Alaska Railroad

Staff member: Stacey // Trip date: May 2012

Alaska Railroad April 2012

For my journey on the Alaska Railroad, I travelled from Fairbanks to Anchorage on the Aurora Winter Train. During winter, this train runs once a week in each direction, from Anchorage to Fairbanks on a Saturday and return on Sunday.

The station in Fairbanks is slightly out of town, costing $5-$15 in a taxi depending where you are going from. In recent years the station had had a $1 million rebuilt, so the facilities were fairly new. Once you arrive, you are required to check in. They ask you to do this no later than an hour prior to the trains' departure; however, I arrived half an hour prior to the train due to a no-show taxi and had no problems. This may have been due to the train not being full, so during busier times I would not arrive late. At the window, you check in your luggage as there is limited luggage space in the carriage. There is not a whole lot to do to pass time at the station, so come prepared for a wait.

About 15 minutes prior to the trains' departure, there will be an announcement with some information for the journey, and then it is time to board. As I travelled during winter, only the Adventure Class is available. The seating in the carriage is basic but comfortable and there are luggage racks above to put some baggage. An on board staff member will come around and hand out maps to everyone, which note down things to look out for. Throughout the journey, the assistant on the train will also point out what to look at and give additional information on the area, and the train will slow down or even stop in certain location for people to get photographs. Once the train departs, they announce that you can go to the back of the carriage and open part of the door to give you a better camera shot. At first I was the only one brave enough to stick their head outside as it was snowing, but soon more people followed.

There was a dining car on board with drinks, snacks and meals. The snacks were reasonably priced, with 2 brownies costing $3 and juice for $3. As the train journey is just under 12 hours long, it would be recommended to bring your own food on board or bring extra money for the pricey meals.

If you are hoping to see wildlife on your journey, you may be in luck, as there are sightings most journeys of moose, caribou, dall sheep and even bears. As Alaska was still under a heavy blanket of snow, the sightings were less likely, with only the state bird and a caribou spotted on the trip. Seeing wildlife is just a highlight of the sights along the way, as the train takes you through forests, mountain ranges, hill sides and along rivers. You can also see Mount McKinley, America's tallest mountain, in several spots along the way. Unfortunately for us, the top was covered with cloud each time we could see it.

The Alaska Railroad is one of the last trains in America that still has flag stops. During summer, the flag stop train is only done on the Hurricane Turn, the train that runs between Anchorage and Hurricane. Many people have chosen to live in remote cabins in Alaska, where they are surrounded by nothing but wilderness. Due to this, their only access to a town is with the railroad. Along the way, there will be many locals who flag down the train by standing on the side of the track. In winter they allow flag stops on the Aurora Winter Train as in winter this is the only train that runs between Anchorage and Hurricane.

Right in the middle of our journey after we had just gone past Curry, the train stopped suddenly and then started reversing. There was an avalanche ahead and it was still falling on the track as the train was reversing. Talking to an assistant on the train, he told me that it is very common all year round for there to be floods, rock falls and avalanches that block the train, so it is not recommended to book flights on the same day like some people on the train had done. We knew we were going to be there for a while, and eventually convinced the conductor to let us off the train. The staff decided that as it was going to be a long day, they would allow everyone to have the food and drinks for free minus the alcohol and the food that required cooking. After about 2 hours, there had been a final decision and we had to travel about 40 miles back to Hurricane to catch buses, as this was the closest place with road access. Along the way back, we stopped so that everyone could get a view of Mount McKinley, unfortunately it was still covered with cloud. When we got back to Hurricane, we were allowed back off the train to walk around. Thinking Hurricane was a town, I was wrong when we stopped and there was only a shed.
As we were in the midpoint between Fairbanks and Anchorage, it was going to be a long wait for buses to arrive. It was not until about 10.30pm that the buses arrived to take us the rest of the way. I opted to catch the bus with the locals via Talkeetna, meaning it was a longer journey but more room to spread and sleep on the bus. It was not until 2am that we finally arrived into Anchorage.

Overall, the scenery that I managed to witness on the part of the journey that my train managed to make it through was breathtaking, with friendly and helpful staff on board and even friendlier locals to socialise with at the back of the train.

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