‘Wall of ice’ from Susitna River damages railroad tracks

A 7-foot "wall of ice" from a Susitna River ice jam slammed into Alaska Railroad tracks north of Talkeetna on Saturday, pushing the rails 25 feet off course, the railroad said Monday.

The railroad is working around the clock to get the tracks back in place before the railroad's tourist season starts on Wednesday when Denali Star service begins, said Tim Sullivan, a spokesman with Alaska Railroad Corp.

"Crews are working hammer and tongs to get it back in shape," Sullivan said.

The railroad said it expects to have the tracks fixed by late Tuesday, in time for overnight freight service between Anchorage and Fairbanks, and for the tourism passenger service the next day, according to a media statement released Monday afternoon.

Flooding and overflow caused by ice jams on the Susitna near Curry shut down train service north of Talkeetna on Saturday morning, the railroad said. Water swamped the tracks for about two miles.

The southbound run of the Aurora passenger train and freight trains in both directions that were scheduled for Sunday were canceled. Passengers on a northbound Aurora train Saturday from Anchorage "were transitioned to motorcoach in Talkeetna to complete trips to Denali and Fairbanks," the railroad said.

Sullivan said Monday the water has receded in the area, but service is still on hold.

"We're left with a huge amount of ice on tracks," Sullivan said. "A wall of ice" shoved the tracks off course, with a roughly 1,000 foot section of track shoved about 25 feet off the railbed, he said.

The repair costs "won't be pretty," he said. "We'll evaluate (the cost). It's a matter of getting the job done at this point."

Sullivan said the tracks are in good shape and made of continuously welded rail. They are meant to take a beating from ice – as well as heavy freight trains — and can be moved back into place, he said.

Wednesday marks the start of the railroad's busy season sending cruise ship tourists north from Southcentral Alaska to Fairbanks on the Denali Star train, from which they can view Denali.

More than 1,000 passengers will make the trip daily, a huge jump from winter passenger numbers of about 200 on Aurora weekend trips.

"We hope to have things back up Tuesday night to get equipment staged for our season starting Wednesday morning," Sullivan said.

Flooding has occurred in the area in the past, though the last big flood was about 10 years ago, he said.

"This one is particularly onerous," he said.