Gold Rush comes alive on railway

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A White Pass & Yukon Route Railway diesel-electric locomotive hugs the mountainside.
A White Pass & Yukon Route Railway diesel-electric locomotive hugs the mountainside.

As crews complete track improvements along Alaska's White Pass & Yukon Route Railway, the company is outlining more flexible tour schedules for 2019.

The White Pass & Yukon Route operates narrated, narrow-gauge railway outings that spotlight Klondike Gold Rush-era history and the rugged wilderness of southeast Alaska. Half- and full-day tours travel the tracks between Skagway, Alaska, and Carcross, in Canada's Yukon, on train cars pulled by vintage steam and diesel-electric locomotives.

Crews began construction on a one-mile loop at the White Pass summit late last summer, and work will wrap up before this season's first cruise ship docks in Skagway on April 29. The new loop, together with a section of sidetrack added near mile 14, will enable multiple trains to travel in opposite directions at the same time.

"The enhancements let us change the timing of our White Pass Summit Excursion tours and spread departure times throughout the day, rather than sending trains in blocks of two to three at a time," said Jacqueline Taylor-Rose, manager of marketing and product development for White Pass & Yukon Route. "It allows for a continuous motion of trains going up and down the path."

With the updated infrastructure, the railway can better align its tours with cruise ship arrival and departure times.

The company welcomed 463,000 passengers in 2018, its second-highest year on record, and Taylor-Rose said she expects another strong year ahead.

"Skagway is on track to have close to 1 million passengers this year and maybe more with all of the road traffic that we get. It's going to be really a big summer for the community," she said. "Our new operating plan and the loop will help handle the volume of visitors that travel through town."

In addition to making operations more efficient, the summit loop will provide expanded access to scenic views. Three White Pass & Yukon Route tour routes cross dramatic trestle bridges and pass along mountains, glaciers, rivers and waterfalls.

"When guests come out of Rocky Point and look down into the Skagway River, for example, they get a sense of how much elevation they're going to gain on the trip," Taylor-Rose said. "When they look up and see a wooden trestle bridge and learn that in a few miles they'll be up on that bridge, they can't believe that's where they're going."

Steam locomotive restored

By midsummer, the company expects to reintroduce its Fraser Meadows Steam Excursion aboard the newly restored 1947 Baldwin 2-8-2 Mikado-class steam locomotive. The No. 73, as the engine is known, was sent to Washington by barge in 2017 for a complete overhaul.

It's one of several historical highlights woven into the railway's tours.

"There's something special about stepping off a modern cruise ship and getting on this vintage 1898 railway from the Klondike Gold Rush," Taylor-Rose said. "You're getting off the ships just like the stampeders did. You're getting onto the pass like they did, more than 121 years ago. This is a lasting monument to that time in our history."

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