Sunday, July 4, 2010

From ship to train and the mountains

This one's for train lovers. The rest of you have neither the sophistication or thoughtfulness to appreciate the following post, so please depart for more mundane jollies elsewhere.

Looking back from the open vestibule of the last car of the 12:15 p.m. White Pass & Yukon train as it climbs up the valley of the Klondike River from Skagway, Alaska, to Fraser, B.C.

There is no more glorious place to behold the mountains and gorges of North America than the open platform of the last coach of a narrow-gauge railway train. Only the engineer has a better view.

A couple of weeks ago I rode behind the drumhead on the rear car of one of the world's biggest little railroads, the White Pass & Yukon Railway from Skagway on the coast of Alaska to Carcross in northern British Columbia.

It was born during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898-99 to carry gold seekers and their freight deep into the Yukon, and today it is devoted to thrilling cruise-line passengers who land at Skagway and nearby Haines.

Its rails are just 3 feet apart instead of the 4 feet 8 1/2 inches of standard railroads. Narrow-gauge lines can't carry as much tonnage as the big boys, but they're decidedly cheaper to blast through the solid rock of mountainsides. Their locomotives and cars are much smaller, easier to get around tight curves.

Best of all, the WP&Y does not forbid passengers to congregate on the open platforms of its replica shorty coaches. This makes getting good photos a lot easier than battling window reflections from inside the cars. Is it dangerous? Not particularly; the trains never go much faster than 30 miles an hour, so steep and winding is the line.

Here are some shots from my recent trip to Alaska with Holland-America:

This coach is parked by the station in downtown Skagway, but the line extends to sidings at the docks where trains wait for incoming cruise-ship passengers.

A conductor rides the step into Skagway station while shooing an overeager passenger back into his coach.

Shovelnose General Electric locomotive No. 90 was among the first WP&Y diesels, arriving on the property in 1954. Originally rated at 890 horsepower, it was rebuilt and re-engined to 1,400 h.p. in the 1990s. Three of them are required to haul a 15-car train.

This 1,200 h.p. Alco/Montreal Locomotive Works engine is one of several built in 1969, some of them sold to the Colombian national railroad after the WP&Y closed down in 1988, but was bought back in 1999 to serve the ever-increasing hordes of Inside Passage cruise passengers.

WP&Y's most modern locomotive is this 1,200-horsepower model built in 1991 by Bombardier near Montreal. It was being used in switching service when the photo was taken.

The oldest piece of equipment on the WP&Y is No. 1, a rotary snowplow built in 1898 and retired in 1962, then restored to service in 1995. Since the railroad is a essentially a summer tourist operation, the rotary is not used much these days.

One of the railroad's newest cars, the coach Lake McClintock, was built in 2005 to help meet tourist demand. Here its train is backing into a siding on the cruise-ship dock at Skagway while a conductor mans the air brake to stop the train at its appointed spot.

Photographers congregate on car platforms as the train winds around a curved bridge over the Klondike River gorge.

Another train follows far below, about three miles behind ours high up on a mountainside. The WP&Y runs three trains simultaneously, staggering their departures to keep a safe interval between them.

This high trestle is built right in front of the entrance to a tunnel . . .

. . . and here the train rumbles over the trestle and plunges into the tunnel.

After clearing Canadian immigration at Fraser, B.C., 27 miles up the line from Skagway, most passengers boarded buses for the return trip. The rest went on to Carcross, B.C.

No comments:

Post a Comment