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Water damages railroad track, halting trains to Seward

Jerzy Shedlock
Skookum Creek washed out an 80-foot section of track south of Portage on the Alaska Railroad on Tuesday morning, June 17, 2014. Crews are expected to repair the damage by Thursday. Courtesy Alaska Railroad

High water washed out 80 feet of gravel track bed early Tuesday morning on the Alaska Railroad route between Anchorage and Seward, halting southbound passenger trains, the railroad said.

The track was damaged at Skookum Creek, railroad Milepost 59.7, located between Luebner Lake and Portage, the railroad said. The “high-water incident” started around 7:30 a.m. when creek waters began wearing away the bed then quickly washed over and under the track, which remained intact but suspended over the creek.

Alaska Railroad communications officer Stephanie Wheeler said she did not have detailed information about how the high-water incident happened. She said the wilderness around the track is thawed out by mid-June; she suspects rain caused the rise and fall of the creek.

The washout prompted the cancellation of the railroad’s daily train to Seward, the Coastal Classic, on Tuesday and Wednesday. It is providing an alternative bus trip while crews continue to fix the damage. The daily Glacier Discovery trip has been impacted, too, with the route now stopping short at Whittier.

Wheeler said no freight train traffic has been affected yet as none are scheduled between now and when repairs are expected to be finished. Wheeler said the maintenance crews are aiming to complete the track repairs by Wednesday morning. Passenger services are expected to begin by Thursday.

As of Tuesday evening, crews were rebuilding the track bed using heavy equipment, such as a D6 bulldozer, two excavators and a crane, placing rock and gravel from nearby Portage, she said. Chief operating officer Doug Engebretson said the track would reopen once the field team is sure it’s safe.

Wheeler said several small washouts and a large washout occurred along Alaska Railroad lines last summer. High-water incidents do occur, she said, it just depends on the amount of rainfall.