The Alaska Railroad is the only full-service railroad (one that carries both passengers and freight) still operating in the U.S., administered by the state-owned Alaska Railroad Corporation. ARRC, however, does not receive any state funding. In 1998, ARR carried 614,000 passengers and 5,445,000 tons of cargo.
The ARR mainline stretches from Seward north to Anchorage (the railroad headquarters) and from there to the Mat-Su Valley, Denali National Park, and Fairbanks. Spur lines serve Whittier on Prince William Sound, Palmer in Mat-Su, the Anchorage and Fairbanks airports, and the town of North Pole near Fairbanks. All told, there are over 500 miles of track. ARR does not connect to any other railroads. (The nearest other railroad is the short White Pass and Yukon Route several hundred miles away.)
Passenger service is generally tourist-oriented. In summer, three daily lines are run: the Denali Star (Anchorage-Denali Park-Fairbanks), the Coastal Classic (Anchorage-Seward), and the Glacier Discovery (Anchorage-Whittier). The Talkeetna/Hurricane Turn runs Thursday-Saturday and provides one of the few local flag stop railroad services in the U.S.
In winter, passenger service consists of the weekend Aurora Train (Anchorage-Fairbanks), which runs northbound on Saturday and southbound on Sunday. This includes the Talkeetna-Hurricane flag stop service.
The Alaska Railroad began as a U.S. government railroad, designed to link the Matanuska coal fields and the gold mines near Fairbanks with the port town of Seward. After much debate over the route for the railroad to take, construction began in 1914. The railroad headquarters was placed at Ship Creek at the head of Cook Inlet. The tent city construction camp which sprung up at the site became the city of Anchorage.
The mainline was completed in 1923, and on July 15 of that year, President Warren G. Harding drove the "golden spike" at Nenana, signifying completion of the railroad.
In its first years, ARR carried cargo, passengers (especially tourists to the then-new Mt. McKinley National Park), and mail to and from the Interior. However, it operated at a loss until, in 1928, Colonel Otto Ohlson began running the railroad and began viciously promoting it (as well as attempting to squeeze out land- and sea-based competition). One of Ohlson's ideas, which became a New Deal project in 1935, was an agricultural colony in the fertile Matanuska-Susitna Valley. Over 200 families from the Midwest volunteered and were sent north. This generated new business for ARR, but it did not actually run a profit until 1938.
World War II was a boon for the railroad, as it was for much of the then-territory's economy, and a new spur to the military depot at Whittier was built. After the war, the railroad continued to improve. It rapidly rebuilt after taking heavy damage in the 1964 earthquake. The state bought the railroad from the federal government for $23,000,000 in 1985.
The Alaska Railroad is continuing to expand, with a new passenger depot at Anchorage International Airport nearly complete and several other projects underway. A commuter rail service between the Mat-Su area and Anchorage is perpetually up in the air, but little is likely to come of it.
The Alaska Railroad: http://www.akrr.com
John's Alaska Railroad Page: http://my.ohio.voyager.net/~combs/arr/arr.html