Cruise company drops Fairbanks rail in new schedule

Cruise tour passengers going to Fairbanks will not be riding a Holland America Princess train to the city next summer.

The parent company of Holland America Line and Princess cruises, known as HAP, recently confirmed it is terminating its rail service from Denali National Park to Fairbanks at the start of the 2014 summer travel season.

“We’ll use the railroad between Anchorage and Denali. We’re going to motor coach folks when they’re done in Denali to get them to Fairbanks a few hours sooner,” HAP Public Relations Director Erik Elvejord said.

HAP owns a passenger car train and contracts with the Alaska Railroad Corp. to pull the train with the railroad’s locomotives.

Elvejord said the company’s old methodology of tour service focused on the modes of transportation guests took to get from place to place in Alaska and less on the destinations themselves. He said feedback from customers has shifted HAP’s practices in the state, not money-saving initiatives.

“Moves have been made around what we do in Alaska — a little more destination intensive for our guests and a little less transportation
intensive,” Elvejord said. “Our approach to our tour product really is about, how are people traveling? How do we differentiate ourself in the marketplace?”

He added that the Anchorage to Denali rail portion of the journey to Interior was kept because of the uniqueness of the Alaska Railroad experience.

Denali to Fairbanks and back is not the only route with updated transportation modes in HAP’s itinerary list. Elvejord said the company has partnered with air charters to replace the roughly two-day motor coach ride from Fairbanks to Dawson City, Yukon, on the upper reaches of the Yukon River, with flights that last a little more than an hour.

The new rail schedules will also allow the company’s train to leave Anchorage nearly two hours later, shortly before 9 a.m., without delaying its arrival to the national park, Elvejord said. The rescheduling should give travelers a little more leisure time in the city, he said.

“People in Anchorage will have time for breakfast in town” before getting on the train, Elvejord said.

HAP’s Interior Alaska tours serve roughly 50,000 customers yearly, he said, but the average number of rail passengers to Fairbanks is unavailable.

According to visitor statistics from the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, 58 percent of cruise passengers who visited Interior spent time in Fairbanks during a portion of their vacation in the summer of 2011. Not coincidentally, 58 percent of total Fairbanks visitors surveyed during that summer rode a train and bus on a leg of their journey.

Overall, 22 percent of Interior travelers took the train and 25 percent traveled by bus.

Elvejord said that motor coach capacity can be adjusted to meet passenger demand easier and HAP is excited about the new travel format.

“Our hope is that changing the product — making it more relevant — is going to attract even more guests (to Fairbanks) for us,” he said.

Alaska Railroad Corp. spokesman Tim Sullivan said the railroad views the change in its relationship with HAP as positive. It expects the new schedule to be a revenue booster, he said.

“We’ll have fewer cars to haul on our northbound Denali Star (train), but we think that Holland America and Princess will be booking some of their passengers into our Denali Star for those that don’t want to travel by bus,” Sullivan said. “We see it as a win-win all the way around for everybody.”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at