WASILLA -- Cabin owners along the railroad tracks north of Talkeetna who flag down the train for their return trips to civilization are riding in a little more luxury these days.
Two 1950s-era rail cars that ferried passengers from Talkeetna to Hurricane Gulch have been retired.
In their place, passengers are hailing a two-car, two-engine train that keeps the same Thursday through Sunday run schedule -- in summer at least -- as the old self-propelled cars did.
Known among riders as the Budd Can, the two cars were made by the Philadelphia-based Budd Co. in 1952 and 1953, and traveled the 55-mile stretch of track between Talkeetna and Hurricane Gulch, propelled by a diesel engine that was part of the car, not by a locomotive.
The cars were sold for $75,000 each to Portland-based TriMet, a transit organization that serves three counties in the Portland area. There, TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch said by e-mail, the two cars will be used as a backup commuter train, allowing the company to work on its trains without disrupting commuter traffic.
She expects the cars will be ready for service next summer.
Former railroad workers and train fans who frequent "John's Alaska Railroad web page," an Internet clearinghouse of historic Alaska Railroad photos and information at www.alaskarails.org, recalled seeing the Budd cars begin operating between Talkeetna and Hurricane in January 1986.
The so-called Hurricane Turn flag-stop service dates back much further. Alaska Railroad's Web site says the service started in 1923. It's one of only a few flag-stop train services still operating in America. Passengers buy tickets from Talkeetna to one of eight stops along the way -- mostly places like Chase, Curry and Chulitna, some of which might have been bustling at one time but now are mostly a collection of cabins in the woods. After reaching their destination, they flag the train down with their arms or a shirt when they want to head back to Talkeetna.
Service changes in the winter. One train travels the Hurricane route on the first Thursday of the month. Otherwise travelers use the Aurora passenger train that runs between Anchorage and Fairbanks each weekend.
Many people who ride the flag- stop train are headed out to a cabin somewhere along the way. Others just head out for a day hike or fish until the train comes back by. Some carry rafts and life jackets and float the Susitna River back to Talkeetna, a trip the railroad offers as a package for $169.
LeeRoy Zeroth has been using the flag-stop service since 1989 to reach his cabin at Gold Creek. He said the new coach, and particularly the extra baggage car, is a welcome change.
"On busy weekends it got pretty tight in there. It just depends on how many people were riding and what kind of gear they had. They just had a little compartment in the Budd Can for baggage. Sometimes people had to hold it by their feet," he said.
The cars were designed for briefcase-toting commuters, not to haul the kind of baggage involved when people travel to a remote Alaska cabin for a week or even weekend of fishing or hunting. Alaska Railroad spokeswoman Wendy Lindskoog said the cars also had an outdated electrical system that didn't mesh with the rest of the state-owned railroad's equipment.
The new setup involves a locomotive, a passenger coach, a luggage car and a cab car.
Zeroth said some riders feel nostalgic about the old cars -- many had fond memories of them. But he likes the new setup better.
"One of the problems was, it would break down. You're standing out there on the track (waiting for the train) and it's winter. You wait and wait and wait -- you don't want to leave because then it will come," he said.
Sometimes, cabin owners got fed up with the waiting and stayed out until the next train came by. In winter that could mean waiting a week for the trip to town.
Zeroth said service has been much more reliable the last two years.
Find Rindi White online at adn.com/contact/rwhite or call 352-6709.