Alaska Railroad celebrates 100th anniversary, part 1

The iconic blue and gold colors of the Alaska Railroad train will gleam forth, celebrating a century of moving people and goods all over the state of Alaska.

In 1903, the Alaska Central Railroad — which would later be re-named The Alaska Railroad — built the first railroad in Alaska. The railroad began in Seward and stretched 50 miles north. In 1923, President Warren G. Harding would drive the golden spike into the earth at Nenana, commemorating the completion of the Alaskan Railroad.

Over the years, the Alaska Railroad would grow with the ever-changing times: the unique terrain of the last frontier, the people, the state of the economy, and technological advances would make it what it is today.

The Cordova Times spoke with Bill O’Leary, president and CEO of the Alaska Railroad, Dale Wade, vice president of marketing and customer service, and COO Clark Hopp.

In 2013, O’Leary became the first lifelong Alaskan to be at the helm at the Alaska Railroad.

“I have been with the railroad almost 22 years. And as I like to call it, ascended to the throne about nine and a half years ago,” said O’Leary, who had previously been appointed CFO for the railroad.


O’Leary, originally from Fairbanks, shared he has always had an interest in the transportation world. He worked for the international airport system before making his way to the Alaskan Railroad.

COO Clark Hopp, like O’Leary, has also been at the railroad nearly 22 years, and in the railroad industry for 30 years. A civil engineer by trade, Hopp oversees five major departments at the railroad: maintenance, mechanical, transportation, safety and engineering.

“All said, that is about 80% of the railroad employees, roughly 500 people,” said Hopp. Folks who hold a veteran status make up a robust part of the team at the Alaska Railroad, about 15%.

All in all, the Alaska Railroad provides passenger service along 482 miles of track from Seward to Fairbanks, with additional spur lines for freight. Being built in the Alaskan wilderness does have its challenges, freezing cold winters and rough terrain make it a test of engineering and logistical prowess, shared Hopp.

“As the scenery gets better, the challenges get harder. We do have some challenges with our beautiful railroad, it poses quite a few engineering challenges,” said Hopp. “The winter is one of the biggest challenges: operating in temperatures 50 to 60 below zero sometimes on our railroad is a challenge for our employees.”

Alaskan winters that see heavy snowfall means a lot of snow pushing away from the tracks.

“We have had a very snowy winter on the Anchorage end of the railroad … we are continuing to investigate new technologies on snow clearing. This year we got several new pieces of snow clearing equipment. We are always trying to find new ways to think smarter, not harder,” said Hopp.

Wade said he works on the “happiest side of the railroad.” He has two different revenue-producing divisions of the three major lines the railroad has: freight and passenger service.

“On my fun side of the house, the largest revenue producer is from traffic that runs from the mainland, from the Lower 48 through Seattle on what we call the ARM barge — Alaska Rail Marine System … it’s a great cost-effective way to move massive amounts of tonnage in an efficient and time definite matter,” said Wade.

Although other transportation methods are faster, such as trucks and steam ships, Wade shared, the barge is “slower but much more cost effective.”

Hopp shared that typically, it’s possible to move one ton of freight with one gallon of fuel, anywhere between 450 and 500 miles.

“From an environmental standpoint, we are pretty green really. When it comes down to the amount of energy we use to move tonnage, that’s a pretty good number,” said Hopp. Wade added that their railcars can hold up to 200,000 pounds of payload, an equivalent of five truckloads at 40,000 pounds.

When it comes to the passenger side of things, Wade said it’s all about showing off the glories Alaska has to offer for all to enjoy.

“Service to match our mountains, the mountains will always deliver. Whether it’s spring, summer or fall. We run along some of the most beautiful landscape in the U.S., it’s a wonderful privilege,” said Wade.

For the centennial of the Alaska Railroad, the company is pulling out all the flag stops. Pomp and circumstance will ensue to celebrate. There will be a main event on July 15 in Nenana. A special event train will carry distinguished individuals from Fairbanks to Nenana. A reenactment of the hammering of the golden spike will be performed, a block party for the community, and a time capsule will be opened way back from 1975.

Coming up in May, a community open house will kick off to the public in Anchorage, where folks can hop on trains for a short ride and check out train equipment. The same event will happen in Fairbanks in September.

A 12-day tour will run along the historic route and will include themed menus and merchandise to highlight the event. Lastly, museums along the rail belt will have exhibits, one of which is scheduled to be unveiled in the spring in Anchorage. Seward also has an exhibit, and the Nenana museum has centennial centric visuals.