New Alaska Railroad reality show: The art of myth?

We’ve all experienced the phenomena of life imitating art. Your coworker who’s reading Hemingway ends his memo with the line, “Isn’t it pretty to think so.” The Sarah Palin you know begins to act like the Sarah Palin depicted in the media.

Alaskans probably experience this more than most, with a twist because increasingly, Alaskans themselves are both the life and the art. That fisherman, the trooper, the pilot, are heroes on that reality t.v. show, and probably much to their families’ chagrin, they begin to act the part.

Now there’s yet another reality t.v. show to join the dozens of others shot in Alaska. This one focuses on the Alaska Railroad and it will begin to air on the Discovery Channel on Nov. 16. Here’s how the show is described by one of the producers:

The railroad is critical to Alaska’s infrastructure, carrying vital resources around the state. The workers who risk their lives to make sure the trains can run, and the off grid passengers who depend on its existence are the stories we want to tell, and Destination America offers the perfect platform to do so.

Not to take anything away from the railroad workers, but off grid passengers depend on its existence? You mean, the off grid passengers who are dropped off and picked up on the rail belt, within site of a major road?

And here most of us thought that mostly what the railroad did was haul coal from Healy to Seward to send to Korea, and cart tourists around.

How many Alaskans actually ride the train? The railroad isn’t sure, but it does know that about 60 percent of the 400,000 people who ride the train come from cruise ships.

In the winter, which according to the railroad is the end of September until May, the railroad only carries passengers on the weekends from Anchorage to Fairbanks and back with stops along the way. One train, which runs from October to May, runs once a month between Anchorage and Hurricane.

Recently, the railroad requested $40 million from Gov. Sean Parnell, who will release his budget in December. The money is for federally mandated safety upgrades. Last year, at the request of Parnell, the railroad received a $19.1 appropriation.

The $40 million is for both fiscal year 2015 and 2016.

“At stake is the continuation of Alaska Railroad passenger service,” railroad spokesman Tim Sullivan recently told me.

The railroad’s assets total about $989 million and include about 500 miles of railroad line and about 36,000 acres of land, about half of which are available for lease, and which accounted for roughly $10 million of the railroad’s revenue in 2012.

The Legislature has no say over the railroad’s budget.

It’s unclear how much or if any tax credits — part of the film tax credits program — have gone into the production of the show. Getting information about who got the credits and how much was spent on an individual film was always difficult. In July, 2013, the program was moved from the Alaska Department of Commerce to the Department of Revenue. And now, what was once a semi-transparent program is by statute, opaque.

What is clear, however, is that the railroad cooperated with the production, which is all well and fine. So did the Alaska State Troopers when that show was being shot.

I suspect that the troopers’ show has made troopers better at their jobs. Perhaps the show featuring a romanticized version of how very much the railroad means to the Alaska passenger that it serves, will goad the railroad on to imitate art.

Contact Amanda Coyne at


5 thoughts on “New Alaska Railroad reality show: The art of myth?

  1. Helen Plank

    Do you sell seasons of the show The Alaska Railroad. If so, how can I purchase one or more seasons? My husband loves those shows (perhaps because we have ridden two of them) and I would love to get them for him for Christmas. Thank you so much. Helen Plank

  2. rc

    As a resident and employee of the Arrc you are a little uninformed. I was filming the second season and realized the lack of reality in TV but what is happening is true and not fabricated. Many things didn’t make the show do to the danger/sensitivity of situations. Only safe things make it on the show. But take away the tack and it would take 2 and a half miles of semi truck or 10,000 trucks to ship the amount of food and parcell from Seward and Whittier to Fairbanks. Good article except good information was needed to really fully show the impact and scope of that little train.

  3. Brian

    So how do the off grid stars on the Discovery Channel Show Alaska Railroad earn there money the way some of them live they only go out when they need to get supplies

  4. ken vartan

    Agreed, these shows take a lot of liberty-supposed to be entertainment, not education-but there are quite a few people between Talkeetna and Hurricane that use the Hurricane turn. You are not in sight of the highway from Curry or Gold Creek. That’s Show Biz.

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