My quest to ride the New York City region’s entire passenger rail network

Those who know me personally and regular readers of this blog already know that I’m a bit of a foamer: I love trains, and riding the rails around North America is a top priority in my bucket list.

I was in eighth grade the first time I rode a subway. My kids? They rode the subway home from the hospital. My son, born in January, has yet to ride in a car.

It wasn’t always this way. The places I lived growing up—the Phoenix area; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Charlotte, which I consider my hometown—certainly had scant transit offerings at the time, and no rail transit to speak of. (Both Charlotte and Phoenix, however, have since opened modest light-rail systems, and each has ambitious transit expansion plans.) I didn’t ride a subway until I was in eighth grade, on a trip to Montréal with my middle-school French class—a far cry from my own children, whose trips home from the hospital were on the subways in their transit-heavy cities of birth, Washington, D.C., and New York City. Rail transportation, and transit in general, was never a part of my everyday life.

Until one day in high school, that is. When I was in tenth grade, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools launched a new board of students, two from each high school, that met with the superintendent on a regular basis and provided a student perspective on issues facing the schools. It was called the Student Advisory Group on Education, or SAGE for short, and it sounded like just the thing I wanted to be involved in. So I applied and was invited to be one of my school’s representatives.

Then came the group’s first meeting, and I had to figure out how to get there. My usual mode of travel—my mom—would be at work. Thinking about my problem, an unusual solution popped into my head one day: what about the bus? I knew that a bus ran from a shopping center up the street from my school, but I knew nothing about taking it. So we made a phone call to the transit system for some information, and ran by the Charlotte Transportation Center, the city’s central transit hub, to pick up a timetable. (Yes, we drove a car to pick up information on taking the bus. Ironic, I know. But you have to start somewhere.) I was ready for my first transit adventure.

It was love at first sight. I felt urbane and grown up and independent. For the first time in my life I was able to get around and explore the city in a way that didn’t involve a vehicle I didn’t have a license to drive—or a chauffeur that, as a teenager, I was becoming a little anxious to get away from. From that moment, transit was my key to independence, and I’ve been a committed rider ever since.

Now I live in New York City, home to what is by far the biggest transit and rail network in the Western Hemisphere and among the largest, most comprehensive, and most complex in the world. A whopping two-thirds of the nation’s daily trips on passenger rail take place  in this region, and an astounding 1.7 billion trips were taken on this city’s subway last year. For a transit and rail fan like me, it is an amazing place to live, and I want to take advantage of it. I want to see it all.

My goal is to ride every mile of passenger rail currently in regular service in the New York City region. Every line, every mile—1,380 miles in all.

So that has become my goal: I will ride every mile of passenger rail currently in regular service in the New York City region. That’s right: every line, every mile—1,379.9 miles (2,220.7 kilometers) in all, by my calculation (a number I reserve the right to adjust if additional information comes to light). With some ground rules in mind (see below), I’ve already come a long way toward achieving my goal—I’m almost three-quarters of the way there, if my math is correct. I don’t necessarily have much to show for my progress; aside from photos taken haphazardly, I’ve not done much to document my efforts, and I certainly haven’t held on to tickets or other memorabilia. I have the memories, and in the end, that’s what counts.

I stand with my daughter, sleeping in her stroller, and the Metro-North train that took us to the end of the Hudson Line in Poughkeepsie, New York, on 22 October 2011. My daughter had just turned 1 a few months earlier.
I stand with my daughter, sleeping in her stroller, and the Metro-North train that took us to the end of the Hudson Line in Poughkeepsie, New York, on 22 October 2011. My daughter had just turned 1 a few months earlier.

But now that I’ve gone public with this goal, I figure I might as well document my rail adventures a little more. So over the coming weeks and months, look for posts and photos detailing my travels here on my blog as well as my social-media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Oh, and one last thing: I’m bringing my daughter along for the ride. She seems to love trains just as much as I do. Her favorite is the Long Island Rail Road; she’s constantly asking me if we can ride the “Wong Wong Iswand Wail Woad” (she doubles the “Long” in the LIRR’s name for some reason). She’s been there for almost all of what I’ve accomplished of my goal so far, and she should be there for the rest. I’ll need company for the hours I’ll be spending on Greater New York’s trains, and I can’t think of anyone I’d rather spend the time with.

Ground rules
For the purposes of this goal, I will ride the entire rail networks owned and/or operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (the New York City Subway, the Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North, and the Staten Island Railway), New Jersey Transit (its 11 commuter lines as well as Hudson-Bergen, Newark, and River Line light rail), and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PATH as well as the AirTrain at JFK and Newark airports). That means route miles: all the lines on the system map, not necessarily all the actual tracks on the ground, and not necessarily both ways (though that’s how it will work in many instances). So, for example, when it comes to riding the A/C/E trains of the New York City Subway, it means traveling that entire blue line on the subway map from Inwood, Manhattan, to Far Rockaway, Queens, as well the short spur to Lefferts Boulevard/Ozone Park. Even though rush-hour A trains run to and from Rockaway Park, riding the Rockaway Park shuttle counts, and I don’t need to ride the C train separately, or set foot in the two intermediate stations, at 104th and 111th streets, on the Lefferts Boulevard spur. I don’t need to ride the E, F, M, and R trains separately under Queens Boulevard (though, by this point, I probably have), and I don’t have to ride the entire length of the line all at once.

Update | 11 April 2014
This post was updated to reflect a correction I made in the total number of route miles covered by the New York City region’s rail network.

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