North

White Pass & Yukon Route upgrades its locomotives

The world-famous scenic railway in Skagway, Alaska is getting six new locomotives as part of an expansion project. They'll replace the White Pass & Yukon Route's aging fleet from the 1960s.

Scenic railway out of Skagway, Alaska, replaces 50-year-old locomotives

The new locomotives will replace the White Pass & Yukon Route's aging fleet of locomotives from the 1960s. ( White Pass & Yukon Route Railway)

Skagway's world-famous tourist railway is getting six new locomotives this spring.

The White Pass & Yukon Route scenic railway runs every summer on the 110-kilometre historic route between Skagway and Carcross, Yukon.  

The new locomotives will replace the railway's aging fleet of locomotives from the 1960s. They're built by National Railway Equipment Company in Mount Vernon, Ill.

Mark Taylor, superintendent of operations for White Pass & Yukon Route, says the 3,000-horsepower, 120,000-kg locomotives are about 30 per cent larger than the old ones. 

"With these newer locomotives, we should be able to assign fewer locomotives per train because of their added performance. So instead of the two or three locomotives per train, we should be able to have one or two with the average-sized train," Taylor said.

The new narrow-gauge locomotives were difficult to procure. Taylor says they're not the standard kind of locomotives normally found in the U.S.

The White Pass & Yukon Route scenic railway runs every summer on the 110-kilometre historic route between Skagway and Carcross, Yukon. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

"We were lucky enough to coordinate with some narrow-gauge locomotives being built for Australia, so we tacked on to their order," said Taylor. 

"Our last major locomotive order was back in 1969, and we're still relying on those locomotives and they're definitely beyond their life-cycle," said Taylor.

Tight curves and steep grades

The White Pass & Yukon Route railway was bought two years ago by the Carnival Corporation, one of the world's largest cruise ship companies, for $290 million. The railway is now majority-owned by Carrix/Survey Point Holdings/Rail Management Systems, and Carnival is a minority owner.

The trains start at sea level in Skagway and climb to almost 914 metres in 20 minutes. With tight curves and steep grades, the route is challenging for the aging locomotives  

"It's a four per cent grade, which is remarkably steep by North American standards," Taylor said.

The new narrow-gauge locomotives were difficult to procure. They should start arriving in Skagway next month. ( White Pass & Yukon Route Railway)

"The corridor itself, for the last several years, we have upgraded the roadbeds, the ties, the rails, the bridges — so our infrastructure is more than adequate for these heavier locomotives."

The new engines are not cheap, coming in at around at $2.5 million each.

The new locomotives should start arriving in Skagway next month.

It's uncertain how many riders the White Pass & Yukon Route may see this summer though. Skagway is bracing for a bad tourist season because of COVID-19 and cancelled cruises.

Clarifications

  • This story has been updated to clarify the current ownership of the railway.
    Mar 18, 2020 4:31 PM CT

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