Alaska Railroad -- lifeline to bush communities

Milepost 275.4 on the Alaska Railroad is the closest you'll get to an address in the Alaskan bush. Peggy Stavenjord lives at mile 275.4 -- 160 miles north of Anchorage -- in a 20-by-20 log cabin with her husband and two children. Roads, phone lines, television cables, and water pipes don't reach this deep into the Alaska Range. But the Alaskan Railroad does. Those twin rails are the only link to the outside, says Mrs. Stavenjord, returning home on the train from her monthly grocery shopping in Anchorage. Carrying several bundles, one of which is her three-month-old son, she says the train brings everything from guests to mail and her nine-year-old daughter's correspondence courses.

So when the Reagan administration began talking about selling the railroad, there was concern in the bush community that the unprofitable passenger run -- once a week in the winter and daily in the summer -- might be cut, and with it could go a way of life.

The thought of running water and a telephone might be enticing, says Mrs. Stavenjord, but life in the Alaskan wilderness has been a choice not taken lightly. It's a life style many up and down the 470-mile rail corridor hold close to their hearts. Mrs. Stavenjord describes a hard but cozy life requiring her to haul water to the house and chop wood for warmth. At night, the family has a regular date to munch popcorn and listen to radio shows -- including ``Fibber McGee and Molly.''

Alaska bought the railroad last month, at last gaining control of the frontier development tool that has shaped everything from the creation of Anchorage -- which started as a tent city for railroad construction -- to the building of the North Slope oil pipeline. For $23 million the state-owned Alaska Railroad Corporation got 1940s-vintage locomotives, cars, and tracks; obligations to fulfill the generous employment and retirement benefits for veteran federal employees; and a land dispute with Native groups whose land claims overlap parts of the railroad right of way.

The railroad runs in the red more often than not. Though it carried 230,000 passengers in 1983, it lost $1.7 million on that service while making a profit of $1.8 million on freight hauling, explains Bill Coghill, manager of planning for the railroad.

``We'll keep passenger service; it's part of the state. It's one of those things you can't put a dollar value on,'' says Jim Campbell, chairman of the Alaska Railroad Corporation.

Mr. Campbell, like many an independent Alaskan anxious to get out from under federal government controls, says the railroad purchase ``is the last step in Alaska having an opportunity to control its own destiny.'' President of Spenard Lumber Company, one of the railroad's biggest customers, he sees rail expansion into mineral-rich areas -- the hoped-for next big boom -- as a way to ensure future profitability.

A passenger trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks is a 12-hour socio-environmental event. The expansive optimism of the crew and wintertime passengers seems strongly influenced by the dramatic backdrop of snow and rugged earth, which the train crosses on thin bridges, through narrow passes, and over flat tundra.

It is pitch dark at 9 a.m. when the train pulls out of Anchorage. White mountains soon rise alongside the five-car train as it noses north at no more than 49 miles per hour.

Stops are frequent. Joe Wood explains proudly from his engineer's seat: ``We're the last railroad in the states that takes flag stops. You're talking about big country with no communications or transportation, and you don't pass somebody by.'' A passenger can flag the train anywhere along the route. But there are scheduled stops like Talkeetna, where climbers from all over the world unload and head toward Mt. McKinley, now called by its original name, Denali.

At other points the train just slows, and Joe or fireman Bill Hightower throws a brightly packaged newspaper out the engine window for local residents. Occasionally there is a brief flurry of activity back in the baggage car, where both side doors are held agape. Bitter cold winds whip through as the baggageman tosses a mail pouch out one door while someone outside wings a letter in through the other.

Back in the brightly lit club car, conversation is easy among passengers and crew. Over hot drinks, veterans of the area point out a pair of moose galumphing through high snow drifts. Wildlife is abundant along the route, both winter and summer. More wolves, bears, caribou, and otters are seen out here than people. Engineer Wood says foxes like to race on the tracks inches ahead of the engine, frequently for miles at a time before running off the tracks.

Slowing the train just before the mid-afternoon sunset, Wood talks about the ``neighborliness'' out on the tracks, noting that he's gotten to know the inhabitants of cabins all along the route. They'll radio into Anchorage for a special request, he says, and he'll deliver whatever they ask for. Pointing to a green house marked with a sign ``Sherman City Hall,'' Wood says familiarly, ``There's Clyde in the window now.'' He flicks the horn lever and gives a few friendly blasts.

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