Seattle, September 2009. Although rail barge service flourished for years on Puget Sound, and between Vancouver and Vancouver Island, it was not until 1962 that the first rail car barge service was established linking Alaska with the “lower 48.”
Since 1894, Alaska Steamship Company had been doing the heavy hauling of break bulk cargo, along with one or two smaller operators. Bulk cargo was transported by tug and barge, with Seattle and to a lesser degree, Tacoma, being the major staging areas for goods heading “north to Alaska.”
This historic photograph demonstrates the labor-intensive logistic problems faced before rail barge service was initiated.
In May 1962, the Alaska Railroad along with Crowley Maritime initiated the Seattle to Whittier rail barge service dubbed “The HydroTrain. ” The long voyage from Puget Sound, through the famous Inside Passage, thence across the wild Gulf of Alaska, covered 1,228 nautical miles. A grueling 6 to 7 day passage – in good weather - brutal storms in the Gulf of Alaska could easily add days to the passage in the winter.
In April 1983, a second rail barge service to the Alaska Railroad began. Named the “AquaTrain” service, this is a joint effort between Canadian National Railway and Foss Maritime of Seattle. This route, shorter by about 400 miles, connected Prince Rupert to Whittier.
The “AquaTrain” loads out at Pillsbury Point in Prince Rupert, at the very same rail bridge that my Dad ran out of in the late ‘50’s when ABC Transportation, another Crowley enterprise, serviced the pulp mill at Ward Cove, outside Ketchikan Alaska. I have written several articles about this earlier in this blog.
A third entry into the rail transportation service connected British Columbia with the Alaska Railroad. Alaska Steamships Trainship "Alaska III," connected the Great Northern, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railroads to the Alaska Railroad from an interchange located on the Fraser River, at Delta. A full account of this service can be read in “Boxcars Go to Sea #3 Alaska Steam Ship Company.”
The last time I was on a tugboat was when my Dad retired in 1985. So I’ve really lost track of what was happening on Puget Sound. I was on the beach with my dogie one afternoon when I spotted a tug and barge standing down Admiralty Inlet heading to Seattle. What caught my attention was the unusual configuration of the barge, obviously carrying rail cars, with an upper deck stacked high with containers! My curiosity led me to Alaska Railbelt Marine (ARM) and their Operations Manager, David Byrne down in Seattle. I was able to arrange with David and Kevin Meier, Manager of Rail/Marine Operations for the Alaska Railroad to tour the barge and document the loading operation. There was a further surprise coming up I had not anticipated!
[Ed. Note April, 2011. Lynden Transport has reorganized Alaska Railbelt Marine into Alaska Marine Lines. So all references ARM now refer to Alaska Marine Lines.]
In February 2001, Crowley ceased its more than 30 year “HydroTrain” service between Seattle and Whittier. The baton was passed along to a subsidiary of Lynden Transport. Lynden Transport, originally located in Lynden Washington, has a long and very colorful history all about getting the goods to Alaska, post WWII era.
The company started with a fleet of trucks running the famous Alcan Highway. Over the years, the Alcan has been undergoing a continual upgrading from its rough and tumble gravel and dust days. I remember when I worked at Freightliner, selected components were installed on Lynden trucks for “testing.” If they survived the rigors of the Alcan Highway, they went on production trucks!
Since those heady days following WWII, Lynden has blossomed into a full service worldwide multifaceted transportation provider, including air, sea, and highway transportation, known now as Lynden, Incorporated.
A subsidiary of Lynden, Inc., Alaska Railbelt Marine, (ARM) took over Seattle to Whittier rail barge service.
ARM derives its name from the term “Railbelt,” used to describe the Alaska Railroad “belt” from Mile Post Zero in Seward, up to Anchorage, and in later years, terminating at Fairbanks.
The March 1964 “Good Friday” earthquake moved Seward laterally 47 feet, slammed the city with a 20 foot landslide wave, and 30 minutes later, a 30 foot tsunami wave, all but washing Seward into Resurrection Bay!
[ed. Note: Resurrection Bay was the location shot for the opening fjord sequence in "The Hunt for Red October."]
The Alaska Railroad and US Army docks were destroyed. So rail-head operations were moved to Whittier, significantly closer to Anchorage, where it remains today, in a deep-water ice-free port.
September 16 2009
Alaska Railbelt Marine (ARM) has a fleet of freight barges (F/B) each capable of carrying rail cars. But three rail barges in particular - the F/B Anchorage Provider, the F/B Fairbanks Provider, and F/B Whittier Provider - are used in regularly scheduled rail car transport between Seattle and Whittier. As of this writing, three tug and rail barge sets are rotating, sailing from Harbor Island every Wednesday afternoon for the 6 to 7 day voyage.
Gunderson Marine on the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon built Alaska Marine Lines three heavy weight rail barges. All three are built to identical dimensions: 420' in length, 100' in width, with a draft of 24 feet, registered at 6,092 gross tons each, with launch date and hull number:
- F/B Anchorage Provider, December 2000, 055.
- F/B Fairbanks Provider, February 2001, 056.
- F/B Whittier Provider, September 2001, 057.
With eight tracks and “average” length rail cars, which we all know come in a variety of lengths, up to 50 “average” length cars can be loaded.
Lynden had created a better mousetrap! While there is a history of double and triple deck container and roll on/roll off (RO/RO) barges in the Alaskan service, putting a layer of containers over the rail bed to me was inspired!
ARM’s three largest barges were retrofitted with an overhead rack, located some 20 feet above the rail deck, spanning about 2/3rd the length of the barge, for transporting containers. Loads can be stacked up to three high, providing a capacity for up to 190 40 or 53 foot containers. A generator station is located on the top deck allowing refrigerated containers to be supplied with electricity.
A generator room in the bows provides juice for ballast pumps inside the hull of the barge and deck lighting. Batteries power navigation lights while underway.
The “rack” located 20 feet above the rail bed, is capable of loading up to 190 40 or 53 foot containers, stacked in up to three layers. Alaska Marine Lines (AML) a sister company to ARM, also owned by Lynden, Inc., leases this area.
There is a generator station up on the rack, to supply electricity to refrigerated containers.
Northland Services, Inc., of Seattle leases the forward deck space. Northland Services also has played a role in developing cargo movement to Alaska.
The top rack and forward deck spaces are loaded on the Duwamish River at a large staging area. While to the casual observer, it looks like containers are just heaped aboard the barge; critical attention is given for weight distribution and adjacency of potentially hazardous shipments, plotted on a strategic deck-loading plan.
Heavy high reach forklifts load and unload the containers in Seattle and Whittier. They are impressive to watch. Palletized motor vehicles – trucks, buses, motor vehicles, and boats, often top off each load.
There is no wasted space on the barge. Loaded rail cars are within a foot of each other, maximizing cubic space.
Finally, each rail barge is fitted with Hydralift Skegs. Skegs are rudder-like fixtures welded to the stern of the barge, intended to keep the barge track obediently behind the towing vessel without wandering. This is a good background piece discussing the pros and cons of this unique stability system.
You may have seen rail bridges, either in person or in photos, that look like a complex guillotine, with towers, sheaves, cables, counter weights and winches, to raise and lower the bridge to match the barge deck.
The “adjustable” end of this rail bridge is built on flotation tanks. The operator simply adds or removes water from the tanks to raise and lower the bridge in its guide ways, to match the barge deck.
The rail bridge gains its horizontal strength when lowered onto the deck of the barge.
There are several mechanisms used to prepare the barge to receive the rail-cars. A generator room provides power for manipulation of water between six ballast tanks located in the hull.
First, a control panel operates pumps to level the barge side-to-side and front to back. (Opps! Beam to beam, bow to stern!)
I chuckled when I spotted the “hi-tek” levels used during this procedure to level this multimillion-dollar rail barge!
Second, fine-tuning of the rails of the bridge to the barge mating is accomplished with a ratchet system to adjust left and right alignment of the rails. The last thing on earth one needs is for a rail car bogie to drop between the rail bridge and the barge whilst loading!
The orange “standard gauge plate” serves as a final assurance of alignment.
Third, the barge itself is moved left and right in relation to the rail bridge to align tracks during the loading or unloading process. A set of winches anchored on the beach with cables attached to the barge, allow the bridge operator to move the barge laterally to align tracks.
Since weight distribution is critical, depending on the load, several lateral moves of the barge may made during the loading/unloading process.
Finally, because the US Coast Guard has very strict regulations regarding shipment of potentially hazardous materials, a deck plan is used to insure potentially hazardous cars are not adjacent during transport. With eight tracks and a capacity of up to 50 rail cars, this can become a challenge.
Continues in Part 2