On a train, it's always about the journey, not the destination. We're talking here of IMAX-worthy scenery. Lots of it. One where speed is almost irrelevant, one where time hardly matters. In the past, I've been on the PeruRail from Aguas Calientes to Cuzco, and the Golden Pass from Lucerne to Geneva: two train rides I vividly remember for the amount of time I looked outside my window.
Since I'm in Alaska again, I was keen on taking a rail journey this time. Alaska's early years since becoming an American acquisition from Tsarist Russia developed in part due to railroad business. A line was built from coastal Seward all the way to the northern interior in Fairbanks 470 miles away. Ninety years since operations began in 1923, the Alaska Railroad continues offering both passenger and freight services today.
|Collecting tickets at the Anchorage Depot|
An hour before departure, I walked the short distance from the hotel to the Anchorage train station to check-in and collect my boarding pass. The process was orderly for everyone and after waiting in the lobby, announcements were made for boarding. I got to my assigned window seat just as the train was ready to depart promptly at 6:45 AM. The train wasn't full and I even had no seatmate.
|The Coastal Classic at Turnagain Arm|
The Coastal Classic runs 114 miles from Anchorage to Seward, taking a leisurely 4-hour scenic chug (as opposed to driving a car which takes 2 hours and a half taking a divergent route about a third of the way). The sun hasn't risen yet as the train pulls away from the station, blasting its horns loudly enough for everyone in the neighborhood to hear. The train runs briefly alongside the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail before turning inland and into a residential neighborhood still asleep.
Having not eaten breakfast yet, I venture into the train's Wilderness Cafe. There's a proper dining room on the lower deck of the train's "GoldStar Service" dome car but there's some waiting involved for those of us in "Adventure Class". I bought a cup of yogurt parfait and just sat in the cafe while waiting for my turn, enjoying the view as the train begins hugging on a branch of the Cook Inlet known as the Turnagain Arm.
|Brekkie: scrambled eggs, potatoes, cheese and reindeer sausage|
As an attendant finally escorts me to the dining car, the train slowly stops to allow passengers a better view of bald eagles perched on a nearby tree. At that point I wasn't running back to the vestibule with my camera so I sat contentedly while a very attentive waiter took my order for brekkie. I had the tasty "Sunrise Skillet" with reindeer sausage ($14) which fueled me for the rest of the morning.
|One of the tunnels|
After a brief stop in the ski-resort town of Girdwood where a few more passengers boarded, the train ambled on, swaying gently sideways as it began moving up the valley hemmed in by the Kenai mountains, diverging away from the main road. Many "Adventure Class" passengers like me were hardly on their seats at this time - many were on vestibules or at the Vista Dome car or at the very end of the last car.
Mountains march on as the train gradually climbed, eventually giving us a view of Spencer Glacier, the first of three on this route. We soon followed the course of Placer River Gorge, entering a series of tunnels much to the delight of young passengers. Even just as exciting for those who want to see a sweeping view of the moving train were the S-curves shortly after. Bartlett Glacier appeared so close here - unsurprisingly, its terminus is only 800 feet away from the tracks. After going through another mountain pass, we emerged into this beautiful valley surrounded by alpine meadows and a view of the Trail Glacier.
|Vista Dome car for Adventure Class passengers|
|Upper Trail Lake|
|Crossing a truss bridge|
|On arrival at Seward Depot|
The train diverges away yet again from the road, groans as it climbs to Divide then goes down the mountainside lush with Sitka spruce. Past this mountain pass, the train reunites with the highway again and we soon hear an announcement about Seward just being close by. It's almost 11 AM and the train finally slows down as it pulls into Seward Depot.