have no other connection with the outside world. These services are the last flag stop operations in North America, where the train will stop as needed along the route if someone is seen waving a white flag. 

Several trains more geared to tourists are also operated on seasonal schedules, utilizing luxury double decker sightseeing cars. These are often operated in coordination with cruise lines, some of which operate their own cars on the trains.   

Commuter services have been proposed for the Anchorage area, and a passenger spur to Anchorage’s Ted Stevens International Airport was completed in 2003. For now it is only utilized by cruise trains. 

Connecting the United States

Railroad route demonstrating connections to the contiguous United States from Alaska. Blue A24 Railcar on the Alaska Railroad

While the railroad remains physically isolated from the rest of the North American rail network, many plans have been drawn up over the years for building the 2000 mile connection needed to reach the nearest trunk lines in Alberta, Canada. 

Currently a company known as the Alaska to Alberta Railway is looking to make this connection a reality, with a planned route from Edmonton to the Fairbanks end of the Alaska Railroad.

Adding the Alaska Railroad to Your Layout

Athearn Genesis HO G64918 SD70MAC, Alaska Railroad "Spirit of Nenana" #4013 Alaska Railroad model train cars

If your layout incorporates Alaskan-style scenery, with impressive mountains and thickly wooded forests, what better way to incorporate a genuine touch of Alaska than to add an Alaska Railroad train?

Check out our range of Alaska Railroad models and add the trains of this unique and historic operation to your model railroad today!