Curious Alaska is an ongoing feature powered by your questions. What do you want to know or want us to investigate about life in Alaska, stories behind the news or why things are the way they are? Let us know in the form at the bottom of the story.
Question: What’s the deal with the train station at the Anchorage airport? Does anyone use it?
Alaska’s busiest airport has a railroad station attached to it, just a tunnel away from the terminal of Anchorage’s Ted Stevens International Airport.
The Bill Sheffield Alaska Railroad Depot cost $28 million to build back in the early 2000s using federal money secured by the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, then at the pinnacle of his influence in Congress. At its grand opening at the end of 2002, Stevens called the facility “years ahead of its time.”
It may still be. Grand plans for use of the depot have never quite materialized.
The facility itself is a state-of-the-art, 24,000-square-foot building linked to the airport by a tunnel with glimmering LED-light displays meant to evoke the aurora borealis. The design won a prestigious architecture citation.
“Passengers and visitors arriving in Anchorage by air and sea are greeted by a warm glow coming from an icy backdrop appearing from a distance. The station, a colorful beacon that mirrors the spectacular patterns of glimmering lights in the sky, celebrates the wonders of nature,” the AIArchitect wrote of the building in 2004, a couple years after it opened.
While the depot is a familiar sight from the arrival and departure decks of the airport, most locals haven’t been inside — unless you’ve attended a wedding or corporate event there.
The depot isn’t currently open to the public and is used for chartered train transfers of visitors to cruise ship docks in Whittier and Seward. That service runs from May to September, with an average of two to three train arrivals per week, said Christy Terry, a spokesperson for the Alaska Railroad.
Beyond that, there isn’t scheduled passenger service.
When the depot was originally conceived, there were hopes that use might include trains to downtown or even a commuter rail to the Mat-Su and beyond. A marketing plan from 1999 projected up to 200,000 annual passengers, according to a Daily News story on the depot from 2010.
But those numbers haven’t materialized.
In 2009, the depot served 20,000 passengers, the Daily News reported. And in 2019, the last year before the pandemic scrambled travel, the depot saw 16,938 passengers. In June 2022, the depot hosted 17 train arrivals and 4,978 passengers, according to Alaska Railroad numbers.
Outside the summer charter season, the building is largely used for rentals such as corporate events and even weddings, at a rate of $400 per hour.
“Beautiful and modern, the Bill Sheffield Alaska Railroad Depot offers a luxurious and spacious area for special gatherings. Perfect for conferences, seminars, and any other type of corporate function,” the marketing copy reads, also boasting “state of the art lighting.”
It’s a nice place for events — spacious and breezy, said Scott McMurren, an Alaska travel expert and columnist. He’s held some marketing events for tourism businesses there. But it’s probably not reaching its full potential as a piece of transportation infrastructure.
“Well, what are you going to do with it? The reason that exists is to link the railroad to the airport. We can have a really nice facility but if you don’t have the train out there you know, connect things …” he said.
The idea of extending service from the airport to the downtown train depot, or even a commuter rail out to Palmer or beyond, hasn’t ever really taken off, McMurren said.
The Alaska Railroad says that while the depot is used for cruise ship transfers, that may not always be the case.
“While that is our current service, it is not our ultimate final intent,” Terry said. “And we market and review passenger service options at this facility often.”