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Alaska Railroad History

Alaska Central Railway built the first railroad in Alaska starting in Seward and extending 50 miles north.

Alaska Central Railway went bankrupt in 1907 and reorganized as the Alaska Northern Railway Co. in 1910 extending the railroad to Kern Creek - 71 miles from Seward.

March 12, 1914
The US Congress agrees to fund construction and operation of a railroad from Seward to Fairbanks. Estimated construction cost - $35 million.

June 1915
Anchorage is created as a railroad construction town along Ship Creek where the railroad moves its headquarters from Seward.

June 1917
Railroad construction crews peak at 4,500 workers. The Tanana Valley Railroad, a 45-mile narrow-gauge line into Fairbanks from the Chatanika mining area to the northwest, was purchased, principally to obtain its Fairbanks terminal facilities.

July 15, 1923
President Warren G. Harding travels to Alaska to mark the completion of the Alaska Railroad by driving the golden spike in ceremonies at Nenana, one of the state's largest cities at the time. President Harding died from an attack of food poisoning on his return trip to San Francisco on August 2, 1923.

A combined population of 5,400 people in Seward, Anchorage and Fairbanks, the three towns of any size along the railbelt, is unable to generate enough business to make the railroad profitable.

Under the management of Col. Otto F. Ohlson, the Alaska Railroad operates its first profitable year.

World War II brings large profits from hauling military and civilian supplies and materials.

Two tunnels are built through the Chugach Mountains to allow rail access to Whittier, a military port and fuel depot necessary to support the war effort. A new Anchorage passenger depot is completed in December.

Whittier opens as a second railroad port. Diesel locomotives begin to replace steam engines, a process completed in 1966 when the last steam engine was sold.

Congress approves $100 million rehabilitation program.

October 18, 1947
The inaugural run of the Aurora, a blue and gold steamliner, marks upgraded passenger service between Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Competition from roads forces Seward passenger service to be discontinued. Extensive track rehabilitation completed.

May 1962
First car-barge service established as Whittier, followed by train-ship service in June 1964. These services enable rail cars from any rail point in the Lower 48 to be shipped to any point along the Alaska Railroad.

April 25, 1963
President John F. Kennedy signs executive order making the Alaska Railroad tariff rates subject to the Interstate Commerce Commission.

March 27, 1964
Railroad damage from the earthquake estimated at $30 million. Freight service from Anchorage to Fairbanks is restored April 6, passenger service is back on line April 11, and freight service to Whittier resumes April 20.

April 1967
Control of the Alaska Railroad passes from the Secretary of the Interior to the Secretary of Transportation.

The railroad acquired Union Pacific passenger coaches, which were refurbished in large part in Alaska Railroad mechanical shops. The equipment helped the Alaska Railroad expand and improve passenger services. These dome coaches have been refurbished periodically since that time and remain in the railroad’s passenger equipment inventory today (2010).

Early to mid-1970s
After the Good Friday 1964 earthquake produced a tidal wave that destroyed the original city of Valdez, the Corps of Engineers took control of the old location, and engineered the construction and layout of the new city at its current location. The land where the original city was located was offered to any interested federal activity / agency, and the federally-owned Alaska Railroad acquired the land at no cost. The railroad eventually constructed a small rail track from the Valdez port to this newly-acquired property.

The Alaska Railroad supports construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline by receiving shipped pipe and storing it on railroad land in Valdez, Seward and Fairbanks. The railroad also hauled pipe from Valdez and Seward to Fairbanks, where it was then trucked to the North Slope. The railroad workforce increased to more than 1,000 between 1970 and 1975.

Mid- to late 1970s
The Federal Railroad Administration sought to transfer its ownership of the Alaska Railroad. With this in mind, railroad personnel prepared for some kind of transition – to be sold, transferred or dissolved.  The railroad endured an infrastructure-poor and equipment-strapped era as investments declined while options were mulled.

Spring 1981
The Railroad enters into agreements with Fairbanks and Anchorage school district career centers to begin a Tour Guide program that trains high school students to serve as hosts onboard summer passenger trains.

January 14, 1983
President Ronald Reagan signs into law legislation authorizing transfer of the Alaska Railroad to the State of Alaska.

Spring 1983
The Alaska Railroad initiated a corporate computer modernization project, installing the first networked Wang personal computers (PC) to support executive and administration functions. The project included new telecommunications equipment along the railbelt, enhancing communications to all stations.

April 20, 1983
Dedication of a new rail barge doubles the Canadian National Aqua-Train rail capacity to Alaska from Prince Rupert, B.C. The new barge carries 56 cars per trip.

July 15, 1983
Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole and Governor Bill Sheffield sign a report detailing the Alaska Railroad's property, assets and liabilities to be transferred to the state.

September 23, 1983
The U. S. Railway Association sets the fair market value of the Alaska Railroad at $22.3 million.

The Alaska Railroad develops new passenger services with the cruise industry, accepting contracts to pull superdome double-decker luxury coaches owned first by Tour Alaska, and subsequently by Princess, Holland America and other cruise companies.

Construction of the Coal Loading Facility on Railroad land in Seward is completed. Funded with a loan from the Alaska Industrial Development & Export Authority, the facility was built to facilitate export of Alaska coal to international markets..

May 1984
Alaska legislature authorizes Governor Bill Sheffield to negotiate with the federal government for the Railroad's transfer to the state. Tour Alaska attaches the first three private dome railcars to the Anchorage/Fairbanks daily train service.

July 5, 1984
Governor Bill Sheffield signs legislation establishing the quasi-public Alaska Railroad Corporation and its seven-member board of directors.

October 26, 1984
Governor Bill Sheffield appoints the first Board of Directors of the Alaska Railroad Corporation. Board members include James Campbell (chair), Frank Chapados (V. Chair), Lewis Dickinson (founding partner of Dowl Engineers), Myron Christy (retired CEO of Western Pacific Railroad Company), Gerald Valinske (member of United Transportation Union and Alaska Railroad employee), Richard Knapp (Commissioner of Transportation and Public Facilities), Loren Lounsbury (Commissioner of Commerce and Economic Development).

October 26, 1984
Frank Turpin is appointed the first President & CEO as a state-owned enterprise.

January 5, 1985
The Alaska Railroad becomes the property of the State of Alaska in transfer ceremonies held in Nenana and Seward.

Groundwork is set to increase revenues from petroleum products and piggyback trailer service by operating overnight priority trains between Anchorage and Fairbanks, and to reduce losses from passenger service through purchase of more efficient equipment. The corporation purchases five new locomotives and 45 new railcars for $9 million. More miles of rail are replaced than were replaced following the 1964 earthquake.

Following transfer to State ownership, the railroad focused on correcting safety deficiencies identified in the Alaska Railroad Transfer Act. The railroad eliminated aging buildings and upgraded facilities and equipment system wide, creating a safer work environment in half the time allowed by the law. The railroad also negotiated with the seven unions to bring continuity in pay and benefits among the represented work force. And, the railroad adjusted to a new system of governance involving an independent Board of Directors and a relationship with the State Legislature and Administration.

October 12, 1986
A once-in-100-years flood destroys two major bridges and several smaller bridges and covers the tracks in mud, causing nearly $3 million in damage. Service is restored within 13 days.

Shipments of petroleum products and pipe for the oilfields nearly double, indicating a rebound in the local economy and, after a 10-year hiatus, logs are hauled on the Alaska Railroad. Export shipments from the Matanuska Valley and the Interior total 2.8 million board feet. A new depot is constricted at Denali Park, ultimate destination of thousands of summer visitors.

A new engineering shop is constructed in Anchorage. Six new passenger coaches and two new food service cars arrive from Korea. Built at a cost of $4.5 million, the new cars will be used on daily express trains between Anchorage and Fairbanks starting in 1990.

Winter 1989-1990
A severe winter of extended cold and heavy snowfall causes delays to train operations. Attempts to deter moose from the tracks include a pilot car which runs in front of freight trains to shoo moose off the tracks and noise-making shotgun shells.

Dec. 31, 1990
Freight revenue for the year increases overall by 10 percent. Passenger ridership increases 17 percent over 1989, totaling 436,964 passengers.

January 2, 1991
Frank G. Turpin retires as the first president and CEO of the Alaska Railroad Corporation. The board of directors hires Robert S. Hatfield Jr., a 17-year veteran of the Southern Pacific Transportation Co., to head the operation.

Two 1,500 HP switch engines are purchased to free road engines for heavier work and improve customer service.

May 1992
Employees in Anchorage move into a new headquarters building constructed along Ship Creek. The 38,700 square-foot building built by Matrix Construction, is owned by Railroad Townsite Company. Cost of construction totals $6 million . Alaska Railroad Corporations is the sole tenant.

Alaska Railroad Corporation retires 200 old rail cars to reduce expenses.

November 30, 1994
The railroad brings up a 700-foot long rail grinder to remove imperfections on the rail. Cost is $1.2 million to realize a cost savings of $5.3 million over 10 years.

April 1995
Former Governor Bill Sheffield is appointed to the Board of Directors and elected chairman.

November 1995
An agreement with Alaska Cargo Transport (ACT) is signed. It allows ACT to jointly use deck space on the railroad's Alaska Rail-Marine Service barge. ACT uses the space to transport containerized and break bulk cargo between Seattle and Whittier.

December 1995
Ridership hits a new high with 492,528 passengers riding the train during 1995.

The Alaska Railroad shows a record profit of $8.0 million, surpassing the previous record profit of $7.90 million in 1995. Passenger ridership grows to 512,000.

Alaska Railroad begins to qualify for federal funding and receives $10 million in Congressional grant funding to install 87,000 railroad ties.

Alaska Legislature passes a bill to appraise the railroad for sale. The bill is vetoed by Governor Tony Knowles.

Former Governor Bill Sheffield becomes CEO and President of the Alaska Railroad and John Binkley is named Chairman of the Board of Directors.

Alaska Railroad develops a program of projects with plans to build new depots and docks, improve rail infrastructure and modernize through new technology.

Whittier Tunnel opens to vehicular traffic and becomes the only rail/vehicle shared tunnel in the United States. Railroad ceases to operate the Whittier rail shuttle between Portage and Whittier after 55 years of service.

Railroad purchases the Florida Fun Train, adding nine new single level dome passenger rail cars to the fleet.

Railroad purchases 16 new SD70MAC locomotives to increase fuel efficiency and capacity. At 4,000 horse power, the new locomotives increase the Railroad's capacity.

Railroad initiates the Grandview passenger train to serve cruise ship passengers traveling between Seward and Anchorage. Computer Aided Dispatch introduced to Railroad to replace manual method of tracking trains on handwritten log sheets.

Former Governor Bill Sheffield retires from the Railroad. Patrick K. Gamble, former Four Star Air Force general, named new CEO and President of the Alaska Railroad Corporation.

Railroad completes new freight dock in Seward and upgrades the existing dock to a passenger-only facility. Improved avalanche detection and prevention system installed. Railroad joins new partnership with Lynden to operate the rail barge service between Whittier and the Lower 48. The new tug boats and barges increase efficiency.

Railroad begins construction on track straightening program between Anchorage and Wasilla to improve safety and efficiency and reduce the transit time by 40 minutes.

Real estate revenues exceed $11 million for the first time. New web-based passenger reservation system implemented. Railroad initiates program to install auxiliary power units and software technology on locomotives to reduce diesel emissions and noise.

Many projects completed using federal funds including the Bill Sheffield Rail Depot at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, Whittier Pedestrian Underpass (traverses under rail yard), side-unloading barge dock in Whittier and Ship Creek Plaza and pedestrian amenities including sidewalks and lighting.

New sightseeing service to Grandview and Spencer Glacier initiated, proving to be a popular day trip travel choice in 2003. Alaska Railroad completes new depot at Denali National Park and Preserve.

Most successful year in Alaska Railroad history: net income reaches a record high of $14.5 million; fewer number of employees are injured than ever before; train incidents measured well below national average; and, Onboard Services Magazine names Alaska Railroad the best passenger railroad in 2003.
Click here for this year's annual report.
Click here for full press release.

Spring 2004
Railroad purchases eight new SD70MAC locomotives, increasing the number of Railroad locomotives to 60. At 4,300 horsepower, the new locomotives increase the Railroad's capacity.

May 2004
Alaska Railroad is one of nine U.S. railroads to receive the E.H. Harriman Memorial special certificate for continued improvement in its safety record over the past two years.
Click here for full press release.

August 2004
The South Palmer Station opens at the Alaska State Fair grounds in Palmer. The new park-and-ride facility, initiated by the State Fair, includes a new rail station, restrooms, handicap parking and convenient and safe drop-off traffic flow through a new fair gate.
Click here for full press release.

April 16, 2005
The Alaska Railroad dedicates its new Anchorage Operations Center. The new state-of-the-art facility serves as the nerve center of the Alaska Railroad, bringing dispatch, transportation, safety, and operations together under one roof.

May 26, 2005
The Alaska Railroad dedicates its new Fairbanks Depot designed for traveler convenience, efficiency, safety and to meet the railroad's capacity needs for the next 30 years. The depot's timber frame design, clock tower and timeless roofline are characteristics borrowed from some of the Alaska Railroad’s original depots.

May 2005
The Alaska Railroad introduces its new GoldStar first class rail service by adding two new double-deck luxury cars built by Colorado Railcar to the Denali Star Train consists that operate daily mid-May through mid-September.

May 2006
ARRC employee Dwight West wins Safety Person of the Year Award presented by the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Associations. The ASLRRA is a national organization representing over 400 railroads across the United States.

August 2006
The Alaska Railroad, for the first time ever, issues the first round of tax-exempt bonds to fund an aggressive track refurbishment program.

August 2006
Wide spread flooding knocks out rail and highway service between Anchorage and Fairbanks. The Railroad is back up and running in less then 48-hours becoming the first open transportation link between Alaska's two largest cities.

October 2006
The ARRC debuts the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) conference charter train with direct service between the Sheffield Depot at the Anchorage Airport and the Anchorage Historic Depot at Ship Creek.

August 2007
The Alaska Railroad Corporation and U.S. Forest Service introduce a new Whistle Stop Service to the Chugach National Forest.

The Alaska Railroad reduces its workforce by about 25% (200 positions) during a two-year period, in response to a global economic downturn.

May 2009
The Alaska Railroad Corporation debuts the new Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) on the Glacier Discovery train service.

September 2010
Rail industry veteran Christopher Aadnesen is name as new President & CEO.