Reality Check: Riding the tourism gravy train with 'Railroad Alaska'

Emily Fehrenbacher
Danny and Animal of "Railroad Alaska"
Courtesy Destination America
Jim James of "Railroad Alaska"
Courtesy Destination America

With "Iditarod Unleashed" and "Amazing America with Sarah Palin" airing next week, I went to the dark side and changed my cable package to include the Sportsman Channel. I now have 338 channels. Who needs 338 channels? I assume a lot of the Reality Check readership might not have such luxurious cable packages, so here's what you are missing.

There are eight channels covering the PAC 12 (as a Big 10 fan, I could care less); there are not one but four MTV channels (mostly playing shows about pregnant teens, not music); AWE is a channel devoted to wealth (it literally used to be called "Wealth TV"); there's a scary channel called "Chiller" that only plays horror shows (however, it was playing "E! True Hollywood Story" when I turned it on); and finally, every offshoot of the Discovery Channel that you could imagine (TLC, Destination America, Animal Planet, Oprah Winfrey Network, HUB, the American Heroes Channel and the Science Channel).

You are probably wondering: how do all of these channels fill their fiber optic cables with programming? Answer: they come to Alaska, hire deep-voiced narrators, find some interesting characters, find some natural "disasters" like a slightly overflowing creek and end up with a show like "Railroad Alaska."

I stuck with "Railroad Alaska" for an entire episode for two reasons. One: after a night at the Fairview Inn on Saturday I shared a cab with several rowdy individuals from Rotate Media, who were in Talkeetna filming season two. Two: an enthusiastic text message from my uncle in Aurora, Ill., about the show.

The show follows the Alaska Railroad's day-to-day operations and a handful of individuals that live off the flag-stop train. As with most Alaska reality shows, it is narrated for a Lower 48 audience and everything is posed as a life-or-death situation meant to keep you watching after a commercial break. The portions about the train improvements and their cargo loads to Anchorage were not nearly as intriguing as the people living north of Talkeetna.

The episode I watched followed Nancy and Jim James. Jim James is a surly quote machine (example: "the trail is slicker than cat snot"), he wore a wolf hat and refused to go into Talkeetna because he might have to confront some "local imported idiots." He is so fantastic for TV I hope season two is called "Jim James' Railroad Alaska." His wife Nancy did head into town for a party at the Fairview Inn where Steve Durr would be playing. Durr and his brother Johnathan were also featured, and they had to fix their snowmachine in order to catch the train in time. They made it, no one got attacked by a bear and all was right with the world as the locals partied at the Fairview and listened to Steve's songs about the flag-stop train.

If nothing else, the entire show felt like an advertisement for the Alaska Railroad and the lifestyle that it enables. It made Alaska seem quaint, small, and like 1950s America; general store, folk singer and all.

This made me think of the debate currently going on in Juneau about the Alaska Film Production Promotion Program. The program is partly credited with the rise in reality TV shows, because it gives tax credits for filming in Alaska and hiring Alaskans. I interviewed one of the program's main supporters, Sen. Johnny Ellis (D-Anchorage) about what he thought about the rise in Alaska's reality TV. "Having Alaska on TV screens all around the world, we are trying to sell Alaska in a sense," Ellis said.

"For most Americans we are still a last frontier, an undiscovered place, the end of the road, where people go to reinvent themselves. Alaska's on the bucket list of many, many people worldwide, especially a lot of Americans... They want to come and discover -- in their motor home, the Alaska Railroad or a cruise ship."

If nothing else, shows like "Railroad Alaska" and most of the Alaska programming on my 338 channels serve as a great tourism ad to people like my uncle in Illinois.

• Emily Fehrenbacher lives in Anchorage, where she reviews Alaska reality TV. She can be contacted at


By Emily Fehrenbacher
Reality Check