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ANCHORAGE - Ridership on the Alaska rails fell to a 13-year low last year, according to data released by the Alaska Railroad on Tuesday.
In its annual report released Monday, the Alaska Railroad said it "enjoyed seven percent growth in overall ridership over the last year," referring to 2003.
However, the actual number of people who rode the rails last year was 448,214, said railroad spokesman Tim Thompson. That's down 8.5 percent from 2002's total of 489,894.
The increase cited in the annual report only takes into account trips booked through the railroad. It doesn't count charter trains run by tour companies and other groups, Thompson said.
The biggest decrease was in the number of cruise-ship passengers, according to the railroad's figures.
Princess Cruises, Holland America and Royal Caribbean each own their own railroad cars that they use to carry passengers to and from the various land-based attractions they offer in their tour packages.
The railroad uses its locomotives to pull the cars, which are staffed and operated by cruise company employees, Thompson said.
The number of passengers riding those cars last year dropped sharply to 278,940 from 315,126 the year before, according to the railroad's records.
Part of that may be because of a delay in Princess Cruises putting its new ship, the Island Princess, into service, said Julie Benson, a spokeswoman for the cruise company. Because of the delays, Princess canceled six planned sailings last year, Benson said. Benson added, however, that Princess has seen an increase in the number of passengers opting for a ride on the railroad as part of its 2004 Alaska tour packages.
The number of passengers riding charter trains, such as the "ski train" organized by the Nordic Ski Club of Anchorage and Glacier Brewhouse's "beer train," fell sharply as well, totaling 7,725 last year compared with 24,794 in 2002.
However, more cruise-ship passengers last year opted to take the train rather than a bus from the Seward docks to Anchorage at the end of their trips.
By the railroad's count, 39,391 people rode its "Grandview" charter, which stops downtown and at the new $28 million depot at Anchorage's international airport, last year. That compares with 34,863 in 2002.
The number of passengers who booked their trips through the railroad also rose last year, coming in at 120,155 compared with 113,109.
That increase was driven mostly by new sightseeing and adventure packages, including excursions to Grandview and Spencer Glacier, geared toward independent travelers and more interest in day trips to Seward, Thompson said.
Reservations for travel this summer indicate another strong year. The railroad has booked about 10,000 more trips than it had at this time last year, Thompson said.
Ron Peck, executive director of the Alaska Travel Industry Association, said the declines in total railroad ridership don't necessarily reflect weakness in the state's tourism industry. In fact, he said, the number of cruise-ship passengers coming to Alaska last year rose to about 776,000 from 740,000 in 2002.
Many of them, instead of buying the cruise companies' add-on land packages, are venturing off on their own once they get here, a trend Peck said is showing itself in the increase in the railroad's day-trips.