There really ought to be a brass band on the platform, trumpeting those jaunty American marching tunes, and the mayor of Anchorage giving a speech beneath bunting. There should be an old-fashioned photographer with his head under a black cloth and his camera bulb going off in great incandescent pops. After all, it isn't every day you embark on a train journey like this. If it isn't the world's most scenic railway ride, it must come close: 183 kilometres of nose stuck to window, through a landscape made for the giants of an old Norse epic.
There's no fanfare in the early morning at Anchorage train station, however. Passengers are corralled in the departure hall until almost the last minute, then let loose on a grey platform beside a big blue train. Rail attendants are have-a-nice-day chirpy but, in that American way, are anxious about lawsuits. "When up and about on the moving train, we need you to have three points of contact at all times, two feet and a hand. If you're feeling adventurous, try two hands and a foot!" instructs my carriage attendant Eliza. "We just don't want one of those points of contact to be your face …"
The train lurches off without a toot. Houses and parking lots straggle along the tracks. Shortly we're passing gravel works. Gravel, says Eliza, is Alaska's biggest cash crop and used for road works. ("You know you're in Alaska when everyone has a cracked windshield.") This passing three minutes is the only ordinary scenery on the four-hour journey. Soon we round a bend and a string of snow peaks looms across a wide bay. Necks swivel, jaws drop.
As the city quickly peels away, the railway tracks run almost in the waters of Turnagain Arm, which thrusts into a surrounding sleeve of 1000-metre mountains. Trumpeter swans fly between sea and big reflected clouds. Doll sheep are white blobs on the cliffs, and someone shouts that they've seen a moose. A beluga whale! A bald eagle! But soon bald eagles become unremarkable. They squat on treetops like totems, bored at all the human fuss below.
After an hour we make a brief halt at Girdwood, where railway and road separate and the train truly starts to tackle the wilderness – or backcountry, as Eliza calls it in her informative commentary. We trundle into the 2.4-million-hectare Chugach National Forest. A valley opens on our left, surrounded by alps. Marshland is studded with dead pine trees petrified by seawater that rushed up the valley during Alaska's great 9.2-magnitude earthquake in 1964. The town of Portage was devastated when the land under it dropped nearly four metres.
Breakfast is served: reindeer sausages and scrambled eggs with peppers, mushroom, spinach. It's the only mediocre note on a journey increasingly fabulous as the train crawls into the white ring of the Kenai Mountains and past Spencer Glacier. It climbs a narrow gorge through a series of tunnels, past waterfalls fed by frothing grey glacial melt. At times we're so close to the rock face I could reach out the window and pluck ferns.
Shortly the commentary is bringing to our attention the avalanche cannons used to clear the valley of snow. Snow control, ice removal and frost heaves are the challenges of running a railway track through the Alaskan wilderness. In summer landslides, high water and moose on the tracks are other dangers.
Moose Pass, settled as a railway construction camp, is now a remote holiday centre. Floatplanes are moored in the lake outside houses. ("You become real popular, real fast if you own a floatplane in Alaska," Eliza observes.) The train skirts the lake, peaks reflected with the perfection of a souvenir calendar. When animals are spotted, or the views are especially good, the train slows to a crawl. We see eagles' nests, a fleeing brown bear and – improbably – a swimming moose.
Four hours later in Seward, our journey is over. Yet really, it has scarcely begun. My cruise ship sits in port, Vancouver is 3000 kilometres away, and the Alaskan landscape just gets bigger and better. It requires not a brass band but an entire orchestra – and the Hallelujah chorus too.
Air Canada flies from Sydney and Brisbane (15.5hr) to Vancouver with onward connections to Anchorage (3.5 hr). Phone 1300 655 767, see aircanada.com.
Anchorage Marriott Downtown is appealing for its convenient downtown location, swimming pool and great views over the city or bay. See marriott.com.au.
The Coastal Classic Train runs daily between mid-May and mid-September. From $US95 ($125). See alaskatrain.com.
Brian Johnston was a guest of Ponant, Visit Anchorage and Alaska Train.
See also: An epic train journey like no other
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