Ferries for trains? I thought it might be a late April Fool’s joke when I first encountered the possibility. They do exist. For the sake of accuracy I should note that railcars are uncoupled into shorter segments. The entire train doesn’t simply roll onto a ship in one long string. I’d love to see that if it existed though. Can you imagine a skinny, half-mile long ship?
It’s also becoming less common, being replaced steadily by bridges over shorter bodies of water and by large intermodal freight transport vessels on the open seas. Nonetheless they continue to fill a need even in an era of standardized cargo containers that can be switched quickly between various forms of transportation.
I discovered the Bay Coast Railroad (BCRR) which covers a mere 96 miles between Pocomoke City, Maryland and Little Creek, in Virginia Beach, Virginia. By coverage, I mean the railroad uses 70 miles of track and then extends another 26 miles across the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay through a car float operation.
The Bay Coast Railroad started operating in 2006 but its pedigree traces back considerably farther. A north-south route on the Delmarva Peninsula and across the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay first began in 1884 as the New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Railroad (NYP&N). More recently, circa 1981, it was the Eastern Shore Railroad. It’s still the most direct route along the eastern edge of the Mid-Atlantic. As the BCRR explains:
The BCRR by-passes the congested Northeast Corridor and its restricted clearances, with the unique capability to handle high-roof 60 ft. boxcars, tri-level enclosed auto racks, and over dimension shipments. The uniqueness of this railroad is defined in its floating operations. Two barges (car floats) of 25 and 15 car capacity are used on the 26 miles water route across the Chesapeake Bay between Cape Charles and Little Creek… Float bridges consisting of four tracks each are located at both Cape Charles and Little Creek. These float bridges allow cars to be loaded directly onto our car floats.
This satellite image above displays the southern terminus at Little Creek (the other end is at Cape Charles). Notice how the train tracks extend out onto the water. A barge has been secured firmly in place. This is a good find. I’m sure the barge will disappear the next time Google updates its satellite imagery. That’s why I’ve taken a close-up screen print and I’ll save it here to confirm its existence:
Isn’t that amazing? One can see the four parallel sets of tracks on the barge, narrowing down to two as it attaches to the pier. The cars are pulled off the ferry and are then reassembled on dry land, ready to continue their journey along the east coast or farther inland. Thus, the very specific niche for this railroad ferry is its use as an alternate path around the major cities of the northeast United States. The body of water is too wide for a cost-effective railroad bridge — albeit there is an automobile bridge/tunnel here — so a train ferry makes sense in this very limited instance.
Canada – USA
I checked around the Intertubes and found additional North American railroad ferries. One of them is operated by the Canadian National Railway. They call it the AquaTrain and it operates between Prince Rupert, British Columbia and Whittier, Alaska. As CN explains it:
In service for over 40 years, AquaTrain is a unique rail-marine barge service that provides a vital link between Alaska and the rest of North America… AquaTrain uses one of the world’s largest railcar barges to carry 45 railcars on eight tracks. It is powered by a 150-foot ocean tug on its 30-plus round trips each year.
I didn’t see the AquaTrain on my 2010 visit to Whittier but I did see a train, which I captured in the video above. I realize it’s a passenger train not a freight train but you know I would have searched for the AquaTrain if I realized it existed.
Another open-water train ferry operates across the Gulf of Mexico. The Central Gulf Railroad runs between Mobile, Alabama and Coatzacoalcos, Mexico. The ferry included double decks and can carry up to 115 railcars at a time. CG provides some nice photos and videos on their Media Downloads page if you’d like to see more.
One wonders why these long-distance train ferries exist. Why haven’t they been replaced by standard shipping containers on large cargo ships? Intermodal freight containers are designed to be stacked onto ships and loaded onto trains or trucks directly. That’s true and that’s a major reason why train ferries have become less prevalent in recent years. However, standard containers are not appropriate for all types of freight. Train ferries can carry any type of railcar. That’s their niche.
It turns out that there are several more examples. Wikipedia provides a nice list of train ferries, past and present.
Whittier is a scenic enough town of perhaps two hundred people on the western side of Alaska’s Prince William Sound. There are dozens of picturesque villages dotting the coastline of the Kenai Peninsula so that’s not why I stopped here on a cold, rainy morning in July. No, it was because of its rich concentration of geo-oddities.
I do have to admit it’s a pretty hamlet in its own right, with little fishing boats bobbing in the harbor and mountains towering on practically every side. There’s even a glacier on the outskirts of town that creaked and groaned as we sat in our car with the windows rolled-down. Why would we be waiting in our car in rural Alaska? Well, that’s because the only way to drive in or out of Whittier is through a tunnel, and it’s only open in a single direction at specific times throughout the day.
The Whittier Tunnel burrows directly through Maynard Mountain for 2.5 miles (4 km). Indeed, trains and automobiles use the same narrow channel through solid rock, the only overland connection between Whittier and the outside world that doesn’t involve serious mountain climbing. I shot some great video of a train entering the same tunnel we drove ten minutes later which I’ll post at a later date.
County Counters, are you holding onto your seats? Travelers heading into Whittier through the tunnel also cross a borough boundary to enter the Valdez-Cordova Census Area, a distinct part of the Alaska’s Unorganized Borough. This is the only road-accessible portion of Valdez-Cordova on the Kenai Peninsula. It’s possible to get to other portions of the census area but it requires a huge detour.
Whittier is known to aficionados of geo-oddities for another reason too: almost everyone lives in a single building. The large condominium building known as Begich Towers seems totally out of place in this tiny seaside community. It looks as if it’s been plucked directly from a condo canyon in a major city and dropped randomly along Prince William Sound. It’s reminiscent of the building that houses 1% of Greenland as some of you noted when I posted that earlier article.
I didn’t notice until I’d already started the trip, but one of the guide books mentioned that some of the apartments have been converted into a Bed and Breakfast by enterprising residents. It’s billed as a chance to live among the locals for a "true" Alaska experience. That’s so amazingly tempting. Seriously. The family is lucky that I didn’t see that until our plans were well-formed and undeniably underway or we would have spent a night or two in the B&B of geo-weirdness.
A second totally out-of-place structure also dominates the Whittier Skyline. This one is called the Buckner Building and it contrast starkly with the Begich Towers. Begich appears all cheery with a nice paint job and all the signs of caring, ongoing maintenance. The Buckner Building is practically falling down due to neglect.
The U.S. Army built a large presence here during World War II as part of an effort to protect the Alaska coastline and supply the Alaskan interior. Remember, several of the Aleutian Islands had been captured by Japanese forces at the onset of the war and had to be expelled by force. This bloody but largely forgotten portion of the conflict was known as the Aleutian Islands Campaign. Thus, it was entirely logical for the army to be in Whittier.
The army remained after the war and built the large structures that now compete with the mountains to dominate the Whittier Skyline. The Begich Towers used to house soldiers so it was a natural choice to convert into apartments when the army left in 1960. The Buckner Building housed everything else necessary to support an army presence but there wasn’t an "everything else" once they left. Certainly the residents of Whittier couldn’t fill a building of that size with curio shops and seaside restaurants. It fell into abandonment and decay.
I’ve been enjoying the World’s Longest Tunnel page recently and I decided to see if I could locate some of the more striking examples using Streetview or other online maps. Oftentimes I could locate those spots but the interior of a tunnel isn’t particularly impressive. Instead, let’s take a look at the tunnel entrances. Those can deliver us to some rather amazing places.
The site claims that the world’s longest automobile tunnel can be found in Norway, between Aurland and Laerdal, and it’s called the Laerdalstunnelen. It stretches 24.5 kilometres (15.2 miles) on the main route between Oslo and Bergen. Other sites corroborate the claim so I guess it’s a fair assessment. Fact checking isn’t my strongest suit. Don’t take what I say necessarily at face value.
I can’t possibly imagine what it must be like to drive that distance underground and apparently the engineers who designed it couldn’t either, so they constructed three large "caves" along the route to break the monotony.
Perhaps a tunnel through the mountains isn’t daunting enough for you? How about taking it underwater? You’ll want to head towards the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line in Japan. The tunnel portion of this bridge-tunnel combo under Tokyo Bay extends 9.6 km (6 miles). It also offered me the opportunity to use the word "subaqueous" which isn’t something one encounters every day. Cool.
Google Street View stops short of the actual tunnel. It does extend onto this rather unusual platform at the tunnel entrance though. It has a bunch of shops, restaurants, and arcades which serve as a destination unto itself. I suppose it’s possible to go to the little man-made island, make an afternoon of it and go home without going through the tunnel. However if I’d just spent ¥3000 you better believe I’d go back and forth through that tunnel as many times as they’d let me pass. That’s a serious toll.
Longest Railroad Tunnel
I don’t have an image of what will be the the world’s longest railroad tunnel because it’s under construction in Switzerland. When it’s finished sometime around 2017 or 2018 it will extend an astounding 57 km (35.4 mi). It’s called the Gotthard Base Tunnel (GBT) and there’s an English version of their official website if you want all the details. German, Italian and French are also available. See you in a few years at the grand opening!
Canals were an efficient method of transportation in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries until the railroads arrived. In many ways they’re an anachronism, but lots of them them have survived into the modern age for a variety of reasons including nostalgia.
Sure, canals needed tunnels just like other forms of land-based transportation. The longest canal tunnel still in existence can be found in Riqueval, France. It would built between 1802-1810 and it extends 5.67 km (3.5 mi).
Streetview has lots of great images in the area, but not of the actual canal entrance because the banks of the canal are raised and topped by vegetation. The satellite image is pretty good, though. You can follow its path by looking along the surface — simply follow the narrow line of trees.
It’s called the "Touage souterrain de Riqueval." Those of you who speak French probably have a great translation for that phrase but the best I figure was something like the "subterranean tow canal of Riqueval." Indeed, a small barge tows other barges along the canal and through the tunnel. French Wikipedia covers this site, as does this interesting YouTube video. You’ll really like the video if you enjoy slow moving canal boats emerging from tunnels. I liked it but I’m not sure what that says about me.
I couldn’t find this shared automobile – train tunnel on the Portage Glacier Highway in Whittier, Alaska on the Worlds Longest Tunnel page. Maybe it’s there. I don’t know. Oddly this was the one tunnel that got me interested in the topic and somehow led me to the website. I’ve had a fixation on this tunnel lately.
The Alaska Department of Transportation calls this the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. They describe it as the "longest combined vehicle-railroad tunnel in North America."
It’s about 4 km (2.5 mi) so it’s not in the same class as some as the others. The interesting aspect, however, is that it’s the only land connection between Whittier and the outside world. The tunnel has room for a single lane of traffic so vehiclesmove back-and-forth on an established schedule. In addition there are occasional delays whenever a train needs to use it!