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ANCHORAGE - Whistle stop railroad service is now up and running in Chugach National Forest, part of a multi-million dollar effort to make Alaska's great outdoors more accessible to everyone.
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"This whistle stop isn't just for visitors," said John Binkley, chairman of the Alaska Railroad Corp. "This is an opportunity for Alaskans to get out and enjoy our scenery."
Binkley joined a long list of dignitaries led by Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski, both R-Alaska, and Sen. Daniel Innouye, D-Hawaii, for ribbon cutting ceremonies Aug. 16 at the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop.
"We have given this a lot of thought, how to open up these remote areas for everyone to see," Stevens said. "This is just the first step. Now we have to think about when we can get some cabins up here soon."
The senators, along with officials from the Alaska Railroad, U.S. Forest Service, the tourism industry and others, gathered under a tent in the rain to dedicate the first of five planned whistle stops.
Whistle stop service means that the railroad provides a set location for pick-up and drop-off of passengers. A flag stop, by comparison, is where unscheduled passengers flag down the train to come aboard, said Tim Thompson, a spokesman for the railroad.
Initial access to Spencer Glacier was made possible by mining interests, which had permits to mine gravel. Early prospectors used the area to stage for placer gold operations. Today Girdwood-based Chugach Adventure Guides operates day trips from Spencer Glacier, using rafts and 31-foot canoes.
"Any time that we can increase our access, we have a lot more of Alaska to show that this is a unique experience," said Bruce Bustamante, vice president of community and public affairs for Princess Cruises.
The whistle stop project will also potentially include 35 miles of trail between the proposed whistle stop locations of Luebner Lake, Spencer Glacier, Bartlett Glacier and Grandview.
Bustamante said he expects the whistle stops to be popular.
"There are not many excursions around here to show the wilderness beauty of Alaska," he said. "This will really add a lot."
Bustamante compared the whistle stops to Skyline Trails on the summit of the Cascades in Washington state, with one main difference.
"No other state in the U.S. capitalizes on intermodel transportation connectivity like Alaska," he said, referring to easy transferability from airport and cruise ships to the Alaska Railroad.
"This is an adventure that a lot of people can do," Bustamante said. "They can get to see scenery and have an experience that not many people have seen."
That includes people with physical disabilities, agreed Mona McAleese, who represented Challenge Alaska, a group that advocates for people with disabilities.
Trails from the train stop are sloped and packed with rock and gravel to allow easy wheelchair access onto the trail at Spencer Glacier.
"The grade is fine," McAleese said. "They did really great work with the compaction. This will be easy for anyone with the right tires (on their wheelchair)."
To date the Alaska Railroad has spent about $6.3 million on the project, which is expected to eventually cost about $18 million, including two self-propelled double-decker diesel multiple unit cars that can carry 100 to 144 passengers. The all-in-one unit DMUs are suited for whistle stop service because they can stop and start in short distances, are fuel-efficient and relatively quiet, railroad officials said.
Railroad officials have already ordered one DMU, at a cost of about $4 million, from Colorado Railcar, of Fort Lupton, Colo. Eventually the railroad hopes to acquire a second DMU. Each DMU will have the power to pull two additional railcars.
Railroad officials hope to someday use the cars as part of commuter rail service during the winter months. Service may run between the railroad terminal and the airport and potentially to the Dimond Center.
For the whistle stop, the fare from Anchorage or Girdwood is $95, including rail passage to Spencer Glacier and return to the Portage stop, backcountry use, guided hikes and a motor coach transfer from Portage back to Anchorage.
The round-trip fare from Portage or Whittier to Spencer Glacier is $59, including backcountry use and guided hikes.
Whistle stop service will remain open through the end of the summer visitor season, railroad officials said.