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Alaskans in Uproar Over Proposed Cutbacks in Last Flagstop Train

September 29, 2002|RACHEL D'ORO | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

TALKEETNA, Alaska — From the railroad track, John Strasenburgh's cabin is an hour's walk through the Alaska wilderness. Without the train, it would take him at least seven hours to hike in from the nearest road.

"The train is absolutely essential to me," the retired bank auditor said.

But Strasenburgh, 56, and his neighbors stand to lose much of a train service that stops for people who wave it down along a remote 55-mile stretch of rail.

The Alaska Railroad Corp. is considering drastic cuts to the last regular flagstop run in the nation.

Officials with the state-owned railroad say the Hurricane Turn run, although popular with local residents and outdoor enthusiasts, is a money-loser. They say the proposed reductions are necessary because of the loss of a multimillion-dollar coal-hauling contract.

"We don't want to get rid of the flagstop service entirely. We recognize it is unique," said railroad spokesman Patrick Flynn. "But we have to balance what people want and what we can afford."

The railroad board will vote Thursday on several staff recommendations affecting flagstop service between Talkeetna and Hurricane, 130 miles north of Anchorage.

Meeting in Fairbanks, the seven-member panel will consider cutting summer runs from four days a week to weekends only. They will also vote on a 9% fare increase for rides on the 50-year-old self-propelled diesel cars. Current summer rates are $65 round-trip, less for frequent riders and shorter distances.

The board is also considering eliminating the limited winter service on the Hurricane Turn. Weekend flagstop service would be available on a locomotive between Anchorage and Fairbanks all winter.

Johne Binkley, board chairman, said he is waiting to hear from the public before deciding on his vote, adding that service cutbacks are not a given.

Still, outraged locals have formed a grass-roots effort opposing the changes. They've flooded the railroad with letters urging the board to maintain the current service. They plan to testify at the Fairbanks board meeting.

"The changes would mean a drastic lifestyle change for many people," said Mark Butler, 48, a cabin owner who leads the "Friends of the Flag Stop" campaign. He said cuts in service will lead to scores of locals trespassing on the railroad right of way to get to their cabins.

Butler's cabin is among some 175 structures -- mostly recreational homes -- within 10 miles of the route, according to Matanuska-Susitna Borough assessment records. The area is predominantly spruce and birch forest, marked by lakes and streams offering closely guarded fishing spots among fishermen. The Susitna River borders the southern part of the track.

On clear days, travelers can see Mt. McKinley, North America's highest peak.

Save for a harried weekend trek, opponents say, all this is lost without regular train service for those without snowmobiles or all-terrain vehicles.

Patsy and Clyde Krompacky, who own a cabin in Chulitna, 50 miles north of Talkeetna, are among the few permanent residents on the route. The nearest road is seven miles to the west, but the train has worked fine during the decade they've lived there full-time.

Patsy Krompacky, 51, said weekend runs would allow just one day for errands in Talkeetna -- a week if she missed the ride back.

"What if you need to see a doctor? Most doctors don't work on Saturdays," Krompacky said. "We need to keep the train service the way it is."

Railroad officials say they have little choice.

"The Hurricane Turn has never, ever, paid for itself," Flynn said. "If the railroad was a purely private company, that service would have been killed eons ago."

Operating the flag stop cost $200,000 in 2001, and the railroad took in only $64,000 from ticket sales -- a $136,000 loss, officials said. Proposed cuts would halve the cost and bring in an estimated $48,000 in revenue, easing the loss to $52,000.

Absorbing the greater loss is no longer feasible for the railroad, which last year took in $107.3 million in revenue and earned $6.6 million in profit.

Revenues will be slashed by $4 million a year with the terminated deal to haul coal from the Usibelli coal mine.

Opponents wonder why it's so important to target a minor player such as the Hurricane Turn to resolve financial setbacks.

They say instead of cutting service, the railroad should do a better job of promoting it.

"The railroad has taken millions of dollars in federal funds to maintain infrastructure, haul freight and fuel for corporations, to carry huge amounts of tourists," Strasenburgh said. "So what about Alaskans? It seems patently unfair to cut us out."

Federal funds can be used only for capital costs such as building depots and straightening ties, not to subsidize operating expenses, said Wendy Lindskoog, the railroad's director of external affairs.

She noted that there are other cost-saving measures, including a hiring freeze and minimum winter maintenance on the south line affected by the coal cutoff.

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