Alaska Railroad locomotive EMD FP7 1512. Click to enlarge.

(Piergiuliano Chesi, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)



The Alaska Railroad (reporting mark ARR) is a Class II railroad that operates freight and passenger trains in the state of Alaska. The railroad's mainline is over 470 miles (760 km) long and runs between Seward on the southern coast and Fairbanks, near the center of the state and the Arctic Circle, passing through Anchorage and Denali National Park where 17% of visitors arrive by train. The railroad has about 656 miles (1,056 km) of track, including sidings, rail yards and branch lines, including the branch to Whittier, where the railroad interchanges freight railcars with the contiguous United States via rail barges that sail between the Port of Whittier and Harbor Island in Seattle.

Construction of the railroad started in 1903 when the Alaska Central Railroad built a line starting in Seward and extending 50 miles (80 km) north. The Alaska Central went bankrupt in 1907 and was reorganized as the Alaska Northern Railroad Company in 1911, which extended the line another 21 miles (34 km) northward. On March 12, 1914, the U.S. Congress agreed to fund construction and operation of an all-weather railroad from Seward to Fairbanks and purchased the rail line from the financially struggling Alaska Northern.

As the government started building the estimated $35 million railroad, it opened a construction town along Ship Creek, eventually giving rise to Anchorage, now the state's largest city. In 1917, the government purchased the narrow gauge Tanana Valley Railroad, mostly for its railyard in Fairbanks. The railroad was completed on July 15, 1923 with President Warren G. Harding travelling to Alaska to drive a ceremonial golden spike at Nenana. Ownership of the railroad passed from the federal government, to the state of Alaska on January 6, 1985.

In 2022, the system had a ridership of 220,400, or about 200 per weekday as of the fourth quarter of 2022. In 2019, the company generated a US$21.6 million profit on revenues of US$203.9 million, holding US$1.1 billion in total assets.


A 1915 photograph of the railroad under construction. Click to enlarge. (Photo by Lawrence, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

An Alaska Railroad steam locomotive crossing the Tanana River on the ice at Nenana just prior to completion of the railroad in 1923. (See page for author, Public domain, via



In 1903 a company called the Alaska Central Railroad began to build a rail line beginning at Seward, near the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, northward. The company built 51 miles (82 km) of track by 1909 and went into receivership. This route carried passengers, freight and mail to the upper Turnagain Arm. From there, goods were taken by boat at high tide, and by dog team or pack train to Eklutna and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley.

In 1909, another company, the Alaska Northern Railroad Company, bought the rail line and extended it another 21 miles (34 km) northward. From the new end, goods were floated down the Turnagain Arm in small boats. The Alaska Northern Railroad went into receivership in 1914.

About this time, the United States government was planning a railroad route from Seward to the interior town of Fairbanks. The President, William Howard Taft, authorized a commission to survey a route in 1912. The line would be 656 miles (1,056 km) long and provide an all-weather route to the interior.

In 1914, the government bought the Alaska Northern Railroad and moved its headquarters to Ship Creek, in what would later become Anchorage. The government began to extend the rail line northward.

In 1917, the Tanana Valley Railroad in Fairbanks was heading into bankruptcy. It owned a small 45-mile (72 km) 3 ft (914 mm) (narrow gauge) line that serviced the towns of Fairbanks and the mining communities in the area as well as the boat docks on the Tanana River near Fairbanks.

The government bought the Tanana Valley Railroad, principally for its terminal facilities. The section between Fairbanks and Happy was converted to dual gauge to complete the 4 ft 8+1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge line from Seward to Fairbanks. The government extended the southern portion of the track to Nenana, and later converted the extension to standard gauge. The Alaska Railroad continued to operate the remaining TVRR narrow gauge line as the Chatanika Branch (the terminus was located near the Yukon River), until decommissioning it in 1930.

In 1923 they built the 700-foot (213 m) Mears Memorial Bridge across the Tanana River at Nenana. This was the final link in the Alaska Railroad and at the time, was the second longest single-span steel railroad bridge in the country. U.S. President Warren G. Harding drove the golden spike that completed the railroad on July 15, 1923, on the north side of the bridge. The railroad was part of the US Department of the Interior.

The Alaska Railroad's first diesel locomotive entered service in 1944. The railroad retired its last steam locomotive in 1966.

In 1958, the future Clear Air Force Station was purchased and approximately 40,000 feet (12 km) of track was diverted, and later a spur was constructed to deliver coal to its power station. Clear is about 9.3 mi (15 km) south of Nenana and the Mears Memorial Bridge over the Tanana River that flows past Clear.

The railroad was greatly affected by the Good Friday earthquake which struck southern Alaska in 1964. The yard and trackage around Seward buckled and the trackage along Turnagain Arm was damaged by floodwaters and landslides. It took several months to restore full service along the line.

In 1967, the railroad was transferred to the Federal Railroad Administration, an agency within the newly created United States Department of Transportation.

On January 6, 1985, the state of Alaska bought the railroad from the U.S. government for $22.3 million, based on a valuation determined by the US Railway Association. The state immediately invested over $70 million on improvements and repairs that compensated for years of deferred maintenance. The purchase agreement prohibits the Alaska Railroad from paying dividends or otherwise returning capital to the state of Alaska, unlike the state's other quasi-corporations: the Alaska Permanent Fund, the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, and the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority.


Route Map of the Alaska Railroad. Click to enlarge.

(Jkan997, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)


Proposed expansion in Alaska

Northern Rail Extension to Delta Junction
As of April 2010, an extension of the railroad from Fairbanks to Delta Junction is planned, having been proposed as early as 2009. Originally, the extension was to be completed by 2010, but construction of a major bridge across the Tanana River has barely begun, and construction of track has not started. A proposed 2011 Alaska state budget would provide $40 million in funding for the bridge, which would initially be for vehicular use, but would support Alaska Railroad trains once construction of track to Delta Junction began. The United States Department of Defense would provide another $100 million in funds, as the bridge and subsequent rail line would provide year-round access to Fort Greely and the Joint Tanana Training Complex. A groundbreaking ceremony for the Tanana River Bridge took place on September 28, 2011. The new bridge was opened (for military road traffic only) in 2014.

Point MacKenzie Line
On 21 November 2011, the Surface Transportation Board approved the construction of a new 25 miles (40 km) line between Port MacKenzie and the existing mainline at Houston, Alaska.

Anchorage Commuter Rail Service
There are plans to provide commuter rail service within the Anchorage metropolitan area (Anchorage to Mat-Su Valley via Eagle River, north Anchorage to south Anchorage) but that requires additional tracks be laid due to a heavy freight schedule.

A spur line was built to Ted Stevens International Airport in 2003, along with a depot at the airport, but the line never received scheduled service. It is not open to the public, but cruise lines can charter trains to the airport to bring passengers to cruise ships. The Alaska Railroad currently leases the airport depot, officially named after Bill Sheffield, to citizens for private events including conferences, seminars, and corporate functions.

Proposed connection to the contiguous 48 states

In 2001 federal legislation, sponsored by U.S. Senator Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska, and later state governor of Alaska), formed a bilateral commission to study feasibility of building a rail link between Canada and Alaska; Canada was asked to be part of the commission, but the Canadian federal government did not choose to join the commission and commit funds for the study. The Yukon territorial government showed some interest.

A June 2006 report by the commission recommended Carmacks, Yukon, as a hub. A line would go northward to Delta Junction, Alaska (Alaska Railroad's northern end-of-track). Another line would go from Carmacks to Hazelton, British Columbia (which is served by the CN), and that line would go through Watson Lake, Yukon, and Dease Lake, British Columbia, along the way. The third line would go from Carmacks to either Haines or Skagway, Alaska (the latter by way of the vicinity of Whitehorse, Yukon, which are both served by the 3 ft (914 mm) (narrow-gauge) White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad), although today the White Pass & Yukon only goes as far north as Carcross, Yukon, because the entire line was embargoed in 1982 and service has not been completely restored.

Following the demise of the ill-fated Keystone Pipeline, the Alaska Canada Rail Link (ACRL) was rekindled as an alternative. In November 2015, the National Post reported that a link between the southern provinces and the Alaska Railroad was again being considered by the Canadian federal government, this time routing to Alberta. In this scenario, the route would originate at Delta Junction, Alaska and use Carmacks, Yukon as a hub, like prior plans. The route would continue through Watson Lake, Yukon before entering British Columbia, where it would stop at Fort Nelson, British Columbia. It would continue to Peace River, Alberta, with its southern terminus at Fort McMurray. The route is endorsed by the Assembly of First Nations. It is unclear whether this rail connection would ever be expanded to also serve passengers, like the Alaska Railroad.

On September 25, 2020, then President Donald Trump announced he would issue a presidential permit to the Alaska-Alberta Railway Development Corporation (A2A Railway) which has an agreement with Alaska Railway to develop a joint operating plan for the rail connection to Canada. The proposed A2A Railway would have connected to the Alaska Railroad at North Pole, Alaska, and run through the Yukon to Fort Nelson, BC, and from there to a terminus at Fort McMurray, Alberta. The A2A Railway had also been negotiating with the Mat-Su Borough on an agreement to complete the Port Mackenzie Railway Extension.


An Alaska Railroad passenger train rolling between Anchorage, Denali National Park and Fairbanks. Click to enlarge. (Axe, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

A northbound Alaska Railroad passenger train idles at the Seward, Alaska, depot on June 30, 2010. Click to enlarge. (User:michaelh2001 (Michael A. Haase), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)



General managers under federal ownership

Col. Frederick Mears, 1919-1923 (was originally head of the railroad as chairman of the Alaska Engineering Commission)
Col. James Gordon Steese, 1923-1923
Lee H. Landis, 1923–1924
Noel W. Smith, 1924–1928
Col. Otto F. Ohlson, 1928–1945
Col. John P. Johnson, 1946–1953
Frank E. Kalbaugh, 1953–1955
Reginald N. Whitman, 1955–1956
John H. Lloyd, 1956–1958
Robert H. Anderson, 1958–1960
Donald J. Smith, 1960–1962
John E. Manley, 1962–1971
Walker S. Johnston, 1971-1975
William L. Dorcy, 1975–1979
Steven R. Ditmeyer (Acting) 1979-1980
Frank H. Jones, 1980–1985

Presidents under state ownership
Frank Turpin, 1985-1991
Robert Hatfield Jr., 1991–1997
Bill Sheffield, 1997–2001
Patrick K. Gamble, 2001–2010
Christopher Aadnesen, 2010–2013
Bill O'Leary, 2013–present


The Alaska Railroad's "Glacier Discovery" train. Click to enlarge. (Christy747 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

A passenger train pulls into the Denali Station in July 1998. Click to enlarge. (Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)


Routes and tourism

The railroad is a major tourist attraction in the summer. Coach cars feature wide windows and domes. Private cars owned by the major cruise companies are towed behind the Alaska Railroad's own cars, and trips are included with various cruise packages.


The Denali Star runs from Anchorage to Fairbanks (approximately 12 hours one-way) and back with stops in Talkeetna and Denali National Park, from which various flight and bus tours are available. The Denali Star only operates between May 15 and September 15. Although the trip is only about 356 miles (573 km), it takes 12 hours to travel from Anchorage to Fairbanks as the tracks wind through mountains and valleys; the train's top speed is 59 miles per hour (95 km/h) but sometimes hovers closer to 30 miles per hour (48 km/h).

The Aurora Winter Train is available in winter months (September 15 - May 15) on a reduced weekend-only schedule (Northbound, Saturday mornings; Southbound, Sunday mornings) between Anchorage and Fairbanks on the same route as the Denali Star.

The Coastal Classic winds its way south from Anchorage along Turnagain Arm before turning south to the Kenai Peninsula, eventually reaching Seward. This 114-mile (183 km) trip takes around four and a half hours due to some slow trackage as the line winds its way over mountains.

The Glacier Discovery provides a short (2 hour) trip south from Anchorage to Whittier for a brief stop before reversing direction for a stop at Grandview before returning to Anchorage in the evening.

The Hurricane Turn provides rail service to people living between Talkeetna and the Hurricane area. This area has no roads, and the railroad provides the lifeline for residents who depend on the service to obtain food and supplies. One of the last flag-stop railway routes in the United States, passengers can board the Hurricane Turn anywhere along the route by waving a large white flag or cloth.
A spur providing service to the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is used during the summer season for cruise ship service only. It was activated temporarily during the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) 2006 convention to provide airport-to-hotel mass transit for delegates.


Freight train featuring open and closed cars with ARR 1093, near Alyeska area, Seward Highway, making a winter run, 2013. Click to enlarge. (Wonderlane from Seattle, USA, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)


An older car repurposed as part of an ice plant on the Homer Spit. Click to enlarge. (User:michaelh2001 (Michael A. Haase), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Rolling stock

As of 2022, Alaska Railroad rosters a total of 51 locomotives, two control cab units, and one DMU (self-propelled railcar):

28 - EMD SD70MAC locomotives (12 equipped with head-end power for passenger service)
15 - EMD GP40-2 locomotives
8 - EMD GP38-2 locomotives
2 - EMD F40PH control cab units
1 - Colorado Railcar DMU
Budd Rail Diesel Car (RDC) (Retired 2009; sold to TriMet, in Oregon, as spare equipment for its WES Commuter Rail service)
EMD MP15AC (Retired 2009)
EMD FP7 (Two units, 1510 and 1512 sold to Verde Canyon Railroad in Arizona for excursions)


In 2011 the Alaska Railroad reacquired ARR 557, the last steam locomotive bought new by the railroad[39] and the last steam locomotive used by the railroad, with the intent to refurbish and operate it in special excursions between Anchorage and Portage.

A USATC S160 "2-8-0 Consolidation" engine built in 1944 by Baldwin Locomotive Works, 557 was originally coal-fired, but was converted to oil in 1955. It operated until 1964, when it was deemed surplus and sold as scrap. It was purchased by Monte Holm of Moses Lake, Washington and displayed in his House of Poverty Museum.

After Holm's death in 2006, Jim and Vic Jansen bought 557 from the museum and returned it to the Alaska Railroad on the condition that it be restored to operation and put into service.

The locomotive was sold to the non-profit Engine 557 Restoration Company for "One Dollar ($1.00) and other good and valuable considerations" and they have invested (as of January 2019) 77 months and over 75,000 hours of volunteer time in the restoration and overhaul.


In popular culture

The Alaska Railroad was prominently featured in the movie Runaway Train.
The Simpson family rides the Alaska Railroad in The Simpsons Movie.
The railroad is mentioned in the 1995 film Balto.
The Railroad is the subject of a 2013 reality TV series named Railroad Alaska on Destination America.



Owner: State of Alaska
Locale: Alaska
Service Type: Freight and passenger railroad
Services: 5
Daily ridership: 200 (weekdays, Q4 2022)
Annual Ridership: 220,400 (2022)
Commenced: 1903; Purchase by US Government March 12, 1914
Completed: July 15, 1923; Transfer to state January 6, 1985
Line length: 470 miles (760 km) (mainline)
Track length: 656 miles (1,056 km)
Track gauge: 4 ft 8+1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge
Former gauge: 3 ft (914 mm) (Tanana Valley Railroad)
Signaling: Centralized traffic control or track warrant control with positive train control


See Also:

Railroads A-Z