The Alaska Railroad's GoldStar Service costs more. For the extra money, passengers get assigned seating in an observation car with an open-air observation deck and a private dining room below. Also, you get complementary beverages (alcohol costs extra), cute little gift pack, priority check-in and boarding. Basically, GoldStar is equivalent to First Class service on a domestic airline.
We chose the Denali Star Train to get us from Fairbanks to Denali National Park and then on to Anchorage.
Fairbanks Train Depot is a new facility with a few surprising features. However, eat before you come to hang out. There isn't any food service. You will end up eating on the train if you are hungry.
Even though GoldStar service provides faster check-in, don't wait until the last minute to check in at the train station. It gets pretty busy just before boarding.
The Fairbanks train depot has a large model railroad on display. The layout (which is under construction) features terrain showing what the traveler might see when traveling from Fairbanks to Anchorage by train. The model railroad is courtesy of the Tanana Valley Model Railroad Club. I talked to one of the club members while admiring the train layout. Nice folks. Good job guys!
The outside observation deck at the back of the car is covered providing some protection from the elements. The sides and back are open. The railing is very sturdy so you can really lean into it for that special photograph. This is a good place to be for the Fairbanks to Denali run. The last 40 or so miles before Denali provides some spectacular (if not scary) views.
Dedicated tour guides provide color commentary about the sites along the way. Mid trip, the guides dress up in clothing and trinkets available for purchase in the train's Alaska State Railroad Store. Even though the store is on the train, they (and the dining cars) take credit cards.
One aspect of Alaska train travel that you might find peculiar is the baggage handling. All of the bags are loaded into these large plastic baskets. The plastic baskets are then loaded and unloaded from the baggage car using a forklift. I'm assuming that the baskets are labeled by the destination. While it is pretty fast, it is hard to watch. You can't possibly imagine how or where your bags will show up.
Riding the train is its own special experience. In populated areas, the tracks guide the train through backyards. In remote Alaska, the tracks run along the front yards. That is, remote cabins, if they have a front yard at all, face the tracks.
Bear, moose, deer, and other wildlife are commonly seen along the way.
On the Fairbanks to Denali segment, the views are especially amazing. The train clings to cliffs, creaking along mountain gorges. Rivers raging below.