Sunday, June 20, 2010

Aboard the Denali Star

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Now let us compare Amtrak and the Alaska Railroad.

Both are government entities that own and operate passenger trains. There the resemblance ends.

Much-maligned Amtrak tries to serve everybody, from commuters to vacationers, folks afraid to fly and those too obese to fit in an airline seat. Except in the Northeast Corridor, it is at the mercy of the freight railroads that own the tracks. Its on-board crews can be surly and lazy (although that seems to be changing).

But the Alaska Railroad's much-praised passenger operations are of the tourist, by the tourist and for the tourist – especially cruise ship passengers. Local trains do carry ordinary Alaskans to flag stops in and out of the otherwise inaccessible bush, but that is a tiny part of the ARR's business. Its cheerful conductors and attendants are mostly well trained in serving the public.

Most travelers on the Alaska Railroad ride 456 miles in 12 hours between Anchorage on the coast and Fairbanks in the interior, more than half of them stopping at Denali National Park on the way.

And they ride in style. Sure, the budget-minded can rough it in coach aboard the train called the Denali Star, but most tourists choose to go first class, either in dome cars painted in Alaska Railroad colors or in huge, gaily decorated luxury conveyances owned by cruise lines and towed behind the regular train.

I rode the cars Holland America calls the McKinley Explorer from Fairbanks to the national park, then two days later from the park to Anchorage. Oh, it was lovely, passenger railroading as it should be but too often is not.

These two-story cars – reputedly the largest rail passenger carriages in the world – feature a full-length Lexan dome unmatched for rubbernecking, with extraordinarily comfortable seats. The lower level is devoted to dining. Best of all, each car features an open vestibule platform for wind-in-the-face photography. (Leave your hat inside. The breeze carried away my favorite ball cap.)

Lunch and dinner were only OK, a cut above Amtrak cuisine but somewhat short of four-star. The young waitstaff, evidently college students in summer jobs, needed a bit more seasoning, as did the soup. (The berry pie a la mode was fresh and fine.)

The car crews could also use training in dealing with the aged and infirm; they allowed a shaky nonagenarian to descend the potentially treacherous spiral stairway from upper level to lower unescorted. One of the crew should have gone ahead to catch her if she fell.

It was the scenery that was the real attraction. We dashed down river plains, rode over high trestles spanning deep valleys and chugged slowly through high, weaving rock cuts. We spooked moose, caribou and trumpeter swans. We arrived in Anchorage well satisfied with our journey.

Tomorrow, another rail ride: a four-hour journey aboard the Cruise Train from Ted Stevens Airport to Seward and the Holland-America liner Statendam.

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