Everyone crowded into the train station like sardines. “Alllllllll aboarrrd!” The conductor shouts. It rings through my head taking me back for a second to Model Ts chugging around, horse carriages pulling up to the station in a flurry of dust and activity while men in trousers, loose shirts, and hats lift trunks off of the carriage. Black coal smoke rises into the air, as the train is about to take off. I’m surrounded by steam engines, hard sided luggage, big trunks, and so many people.
I’m jostled around out of my daydream and back to the present, as a woman with a latte pushes into me. Next, the person in front of me stops to take a picture with his smartphone as I swerve out of the way at the last minute. And soon the crowd pours out of the Anchorage station and onto the tracks. The times have changed, but I believe that the level of excitement and anticipation is the same as decades ago.
There’s something exciting about boarding a train; the bustle, the sounds, the goodbyes, and the anticipation of what is to come. I clutch my camera as I step up onto the train excited to see the Alaskan landscape from a different perspective – a slow rolling one.
My Secret Train Love
I have a secret love of trains. I actually owe trains and the railroad a great deal when it comes to the life I’m living now. My first job out of college was at Union Pacific Railroad in their Accounting Department. It was at UPRR where I learned how to be successful in corporate America, I learned about computers, which led to my career switch into IT. I learned about budgets, life in cubes, and I received my MBA thanks to UPRR.
But most importantly – I learned how to operate a train when I worked at Union Pacific. Yes, that’s right, I was a licensed train engineer. As a management employee I was required to get my train engineer and conductor license just in case the Union went on strike and they needed to put management to work to keep the railroad running.
But I left my UPRR hard hat in my storage unit along with my steel toed boots, and instead just had a camera with me for this trip. I wouldn’t be operating the train (or we’d all be in real trouble), I would be photographing the train and surrounding landscapes.
The Alaska Railroad has One of a Kind Routes
Owned by the state and not connected via rail to any other North American railway, the Alaska Railroad is unique. It operates 4 routes along 470 miles of track carrying both freight and passengers.
Hurricane Turn Train
Plus, it operates the last known flag-stop service in the US on their Hurricane Turn Line. Rather than making scheduled station stops, the Hurricane Turn Line passengers between Talkeetna and Hurricane can wave a white cloth anywhere along the route and the train will stop to pick them up. This is a crucial offering to locals living in the remote backcountry of Alaska; their lifeline in a way.
I rode the whistlestop service on a return trip to Alaska. It was an experience like no other that was full of local culture and a unique train experience like I’ve never seen before. It is by far the best Alaska train tour on the entire AKRR Route.
Aurora Winter Train Service
Another unique offering is Alaska Railroad’s winter train service. Granted, the train is primarily for the summer and the influx of tourism in the summer. However, it still runs a winter route called the Aurora Winter Train from Anchorage to Fairbanks and back.
It’s a beautiful way to see the Alaska landscape covered in snow while the train chugs through Denali National Park and over frozen rivers. Plus, it’s easier to spot wildlife in the winter against the white backdrop. Keep your eyes peeled for moose!
Alaska Railroad Service
As I walked up the stairs to the 2nd level to find my reserved seat, my car’s bartender greeted me. Yes, I had a railroad car bartender; I knew this was going to be a great day. I was traveling on Gold Star Class, and I wasn’t really sure what that meant – but apparently it meant that you had an open bar – and brunch.
Choose the Gold Star Service- It’s Worth It
If you are going to ride the Alaskan Railroad, then try to splurge on the Gold Star Class. Normally I’m not a proponent of 1st class travel, but I’m making an exception for this – because it’s a train. The Gold Star Class cars were windowed dome cars, which gave you the best possible view. I imagined it was sort of like flying in Wonder Woman’s invisible plane.
The entire time we had a ‘guide’ who provided commentary and history throughout the ride. They even gave you ample notice of the scenic spots upcoming for photos.
In addition, the Gold Star cars also had an outdoor ‘balcony’ on the back of the car where you could take photos unobstructed by glass. Even more than the unlimited booze and food, the outdoor space for photography was my favorite feature of the Gold Star Class.
Landscape Photography via the Alaska Railroad
As we pulled out of the Anchorage Railroad Station, the whistle blows and the commuting scene out my large window gives way to pink sky that makes the mud flats outside of anchorage glimmer in the low morning light. This Coastal Classic route, from Anchorage to Seward, is often called ‘the most scenic route’ as it passes through fjords, glaciers, mountains, and tunnels. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time outside on the ‘balcony’ shooting photos between drinks and brunch.
Then again, the day I road the Denali Star route, from Fairbanks to Talkeetna, Mt. Denali decided to grace us with it’s presence, which apparently is pretty rare. The views of Denali National Park and it’s mountains, rivers, and bridges are also stunning.
Train Photography Tips
There are a few things that make doing train photography challenging. First – you are always moving. Second, There are other passengers also trying to get the best spot for pictures. Third, whenever you shoot out of a window, you’ll get glare on your beautiful shot.
Here’s a few general train photography tips
- Since the landscape is moving quickly by you, make sure that you shutter speed is as fast as you can make it – 1/2000 if possible.
- Take the Gold Star Class to get the best access to photography out on the balcony areas where you don’t have to contend with shooting through glass. Plus you can get some excellent shots of the train itself too.
How to Minimize Window Glare in Train Photography
- Avoid shooting through glass if possible.
- Put your lens flat against it.
- Don’t use flash.
- Wear dark colors to avoid the glare.
- Try to blur out the glare by shooting with a wide open aperature (f4 or higher) and use manual focus.
- Wrap a dark cloth around the lens and place the lens flat against the window. The cloth will block any light from entering the small space between the lens and the glass, allowing you to focus on your subject and reduce glare.
- Or – get high tech and use a lens hood (like the one below) to block light and say goodbye to window glare!
Whether shooting through glass windows or any transparent concave surface, it removes reflections and glares, making it easy to shoot with no distractions.
Gear for Train Photography
I suggest taking a wide angel lens to capture those beautiful landscapes, and a telephoto lens of at least 300mm to capture the wildlife and the far off peaks like Denali.
Be sure to check out my best camera bags for travel as you’ll need something easy to carry around the as you move back and forth from your inside seat to the balcony carrying your multiple lenses.
I personally think a tripod is a bit bulky to be on the train. The only place you could set it up would be on the balcony, and it would take up quite a lot of space in a crowded area.
Here’s my main photography gear I take with me for trips like this:
I don't go on a trip without this harness! It allows me to be hands free when hiking and snowshoeing. I've also used it while horseback riding. It has saved my neck and back and it a secure, healthy way to carry my camera!
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A true, all-season and versatile pack, the Whistler BP 450 AW delivers amazing performance for wilderness photographers and adventurers.
Alaska Railroad Photography
Whatever gear you have, be ready to take lots of pictures as you slowly meander through this beautiful landscape!
I think train travel is the best meditation there is. But the best part is…it’s a train. You gently rock back and forth, hear the whistle blow, let your mind daydream, and get to watch some of the most beautiful scenery in the US pass by your window.
Alaska Railroad Schedule and Information
Daily service mid May to mid September for the Denali Star and Coastal Classic Routes
Winter routes from Fairbanks to Anchorage are limited:
Weekend Service September 19, 2015 – May 8, 2016
More info about Alaska Railroad tickets and costs here
I was a guest of Alaska Tourism on this trip however all opinions here are my own.