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Is a railroad to Alaska crazy talk? I think so.

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Is a railroad to Alaska crazy talk? I think so.
Posted by Murphy Siding on Wednesday, May 3, 2023 10:17 PM

I was born in Alaska. We moved away in 1972 when I was 11. Alaska is a beautiful mix of mountains, water and cold. If you found the money to build the most expensive freight railroad of all time, you would still have no traffic to make it worth the effort.

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Posted by CMStPnP on Thursday, May 4, 2023 2:34 AM

Did that stop the Milwaukee Road from building it's Pacific Coast Extension?   Lack of traffic is a fairly normal new railroad issue.   In fact, I thought initially the Alaska railroad was initially not viable and was built with funds from Congress to include future operating subsidies as well.

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Posted by PNWRMNM on Thursday, May 4, 2023 7:20 AM

There is already a railroad to Alaska. It is a rail car barge operation out of Seattle. Last I knew it was Alaska Hydro Train. I do not know if the one out of Prince Rupert still operates.

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Posted by Euclid on Thursday, May 4, 2023 7:21 AM
In reading the original, now locked thread from September, 2020, I find that this project was planned to be built by The Alaska – Alberta Railway Development Corporation (A2A RAIL).  What happened to that plan during the last 33 months?
 
I agree that new traffic tends to emerge after a railroad is built because the introduction of rail transport makes related industrial/agricultural development economically viable.  I understand this was the reasoning behind the original land grants, which were intended to encourage railroads to develop ahead of regional development, and thus encourage the progress of that development. 
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Posted by Ulrich on Thursday, May 4, 2023 8:28 AM

Not a crazy idea but impractical unless there's a clear reason for a railway that would make sense either from a political or economic standpoint.

In Canada railways were built for political reasons.. the Canadian Pacific was built as a condition for BC to join confederation,  and likewise the Intercolonial Railway was built to bring Atlantic Canada into confederation. In both cases there was precious little freight to justify the building of these railways; however, once they were built the people and the traffic eventually followed. Perhaps it would work the same way with a line to Alaska.. build it and they may come. Of course, history is also replete with examples where railways were built and the traffic never materialized. 

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Posted by Murphy Siding on Thursday, May 4, 2023 12:45 PM

CMStPnP

Did that stop the Milwaukee Road from building it's Pacific Coast Extension?   Lack of traffic is a fairly normal new railroad issue.   In fact, I thought initially the Alaska railroad was initially not viable and was built with funds from Congress to include future operating subsidies as well.

 

How'd that turn out for the Milwaukee Road? Whistling 

 

The Alaska Railroad was built 100 years ago in a different world. In the 100+ years since, there has been nothing to warrant an expansion.

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Posted by Murphy Siding on Thursday, May 4, 2023 12:49 PM

Euclid
In reading the original, now locked thread from September, 2020, I find that this project was planned to be built by The Alaska – Alberta Railway Development Corporation (A2A RAIL).  What happened to that plan during the last 33 months?
 
I agree that new traffic tends to emerge after a railroad is built because the introduction of rail transport makes related industrial/agricultural development economically viable.  I understand this was the reasoning behind the original land grants, which were intended to encourage railroads to develop ahead of regional development, and thus encourage the progress of that development. 
 

There's no agricultural land to go through. The only industry might be mining. Have big deposits of anything been found that can't be mined cheaper somewhere else?

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Posted by Overmod on Thursday, May 4, 2023 1:08 PM

Murphy Siding
How'd that turn out for the Milwaukee Road?

To be honest, had the railroad not been so involved with certain millionaire owners, the debt for the pieces of electrification would have been dealt with by the 1920s at the latest, and the gap probably closed.

The parallel between the PCE and A2A lies more in the decision to adjust the route and performance to the various mining interests.  All sorts of compromise was used to serve areas owned or controlled by relatives or friends.  I have seen it argued that the double catenary was more a method to sell copper than to provide increased ampere draw capacity.  A2A is in the somewhat unenviable position of having most of its online business being heavy mineral of one kind or another, and its end-to-end traffic mostly a promise of container bridge... in an era that its great-circle advantage increasingly appears to mean less.

Also as with the Milwaukee electrification, by the time the investment starts to pay off much of the competition will have changed, quite possibly to zero-carbon alternatives.  Snowfighting equipment that works under high-voltage catenary is certainly an important consideration in Switzerland, so I fail to see why it matters that much in the context of a Trans-Siberian-style double main through wilderness under wire... until you get drifts too big to plow, with the additional precipitation that will largely be the first sign of genuine AGW/climate change.  

Perhaps we should have the A2A backers quietly subsidizing Chinese-technology self-launching snowshed design?

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Posted by Euclid on Thursday, May 4, 2023 2:04 PM

Murphy Siding

 

 
Euclid
In reading the original, now locked thread from September, 2020, I find that this project was planned to be built by The Alaska – Alberta Railway Development Corporation (A2A RAIL).  What happened to that plan during the last 33 months?
 
I agree that new traffic tends to emerge after a railroad is built because the introduction of rail transport makes related industrial/agricultural development economically viable.  I understand this was the reasoning behind the original land grants, which were intended to encourage railroads to develop ahead of regional development, and thus encourage the progress of that development. 
 

 

 

There's no agricultural land to go through. The only industry might be mining. Have big deposits of anything been found that can't be mined cheaper somewhere else?

 

 

With my mention of industrial/agricultural development, I was only referring to the general principle of it being built as a response to a railroad being built in the territory first, and then that spurs the development that will provide the products for the railroad to haul.  And I did not confine this to just this Alaska proposal.  I don’t have any idea what kind of traffic potential there is in Alaska.  I don't even know if A2A RAIL sees a specific purpose. 
 
I also do not believe that building a railroad into undeveloped territory guarantees the industrial/agricultural development will follow.  That would be the “Build it and they will come” myth that commonly plays a part in promoting Public Sector projects such as LRT. 
 
But in any case, it appears that A2A RAIL has developed a financial problem since their proposal that we discussed in the 9/2020 thread.    That is described to some extent here:
 
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Posted by wjstix on Thursday, May 4, 2023 2:30 PM

Another example of the historical political aspects Ulrich mentioned would be Canadian Pacific's line north of Lake Superior, hundreds of miles of nothing but rocks, swamps, and trees. James J. Hill was on the CP board in the 19th century and said economically the most sensible decision would have been to run through Ontario to Sault Ste. Marie, then go from there to Mpls-St.Paul via the Soo Line, then Mpls-St.Paul to Winnepeg on Hill's St.Paul Minneapolis and Manitoba (later Great Northern). Then go west through Canada again. CP decided it had to build the entire line through Canada however. 

(Oddly enough, CN's transcontinental mainline runs thru northern Minnesota for about 30 miles or so.)

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Posted by caldreamer on Thursday, May 4, 2023 6:33 PM

Euclid:

  I respectfully disagree with your "Build it and they will come" comment.  Please remember the trans-continental railroad.  Most of the 2000 or so miles was nothing but open land.  They did come and cities and towns were built along the right-of-.way. Industries developed as people moved to the new cities and towns.

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Posted by CMStPnP on Thursday, May 4, 2023 7:48 PM

Murphy Siding
There's no agricultural land to go through. The only industry might be mining. Have big deposits of anything been found that can't be mined cheaper somewhere else?

No agricultural land you say.......h-h-h-m-m-m-m.......

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-heatwave-canada-farming/in-canada-climate-change-could-open-new-farmland-to-the-plow-idUSKCN1BZ075

 Same is true of Alaska as is of Yukon territory.    Not only that but the lack of farms in the past was due to three conditions specifically.    Lack of cheap transportation, lack of people and low soil temperature.......which is now rising.

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Posted by MidlandMike on Thursday, May 4, 2023 7:50 PM

Euclid
n reading the original, now locked thread from September, 2020, I find that this project was planned to be built by The Alaska – Alberta Railway Development Corporation (A2A RAIL).  What happened to that plan during the last 33 months?

A2A rail was sold as a plan to transport Alberta tar sand oil to Asia.  The major oil companies have all pulled out of tar sands.

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Posted by Murphy Siding on Thursday, May 4, 2023 9:21 PM

CMStPnP

 

 
Murphy Siding
There's no agricultural land to go through. The only industry might be mining. Have big deposits of anything been found that can't be mined cheaper somewhere else?

 

No agricultural land you say.......h-h-h-m-m-m-m.......

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-heatwave-canada-farming/in-canada-climate-change-could-open-new-farmland-to-the-plow-idUSKCN1BZ075

 Same is true of Alaska as is of Yukon territory.    Not only that but the lack of farms in the past was due to three conditions specifically.    Lack of cheap transportation, lack of people and low soil temperature.......which is now rising.

 

The article talks mostly about eastern Canada. Northwestern Canada is a lot like northern Alaska. I don't think it's conducive to farming. In any event, if farmable land area moved north over time, I think any rail lines to serve that growth would look more teeth of a comb lines of the past. No reason to extend the lines to Alaska.

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Posted by Murphy Siding on Thursday, May 4, 2023 9:24 PM

wjstix

Another example of the historical political aspects Ulrich mentioned would be Canadian Pacific's line north of Lake Superior, hundreds of miles of nothing but rocks, swamps, and trees. James J. Hill was on the CP board in the 19th century and said economically the most sensible decision would have been to run through Ontario to Sault Ste. Marie, then go from there to Mpls-St.Paul via the Soo Line, then Mpls-St.Paul to Winnepeg on Hill's St.Paul Minneapolis and Manitoba (later Great Northern). Then go west through Canada again. CP decided it had to build the entire line through Canada however. 

(Oddly enough, CN's transcontinental mainline runs thru northern Minnesota for about 30 miles or so.)

 

For a bit of perspective, the north shore of Lake Superior reminds me of where we lived in Alaska- mountains, trees, and water.

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Posted by Murphy Siding on Thursday, May 4, 2023 9:30 PM

Euclid

 

 
Murphy Siding

 

 
Euclid
In reading the original, now locked thread from September, 2020, I find that this project was planned to be built by The Alaska – Alberta Railway Development Corporation (A2A RAIL).  What happened to that plan during the last 33 months?
 
I agree that new traffic tends to emerge after a railroad is built because the introduction of rail transport makes related industrial/agricultural development economically viable.  I understand this was the reasoning behind the original land grants, which were intended to encourage railroads to develop ahead of regional development, and thus encourage the progress of that development. 
 

 

 

There's no agricultural land to go through. The only industry might be mining. Have big deposits of anything been found that can't be mined cheaper somewhere else?

 

 

 

 

With my mention of industrial/agricultural development, I was only referring to the general principle of it being built as a response to a railroad being built in the territory first, and then that spurs the development that will provide the products for the railroad to haul.  And I did not confine this to just this Alaska proposal.  I don’t have any idea what kind of traffic potential there is in Alaska.  I don't even know if A2A RAIL sees a specific purpose. 
 
I also do not believe that building a railroad into undeveloped territory guarantees the industrial/agricultural development will follow.  That would be the “Build it and they will come” myth that commonly plays a part in promoting Public Sector projects such as LRT. 
 
But in any case, it appears that A2A RAIL has developed a financial problem since their proposal that we discussed in the 9/2020 thread.    That is described to some extent here:
 
 

That's the problem. I don't think there is any potential traffic that could justify the cost. I do see a parallel with the US transcon as some folks are more interested in making money off building a railroad than actually building it.

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Posted by BaltACD on Thursday, May 4, 2023 10:09 PM

When it comes to railroads the 'Field of Dreams' days are gone.  'Build it and they will come'; does not warrant the level of investment necessary to build a railroad from Alaska to continental USA.

Railroads in the 19th Century were 'Field of Dreams' days.

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Posted by Erik_Mag on Thursday, May 4, 2023 10:34 PM

Overmod

 I have seen it argued that the double catenary was more a method to sell copper than to provide increased ampere draw capacity.

FWIW, the more common term is twin-trolley.

I disagree with the assertion about twin trolley being a method to sell more copper. When drawing the amount of current that favors twin contact wires, one would also be needing a lot of feeder to keep the voltage drop in check. By using two contact wires, there can be a reduction in the amount of copper needed for the feeders.

One of the advantages of twin trolley was giving a softer contact surface with simple catenary as the pantograph's contact surface would rarely be in touch at the point where the contact wire was attached to the hanger.

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Posted by CMStPnP on Thursday, May 4, 2023 11:08 PM

Murphy Siding
Northwestern Canada is a lot like northern Alaska. I don't think it's conducive to farming. In any event, if farmable land area moved north over time, I think any rail lines to serve that growth would look more teeth of a comb lines of the past.

OK so it specifically mentioned Yukon territory, additionally you can Google and see Alaska has similar articles.     Not sure how we got on the discussion of Northern Alaska but the rail connection I believe would be much lower than that.   Most of Alaskas current farmland is North of Anchorage with another patch along the Central Southern Coast.

Your teeth of a comb idea is really dated.  The current approach is to highly centralize crop collection along mainlines with loops of rail going out to the elevators and back for loading Unit Trains.    Illinois built more than a few of these in the last 20 years or so.    That is the modern way of doing it.

Anyways, I think this is getting to be another "railroad armageddon" topic.    Nobody can build a rail line on that proposed route because it would mean "armageddon" for the rail line (ha-ha).   

I think the rail line is highly probable in the future.   DoD does not like the ferry operation nor the idea they have to ship equipment to Fort Wainwright by ship.    Pretty sure at some point they will push for it.   Possibly in response to Defense of the new shipping lanes opening North of Alaska as well as the need for bases further North.    They pushed for the Alaska railroad to extend and they got their way.

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Posted by CMStPnP on Thursday, May 4, 2023 11:15 PM

BaltACD
When it comes to railroads the 'Field of Dreams' days are gone.  'Build it and they will come'; does not warrant the level of investment necessary to build a railroad from Alaska to continental USA. Railroads in the 19th Century were 'Field of Dreams' days.

That would be for private financing.

Public financing is a different story and we had discussions in Texas of a brand spanking new government financed North-South railroad in Texas that the state was just going to trade to Union Pacific for their existing DFW - Austin - San Antonio line.    Converting the latter into a passenger train line.    Not sure if there is any glimmer of hope left in that project as UP got tired of waiting and abandoned their participation in the project.   However, it was possible and will use it as an example.

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Posted by BaltACD on Thursday, May 4, 2023 11:33 PM

CMStPnP
 
Murphy Siding
Northwestern Canada is a lot like northern Alaska. I don't think it's conducive to farming. In any event, if farmable land area moved north over time, I think any rail lines to serve that growth would look more teeth of a comb lines of the past. 

OK so it specifically mentioned Yukon territory, additionally you can Google and see Alaska has similar articles.     Not sure how we got on the discussion of Northern Alaska but the rail connection I believe would be much lower than that.   Most of Alaskas current farmland is North of Anchorage with another patch along the Central Southern Coast.

Your teeth of a comb idea is really dated.  The current approach is to highly centralize crop collection along mainlines with loops of rail going out to the elevators and back for loading Unit Trains.    Illinois built more than a few of these in the last 20 years or so.    That is the modern way of doing it.

Anyways, I think this is getting to be another "railroad armageddon" topic.    Nobody can build a rail line on that proposed route because it would mean "armageddon" for the rail line (ha-ha).   

I think the rail line is highly probable in the future.   DoD does not like the ferry operation nor the idea they have to ship equipment to Fort Wainwright by ship.    Pretty sure at some point they will push for it.   Possibly in response to Defense of the new shipping lanes opening North of Alaska as well as the need for bases further North.    They pushed for the Alaska railroad to extend and they got their way.

If the government pushes with money, they will get what the money buys.  If they don't push with money, they will also get what the lack of money buys - NOTHING.

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Posted by Fred M Cain on Friday, May 5, 2023 6:29 AM

Murphy Siding

For a bit of perspective, the north shore of Lake Superior reminds me of where we lived in Alaska- mountains, trees, and water.

I realize, of course, that this is off topic and I don’t wanna see this thread wander too far so no one need respond, but there is a reason why the north shore of Lake Superior reminded you of Alaska.
 
Due to a quirk in North American weather and climate, the most bitter cold air from the interior of AK and the Yukon, dips way down south in the interior of the continent to the vicinity of the Great Lakes.  If you go just a couple o’ hundred miles north of where I am (northern Indiana) it gets very nearly as cold as Fairbanks.
 
The all-time historic low for the state of Minnesota is in a little town called Tower (-60°F).  That is only a mere six degrees shy of Fairbanks’s all time record low of -66°.  In my mind’s eye, that’s still pretty doggone cold~!  Hearst, Ontario probably gets even colder than that.
 
When those bitter cold winds sweep down out of the northwest, in order to reach me, they have to first pass over Lake Michigan.  That moistens and warms the air somewhat. 
 
The result?  The worst I’ve ever seen it here is -26°F.  But in my book that’s still pretty doggone cold, especially with a 25-30MPH wind blowing~!  On a day like that, I stay inside and read by my wood burning stove. :)
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Posted by tree68 on Friday, May 5, 2023 6:51 AM

Fred M Cain
The result?  The worst I’ve ever seen it here is -26°F.  But in my book that’s still pretty doggone cold, especially with a 25-30MPH wind blowing~!  On a day like that, I stay inside and read by my wood burning stove. :)

-40F and maybe a little colder here.  And I've been out in it fighting fires.    Yuck.  That cold is a problem with our locomotives - they have plain water for coolant, so if they don't have an auxiliary heater (several of ours do), they stay running in that sort of weather...

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Posted by Fred M Cain on Friday, May 5, 2023 7:59 AM
Well, all the evidence that I can find so far is that there are still people pushing for a rail connection.  The plan has been on-again, off-again, on-again since at least the 1960s.  It now appears as if we’re once again back to “off-again”.
 
There is clearly a need for ground transportation between the lower 48, northwest Canada and Alaska.  After all, they built the Alcan Highway, didn’t they?  This gets back to what I’d posted on the “Trump” thread.  There always appears to be PLENTY of money for more and progressively bigger highways but rail is another matter.
 
The problem is one of consensus.  Liberal, progressive environmentalists do not want to see a railroad built at all.  “Right-wing” conservatives, on the other hand, strongly believe that the government should not get directly involved with railways – highways are fine, but not rail.
 
I am beginning to wonder if this highway-centric mentality isn’t beginning to change somewhat.  There are few countries in western Europe beginning to question this.  The U.K. is looking to expand rail and is even looking at reactivating some long ago abandoned lines.
 
A few rare countries like Japan and Switzerland never quite completely accepted the idea that cars, trucks and highways should provide 100% of all our transportation needs.
 
As for a line to Alaska, environmentalists need to recognize, first of all, the need for ground transportation and that a railway would have less of an impact on the environment than a highway. 
 
Conservative types, on the other hand, need to recognize the desirability of such a line as well and that railroads need to be part of the bigger transportation picture and play an important role along with highways and airports.  Like I say, this might be starting to change.  After all, the 20th century is over.
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Posted by Euclid on Friday, May 5, 2023 8:42 AM

caldreamer

Euclid:

  I respectfully disagree with your "Build it and they will come" comment.  Please remember the trans-continental railroad.  Most of the 2000 or so miles was nothing but open land.  They did come and cities and towns were built along the right-of-.way. Industries developed as people moved to the new cities and towns.

 

I understand your point and I could have made my point more clear.  There certainly are times when if you build it, they will come.  And the pioneering railroad expansion boom was successful example of that, at least up to the point of oversaturation.  But I was referring to the saying; “Build it and they will come” used when the builder does not actually know whether the market demand is there.  Instead they assume that the demand is always there and never completely fulfilled.  Generally, it takes a lot market research to determine if there is enough demand for a new business.
 
But when developers are using someone else’s money to build something, they might use the phrase, ‘Build it and they will come” to sell the idea to the investor.  I recall getting that impression from the way A2A RAIL was promoting their project when we were first made aware of it in 2020. 
 
From reading the proposal by A2A RAIL in 2020, I got the impression that they were promoting their project largely on the basis of “Build it and they will come.”  In the 2020 thread, I said this in response to a question to me by Dave Klepper asking about mineral (mining) and agricultural expansion possibilities in Alaska that A2A might find and exploit to make their project pay:
 
Euclid comment from 2020 thread:
 
“There probably are such possible uses for the railroad.  But these possibilities have been used to promote the dream of this rail expansion for many years. And this sort of pie-in-the-sky dreaming sounds exactly like what we are hearing from this current promotion by A2A RAIL today.  It sounds to me like they are promoting the dream in hopes of raising the money to build it.  The test of the dream will be whether private investors are willing to take the risk of investing.  And if they won't take the risk, maybe the U.S. and Canadian governments will.  But, in my opinion, the governments taking the risk will not be proof of viability of the railroad.”
 
Here is a detailed update from August 2021 on the project and its financial setback:
 
Is A2A Staying on Track?
 
BY VANESSA ORR JUL 31, 2021 MAGAZINE,  TRANSPORTATION
 
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Posted by Overmod on Friday, May 5, 2023 9:54 AM

Certainly the only real justification for building it as a single-track railroad is "build it and they will come on line" -- mines being the principal thing producing any more traffic than, say, the Port Churchill line.  I doubt there is anyone that would consider the latter an 'economically justified' service...

The Alcan Highway was built as a wartime project, and I am reminded of the Burma Road and the Japanese railway project to accomplish the same general purpose (see Bridge on the River Kwai) and how that worked out.

A highway permits local access or branches at nearly any point, and there is comparatively little restriction on people with appropriate 'ice road' equipment operating at an infinitesmal fraction of a percent of the amortized cost of an A2A or G7G line.  There is comparatively fast and simple response to wrecks or accidents, too.  I haven't seen a discussion in either company's collateral of how a serious derailment in winter would be handled -- you can't fly in Hulcher side-booms with big drones, even if there were room adjacent to the track to work them effectively.  For a start.

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Posted by Fred M Cain on Friday, May 5, 2023 10:13 AM

Overmod

<SNIP>

I haven't seen a discussion in either company's collateral of how a serious derailment in winter would be handled -- you can't fly in Hulcher side-booms with big drones, even if there were room adjacent to the track to work them effectively.  For a start.

 

 
Well, I guess they'd have to find a way to address that concern.  That is indeed a genuine concern but hardly a problem that by itself would prevent the construction and operation of such a line.
 
How does the Alaska Railroad handle a derailment?  They run through some really wild back country, occassionally on the opposite side of the river from the highway.  Doesn't the Quebec North Shore & Labrador also run through some pretty wild back country?
 
In a perfect world, the utimate and ideal solution is simply:  DON'T HAVE A DERAILMENT.  I'm not sure why, but derailments seem to have become a major issue in the industry.  (See nearby threads).
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Posted by Backshop on Friday, May 5, 2023 11:04 AM

Just a few points...

1. Alaska already has a railroad.  It connects with a seaport, the one form of transport that has lower costs than railroads.  No reason to make it an all-rail route where there isn't much intermediate online business.

2. The problem with the weather in Alaska isn't the absolute lowest temperatures; it's the length of the winter.  The upper Midwest may get frigid temps, but they don't last for months.

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Posted by Fred M Cain on Friday, May 5, 2023 11:35 AM

Backshop

Just a few points...

1. Alaska already has a railroad.  It connects with a seaport, the one form of transport that has lower costs than railroads.  No reason to make it an all-rail route where there isn't much intermediate online business.

2. The problem with the weather in Alaska isn't the absolute lowest temperatures; it's the length of the winter.  The upper Midwest may get frigid temps, but they don't last for months.

 

 
On your second point, I believe this is true.  Northern Minnesota has the potential to get as cold as Fairbanks, but winters in Minnesota are not as long.  Usually.  As an RV parts rep, I was talking on the telephone with a client in Duluth, MN following the hard winter of 2013-14.  She told me there were still small chunks of ice floating on Lake Superior in mid June.  YIKES ~ !
 
On your first point, those are good points as well.  Some would not see the need for a rail link to the lower 48.  But others clearly do.  Why?  Pride, maybe?  Could some Alaskans feel kinda lonely, isolated from the rest of us, and a railroad connection might psychologically aleviate some of their isolation?  I don't know.
 
I'd love to be able to discuss this with someone promoting a rail connection to get their point of view.
 
Who knows?  It might happen eventually but I don't see it happening in the next 20 years and certainly not within ten.
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Posted by Backshop on Friday, May 5, 2023 11:43 AM

If Alaskans feel "lonely", they can just jump on an Alaska Airlines flight.  They fly to 20 destinations in Alaska.

Many people have a dream of building a railroad to Alaska, but it seems that none of them have their own money and they can't get the people with the money, to lend it to them.  There must be a reason...

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