Probably no other American passenger train has to worry about moose on the tracks in the winter and pregnant goats in the baggage car, but no one ever said the Alaska Railroad was typical.
For the homesteaders along its 356-mile route, which slices through the state's interior between Anchorage and Fairbanks, it once was the only link with civilization.
"When I came up here 32 years ago," conductor Bill Shake said, "Anchorage had 5,000. You knew everybody along the railroad. We used to do shopping for those people, take them their groceries.
"I've bought diapers, ammunition -- you name it. Things are a lot less friendly now. Eveybody's more or less strangers."
A new all-weather highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks, much of it paralleling the railroad tracks, has substantially reduced dependence on the train, and there are more camera-toting tourists now than locals, backpackers, Eskimos, Indians and miners on the train's runs between the two cities.
However, the train, which meanders through Mt. McKinley National Park and past old mining claims and such way stations as Huricane Gulch, Chulitna, Honolulu, Colorado, Broad Pass, Healy and Nenana, still carries a load of romance and nostalgia.
Running twice a week in winter and daily the rest of the year, it crosses rivers the color of wet concrete from glacial silt, passes acres of white-barked birch and huge stands of spruce, alder and aspens, travels over and through the lowest and widest pass of the Continental Divide and crosses the Tanana River on one of the longest single-span bridges built for rail traffic.
And it still has the personal touch.
There was the time several months ago, for instance, when a woman tried to load her pregnant goat on the baggage car. The animal started to give birth.
"I'm the godfather of the goats," baggageman Nelson Lettis said. But for Shake, the conductor, the less said about the goats the better. "It was a terrible mess," he said.
Hunters and fishermen sometimes take the train out in the morning and flag it down later for a ride home. It is not unusual to have the baggage car loaded with moose carcasses during hunting season.
"Just about anywhere anybody wants off, within reason, we let them off," Jim Shake, the conductor's brother and the train's brakesman, said. He said he remembered one day when the train made 23 unscheduled stops to let fishermen off when the salmon were running.
North in scenic Susitna Valley between Talkeetna -- an old gold-mining and fur-trapping village -- and Curry, the train remains the only way in and out.
"In the wintertime, we sometimes have people meet us along the way on dogsleds and sometimes we haul dogs in the baggage car for them," Bill Shake said.
The Alaska Railroad was conceived as a private venture in 1903 as a means of opening up Alaska's interior -- the coal fields of the Matanuska Valley north of Anchorage, and the gold mines and gold streams near Fairbanks.
It was a financial failure, however, and Congress had to step in and complete the line. President Warren G. Harding, in one of his last official acts before he died in a San Francisco hotel after returning from an Alaska trip, drove the final, golden spike on July 15, 1923, at Nenana.
The railroad's construction was a major engineering achievement, and keeping the line open -- in a climate where the temperaturees can plummet to 80 degrees below zero in the winter and soar to 80 or 90 above in summer -- remains monumental.
But the biggest wintertime problems are the moose, some weighing up to 1,200 pounds.
"They get on the tracks, where the snow isn't so deep and they can walk, and they won't get off," engineer Ken Smith said. "We do kill a lot of them out here in the wintertime. Sometimes they'll run on the tracks two or three miles north and then turn and charge the engine when they get tired. They bounce right off the snowplow in front of the engine."
The Alaska Railroad remains the only federally owned and operated railroad in the country. It has, over the years, managed to live off its earnings without any operating subsidies, depending primarily on freight hauling to keep its passenger service running.
"Sometimes it's been kind of tough," General Manager William Dorcy said.
And there has been pressure in recent years to abandon the passenger trains.
"But it serves two useful purposes," Dorcy said. "It's important to the tourist trade. And it still is the only means of transportation in that area unreachable by the highway."