WASILLA - What'll it take to bring commuter rail to the Valley?

Quite a bit it turns out, but Alaska Railroad Corp. is working on it.

At an open house discussing Mat-Su and state projects at Evangelo's Restaurant Wednesday, while there weren't many displays strictly talking about commuter rail, a few mentioned it in passing.

One was dedicated to straightening out a tight curve south of Fairview Loop where the road connects with Fireweed Road.

The railroad says it would cost $37 million to build the new track and that it has $5.5 million already. The project would save money and time.

"Shortened passenger travel times is a key factor to help make commuter rail service between Anchorage and Mat-Su," according to a railroad fact sheet.

It might not seem like a big deal to straighten out a short piece of track like that, but with sharp turns in a track, the trains have to slow down dramatically. For years the railroad has been straightening its track, slowly shaving down the time to run between Anchorage and Mat-Su.

"Ten years ago it took 90 minutes to get a train from Anchorage to Wasilla," said Tom Brooks, the railroad's chief engineer.

He said that time has been steadily reduced to 60 minutes and the realignment at Fairview Loop will shave off more time.

"That actually would take another five minutes off," he said.

Brooks said the curves were put in back in 1919 or so when the track was first laid down. There's a pretty significant gully there and trains don't do well on inclines, so the track followed the grade around the gully. Brooks said it'll take a pretty significant embankment, dozens of feet tall, to fix that problem - hence the project's expense.

The second project the railroad is looking at is a smaller straightening project in the Eklutna area. It's a smaller fix, but trains go into the curve at 49 mph and have to slow down to 45 mph. The fix will cost about $1.4 million and the railroad won a competitive nationwide federal grant to do the work, which should start this summer.

"It makes our trains a little happier," Brooks said.

As the railroad steadily whittles down commute times, it does so knowing that there are other big pieces that still need to fall into place. What do you do with cars on one end and people on the other?

Some of these things have already started. The railroad has put together a sample schedule of a Mat-Su to Anchorage route. They think a type of self-propelled, 100-seat car making runs in Chugach National Forest would be the type of train they'd use.

But railroad corporate communications officer Stephanie Wheeler said there's also a legislative component here. The state Legislature needs to OK this kind of thing.

"We're working with the (Mat-Su) Borough and the city of Anchorage to try to pull together a regional transit authority," she said.

And she noted that most public transportation projects run on subsidies. If riders paid what a bus ride cost, nobody would be able to afford it. So they need more than just a one-time outlay of funds.

"It needs a stable funding source," Wheeler said.

Contact Andrew Wellner at Andrew.wellner@frontiersman.com or 352-2270.


(7) comments


I believe one of the smartest things "Alaskans" could do would be to invest in the Mat~Su Port instead of the Anchorage Port, the Knik Arm Bridge and the Mat~Su railroad commuter at this time. These projects may be viable in the future but not now. Doing what I suggest would be better for ALL Alaskans by making it cheaper to transport goods to the interior by eliminating the truck and/or rail time between Anchorage and the Mat~Su area. It would create more quality jobs in the Valley thereby reducing the need to drive the road to Anchorage for jobs, reduce the need for an expensive, heavily subsidized commuter rail and reduce the truck traffic, making the road safer and reduce maintenance. The Mat~Su port doesn't require the expensive dredging required by the Anchorage port. Anchorage may cry that this would reduce property values (doubtful) but but the values are grossly inflated and need adjusting that would help avoid a larger crash. The values would most likely just level off. Alaska is one of the few growing states and barring any unforseen disasters, it will continue to grow. It just stands to reason, the Mat~Su port is where the money should go now.


I'd take the train. In fact I'd be more likely to travel in the wintertime. Having a train that is not only for job commuters, but for shoppers, people wanting to go to places like Alyeska and Hilltop. Students that go to UAA or other colleges/schools in Anchorage. I like the idea of it and would happily support it.
It would easy road congestion, and possibly moose kills, creates jobs, save energy,reduces pollution, makes it possible for people who are less mobile or shouldn't drive to still be active socially. I know it'll cost money, but honestly ..what doesn't?


The new rail extension down to Port McKenzie will create a real time savings for commuters not just to Wasilla, but also to Willow, and all along the rail belt, once we have a ferry boat connection to Anchorage, and once we build a Knik Arm bridge. Hello! Let's start building, people!


Roads don't work without subsidies either. But I agree with _Green_'s comment about it working best in high density areas. But perhaps commuters could capitalize on the railroad's infrastructure currently in place, such as the depot at the airport. Personally, if I worked on the Slope and lived in the Valley, I'd gladly take a train rather than have my wife drive me in or figure out a place to park my rig for the two weeks I was up there.

Further, commuter rail wouldn't work without a more robust and reliable transit system in Anchorage. But in any case, from the information I gathered from the AKRR, any commuter rail project would still be a fraction of the cost of the Knik Arm Bridge, which would require heavy subsidies as well..

tea please

Mayor Devilbiss has already stated is not in favor of any kind of Commuter Rail or agreement for one working with Anchorage. He is a huge proponent of moving coal not people no matter what the scale of the project. Wonder if he would feel the same if it were moving carrots?


I don't live in the valley, but did lots of research in Grad school about public transportation and efficiency. What I can say is that most of the money talked about in this article is going to wind up being a waste.
EVERYBODY loves trains. They are cool to look at and every little kid has a dream about driving the big engine. However, unless there are huge densities, 'heavy' rail systems are outrageously expensive and always heavily subsidized.
Even if the RR is able to straighten all of the curves and reduce the time from the valley to Anchorage, the trip on the train will still take at least 45 minutes (not counting delays or equipment problems). This also doesn't include the time to drive from your home to the station(s) in the valley, or the time to take a bus (or perhaps walk) from the station(s) in Anchorage to your workplace. How many people in the valley live more than a 5 minute drive from a train station in the valley (most residents). How many commuters work within a 5 minute walk from a station in Anchorage (very few). This means that the realistic trip from home to work, that now takes an hour in a car will be closer to an hour and a half (at least) each way, and will likely entail getting in and out of four or five vehicles over the course of a day.
Commuters will still need to have a car to get to the station, and they will likely need to use the PeopleMover or work shuttle to get to their workplace from the station in Anchorage.


For the cost of straightening a few miles of track, a public transportation agency (peoplemover, mascot, etc) could purchase a huge fleet of comfortable commuter busses (akin to Princess or Holland America Busses) that would be able to drive through all of the collector roads in the valley at multiple times each morning, and meander through Anchorage stopping at different locations where people actually work. Those busses cost around $100K, and require a driver that would earn (with Benefits) around $50K. The bus routes could change whenever populations change (new subdivisions, new employers, etc) and have hardly any maintenance costs when compared with trains that require very highly paid engineers, conductors, brakemen, track maintenance, and other expenses.

Think about it? Would you rather...

Heat up your car, drive to the train station, wait in the cold, ride the train, get to Anchorage, wait for a bus or shuttle, and ride that to your workplace, and then do the whole thing in reverse at the end of the day - at a cost of around $25 round trip to you and an annual subsidy from government in the millions.

Or walk to the nearest collector street or drive to a park and ride lot that wouldn't be more than a mile or two from your home, ride in a comfortable (and dimly lit for relaxing) coach to within a block of your worksite and return the same way - at a cost or around $15 round trip with a minimal subsidy from government.

Trains are really cool, but busses are the way to go..


Glad to see at the end they admit this can't be done without subsidies. The Alaska RR currently charges about $50 one way between Anchorage and Wasilla. So are they currently 1) taking us to the cleaners and charging way over their costs, or 2) are they just breaking even, or 3) are they possibly even losing money? If it's 2) or 3), that's an awful lot of subsidies we're looking at just so a few people can feel good riding a train to work instead of driving. I don't have a real problem with the idea, as long as it is the users that pay the majority of the costs via real fares.

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