Last month, Alaska West Express was called upon to respond to a natural disaster. An Alaska Railroad freight train was heading into Anchorage early on the morning of Jan. 17 when it ran into avalanche debris on the track. There were no injuries, but the impact derailed two locomotives, partially derailed a third and held up 7,000 tons of freight. The avalanche occurred the previous night, covering the track near Turnagain Arm with tons of snow and debris.
"The Alaska Railroad came knocking on our door at 5:30 a.m.," says Alex Clifford, Alaska West Express Anchorage Service Center Manager. "Dave Heston was in the office and ready to help. They needed to get a 117,000-pound Cat 345B excavator moved from Anchorage to the avalanche site, which was about three miles south of Girdwood." Dave called one of Alaska West Express' long-time drivers, Aaron Smith, and told him about the situation. Aaron drove in from his home in Wasilla, hooked up the lowboy by 7 a.m. and delivered the equipment approximately five hours later so the railroad could dig the engines out. Workers had to clear a spot for him to fit the truck and lowboy in the snow. The oversized excavator is modified with larger tracks for flotation and a huge snow bucket.
"We couldn't get a train down to offload the Alaska Marine Lines rail barge in Whittier until the avalanche was cleaned up," Alex explains. Lynden's rail barges arrive in Whittier once a week from Seattle loaded with freight bound for different points in Alaska. The track was repaired on Jan. 24 and rail service was restored later that week allowing for offloading of the rail barge a few days later.