Railroads & Locomotives Hot Spots Making your rail mileage count

Making your rail mileage count

By Angela Cotey | January 1, 2018

| Last updated on June 29, 2021

Mileage collection can add a new dimension to the railfan hobby

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An NS 21st Century Steam excursion adds to the mileage totals for riders at Williamstown, Ky., in May 2014.
Two photos, Robert S. McGonigal

Railroads are all about places – where the rails go to transport freight and passengers. In the 1920s, the “Index of Railroad Stations” at the back of each edition of The Official Guide of the Railways – the 3-inch-thick monthly directory of all North American railroads and their services – would run to more than 260 pages of agate type that listed more than 84,000 railroad stations. At that time, the U.S. rail network was just past its peak of about 254,000 miles, with many thousands of passenger trains operating every day.

Today’s rail system is much smaller, about 140,000 miles, and Amtrak’s national timetable is one-tenth the size of the old Guide. But, there are still plenty of trains to ride, and for those of us who believe that the best way to see a railroad is to travel over it, those trains hold vast potential for enjoyment and learning.

I began riding trains on my own in the mid-1970s around my hometown of Philadelphia. After a while it occurred to me that, in addition to the notes I took on each trip, a good way to record my journeys would be to highlight the lines I’d ridden in my 1973 edition of the Rand McNally “Handy Railroad Atlas of the United States.” It was satisfying to relive the trips as my red marker followed the lines in the atlas. Those few highlighted lines stood in contrast to the many that weren’t, and my main motivation for riding new lines – to see the territory – was joined by a desire to ink in other lines. Without knowing that such an activity had a name, and before others who engaged in it had coalesced into the community they enjoy today, I had begun “collecting mileage.”

True, I’m not in the same league as the 100 or so truly avid North American mileage collectors. (For an insight into the hard-core mileage collector’s mind-set, see “The Rules of the Game,” April 1991.) But the desire to explore new rail routes is widespread among those who like to ride trains.

Mileage is most readily collected, of course, by riding scheduled passenger trains whose main function is to provide transportation. Amtrak’s network spans some 21,000 miles; VIA Rail Canada’s system encompasses another 7,800 or so. (Mexico has lost essentially all of its regular rail passenger service.) About two dozen commuter operations are found in metropolitan areas across the U.S. and Canada.

Tourist railroads run on regular schedules as well (though generally not daily or year-round), offering trips ranging from a couple of miles to 60 or more.

Most of the rail network does not host regular passenger service. Mileage collectors consider such freight-only lines as “rare mileage,” and sometimes go to great lengths to ride them. Public excursions announced weeks or months in advance, such as those operated as part of Norfolk Southern’s 21st Century Steam program, are the most accessible way to rack up rare mileage, although most riders are not aboard for that reason. Smaller operators like High Iron Travel cater to more dedicated mileage collectors, often running multi-day trips at, of necessity, prices that tend to discourage casual riders.

The westbound Empire Builder detours through Milwaukee on Union Pacific rails in June 2008 on account of flooding on the regular Canadian Pacific route near Reeseville, Wis.

Occasionally, severe weather, derailments, or track maintenance result in regular passenger trains being detoured off their normal routes, sometimes on short notice. In such cases the mileage-collecting communication network springs to action.

Perhaps the rarest way to get rare mileage these days is to ride with the crew of a freight train. Official permission for such rides is hard to secure, and concerns about security and safety have largely relegated the informal “Come on up” invitation from a crew member to the past.

A mileage collector’s highlighted atlas really represents the routes he or she has collected. Some people maintain a tally of the miles they have ridden, even repeated trips over “old mileage.” In this respect, the most famous mileage collector of all was the late Rogers E. M. Whitaker, who wrote about train travel for The New Yorker under the name “E. M. Frimbo” [see “How to be an Inveterate Train Rider,” July 1966]. His claim of 2,748,636.81 lifetime, worldwide miles is regarded as unbeatable, although the precision implied by the “.81” makes one wonder if he wasn’t putting us all on a bit.

I don’t know how many total miles I’ve ridden, although I could get a pretty good approximation of my unduplicated mileage from my old Rand McNally. But I prefer reviewing my red-line trophies, and looking at all those lines waiting to be ridden.

Mileage ground rules

  • Only steel-wheel-on-steel-rail mileage counts – no bike trails
  • All railroads are allowable, including light rail and amusement parks
  • Any method of propulsion counts
  • Day or night, miles can be collected
  • The collector can categorize miles in any way that he or she sees fit
This story originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Trains Magazine.

8 thoughts on “Making your rail mileage count

  1. In my mind, I was not aware of the the gold line using a route I might have once ridden on using a different mode. I would not have counted it. However, if, for example, Metrolink or NJTransit, or Tri-Rail, or any of a number of other commuter rail trains use the same routes as Amtrak, I count it as having ridden the route, however, I don’t count it as having ridden the commuter train system unless I actually ride the commuter system. However, if I ride the commuter train for as little as one station to the next, and ride another type of train (excursion or amtrak or something) then that counts as having ridden the commuter rail route as well. This is because we’re counting routes, not just trains.

    So while I may have ridden the gold line route (Southwest Chief? in 1991), I have not ridden the gold line itself at all.

    Generally, I categorize each trip as a unique trip, each system as a separate system no matter how many times I ride it, and each route as a unique route no matter how many times I ride it or what system I use to ride it.

  2. The Second Section: The Rules and Principles of Connection. First I have to remember what I’ve been saying on trips for years about connections and remembering The Almighty Rule: You Have It the Way You Got It. OK, Connections group in three: 1) Inferior Connections, 2a) Superior Connections of the Lesser Kind, and 2b) Superior Connections of the Best Kind–the Ant Rule. I’ll dispose of the last of these easily: it means an ant (if it doesn’t get squished) can crawl continuously on rails I have ridden on including through frogs and such devices. Inferior Connections mean lines that go to the same municipality/locale without connecting: The B&M and the New Haven in Marlboro’ MA. Superior of the lesser kind is when there are tracks into facilities, yards, stations, etc. but the Ant Rule doesn’t apply; Windsor Station in Montreal where leaving for Albany in 1979 and coming in from Ste. Fay in 1981 might not be on the same track. This also includes the Line of Sight Rule, such as I achieved on the former Buffalo Southwestern (Erie) in August when we got into downtown Buffalo and saw the LS&MS Amtrak trackage at the drawbridge so that is now Superior Connected. There is also a Marble Rule, as in dropping a marble from a train on the A. H. Smith Bridge onto the Hudson River tracks below and the related Drilling Rule for a similar effect involving tunnels. The Body of Water Rule is basically a “free space” when there’s a line into one side of a river or lake and another on the other; Line of Sight applies–but it’s Inferior; else Kuehlingsborn-Ost would be connected with Buzzards Bay through the Atlantic despite the gauge difference.
    OK, since You Have It the Way You Got It (YHITWYGI), if you’re asleep in a sleeper or just riding coach you have it that way even though you’re Out Cold. On June 6-7, 1985 I slept through a lot of Ant Rule Connections around Buffalo behind steam in the wee hours with 765 and train; didn’t expect that to spot the train several tracks over in Bison Yard they’d run over most of Buffalo!. I do note ( but not on the maps) when trips are in special non-coach equipment or unusual propulsion. No Round Trip Jansen nonsense (sorry; he just passed a few years ago) else directional running would make a nightmare of gaps. OK, anything else? I now collect live operas so passed up the Everett RR for three operas in Boston (one so-so, one stunk, the last was Sublime)…

  3. OK, after decades of holding forth verbally I’ll put something in print. It will be under my real name and I am known for going after mileage “east of the Ohio and north of the Potomac”–so here goes. The basic principle is “you have it the way you got it”. Thus if you walked a right-of-way you had walked a right-of-way; if you rode in private cars behind steam you got it that way. Flanged-wheel on rail because there are non-steel wheels out there and iron rails here and there–like the Conway Scenic April 1877 in a siding–and there may be flangeways out there. The next issue is colors for the maps; I’ve gone from the 1980 Rand-McNally to getting the SPV atlases. Red is regular service including detours (Stony Brook in Mass.), blue is chartered trips, orange is hi-rail (u have it the way you got it remember), green is electric. A big question is when the railroad runs its own special trips for its own account, Livonia Avon & Lakeville (1989) 25th anniversary runs–just happened to be visiting relatives in Rochester the weekend it ran the trips so we all went; so that one is in the SPV in red but Avon-Mortimer is in blue (2012) as a charter. I’ll talk about connection rules in a second posting but mention the problems of pre-historic mileage, such as a Girl Scout charter E. Liberty to Altoona & back ca. 1960 I was in single digits BUT I remember doing the Radebaugh Tunnel which was daylighted a few years later. Now my late brother got West Penn Railways Irwin-Greensburg & back as a babe in arms. Finally my late mother in visiting her father’s father got to ride the Lake Erie Franklin & Clarion in regular passenger service (!); she had it–not me. My father still going strong at 101 saw the Cincinnati & Lake Erie movie beating the bi-plane as a regular short subject in the movie theater between features Steubenville OH in 1930.

  4. I do only count steel wheels/steel rails, but I also count walking and bike rail trails as a supplemental category, such as the Northern Central (PRR/PC) north of Baltimore. These could be designated as asterisk * routes or something similar. In the L.A. area, a former SP branch is now the MTA Orange Line bus route, so that is also a supplemental * listing.

    How about routes where I rode the former incarnation (Amtrak on ATSF rails through Pasadena), and the current version (MTA electrified Gold Line light rail through Pasadena), does one get credit for both forms of steel wheel on steel rail?

  5. Thanks for the article! A couple of clarifications for me in regard to what counts. Steel wheel on Steel rail could include some amusement park roller coasters, but not others. I don’t count any of them for my own purposes. On the other hand, I do count people movers, such as at airports, even if they don’t use steel wheel or steel rail. Reason: they are fixed guideway systems, semi or mostly permanent installations, and their purpose is specifically designed for passenger transport, whereas roller coasters are purely for entertainment, even if they deliver you to a different platform than where you got on (are there any that do that? I’m not aware of any.)

    I count routes, not tracks, for the purpose of my tracking. And only with Amtrak am I tracking total miles traveled, (all trips, even when riding a route I’ve been on before) which exceeds 100,000 and covers about 90% of Amtrak’s system. (I recognize total miles is a different category to track total miles traveled rather than what routes I’ve been on, but still an interesting statistic… sort of like an odometer on a car.)

    I’m most curious as to what people think about tracking route miles on fixed guideway systems that aern’t purely steel wheel on steel rail. For example, would a Maglev train count?

  6. Thomas Engel, you bring up a number of issues I hadn’t even thought of, but I like what you say. I suppose like your idea of You have it the way you got it, another axiom may be true: you have it the way you want it. That is: you make up your own rules for how you track mileage. Which for some, may mean you biked the trail that used to be a railroad. What you can’t do is say that you rode a train on that same line if you didn’t actually ride a train but only biked. Biking is fun, especially on former rail beds, and to that end, I’ve biked on the line next to the D&H near Ballston Spa, NY, and on portions of the West Shore on the south side of the Mohawk river. But I wouldn’t count them as train riding miles or train route miles, just biking on former rail rights of way. On the other hand, I’m not sure I understand your idea of dropping a marble on tracks below where you’re riding. To me, if it’s a different line or route, it only counts if you’ve actually ridden the route.

    As for sleeping, if you’re not aware of where you’re going other than the regular route the train takes, then only the regular route counts, as long as the train actually takes the regular route. This can be tricky for Amtrak going into San Antonio, which can take any of several routes. But I think I have been on each one of them.

    As for line of sight, if two routes are parallel and you can see the other track, it only counts if you’ve ridden both of them. I think the NS next to CSX between Buffalo and Cleveland are distinctly different routes the whole way, but where two subway routes use the same tracks such as in NYC in many places, they count as the same route.

    Sometimes it’s difficult if not impossible for mere mortals to know exactly what qualifies in some cases, but when the rule making is no longer fun, then you’re missing the point. But to be sure, I’m still enjoying this. 🙂

  7. I enjoyed reading the article. It is a hobby of mine too counting – well kilometers -, as I am from Austria and we are metric. There are two ways to count for me.The one way is to count kilometers only once. So there is an ambition to travel on tracks I have never traveled before. I did not count subways, streetcars or normally light rail – though I have to admit I counted the Ottawa O-train which is using former CP rails. I am 64 and I counted in mu lifetime up to now 127.059 km which is 78.950.78 miles. Here you see where the .81 miles of E.M Frimbos claim might come from. He just might have converted kilometers to miles. My mileage includes Europe, Asia, New Zealand and North America. Nothing I have done in Africa, South America and Australia. I am retired for almost 9 year and since 2012 I am counting now also my kilometers regardless how often I am using a railway line. Since 2012 I have traveled about 328.744 km which is 204,271.99 miles. These are seven years. So it would take me about a little bit more than 94 years to catch E.M. Frimbos record. I will miss it by far though I am pretty sure that I am still part of the upper rank of train kilometer collectors.

  8. Tom Engel mentioned the West Penn Railways in a recent comment. As a very young kid in the late ’40s I used to watch these wonderful, big “streetcars” race around the woods and slag piles near the mining “patches” of SW Pennsylvania. I did not know at the time that I was looking at an “interurban railway”, nor how legendary it would become after its demise in 1952. I looked forward to seeing these big orange cars every summer on our annual trip to that part of the Keystone State from eastern Massachusetts. In late August of 1952 I searched in vain for the cars – the tracks were still there – but did not know that the railway had ceased operations just a couple weeks before our trip. My uncle pointed out the “nice new buses” that had replaced the big cars and I doubt if I was able to hide my disappointment. The happy news is that I was able to convince my Dad to take my cousin and me on a “streetcar” ride from Connellsville to Scottdale and back one summer day, and the next year we rode from Brownsville to Uniontown and back – I suspect it was the last year of operation before abandonment in 1950. When I was much older these lines were colored in green on my big wall railroad map. after I fudged-in some penciled lines where I thought the West Penn lines were, more or less. There’s likely some rule that addresses this sort of thing among the intense mileage-collectors but all I really care about is that I got this fantastic trackage in regular service.

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