Train math

How do I know that I’ve already ridden 986.9 miles (1,588.3 kilometers), or 72%, of Greater New York’s rails? As it turns out, a better question is, how do I know that there are 1,379.9 miles (2,220.7 kilometers) of passenger rail routes in the New York City region in the first place? Because, as I searched for the number, I discovered that no one seemed to know.

So I added it up. Myself.

(And I have an awesome spreadsheet on Google Drive to prove it.)

It was not an easy task. The agencies that operate the rail systems are inconsistent, at best, on what data they provide themselves. From what I can find, both New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority don’t state anywhere on their websites how long their rail systems are.

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The MTA’s map of the Long Island Rail Road will help explain what I’m talking about in this paragraph.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is considerably better at providing this data online. For example, Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North station pages on list how far each station is from Penn Station or Grand Central. With that information, determining the length of each LIRR branch and Metro-North line is a simple exercise in subtracting the distance or milepost of the near station, where each branch breaks off from another on the map, from that of the far station. For instance, I figured that the LIRR’s Port Jefferson Branch is 42.7 miles (68.7 kilometers) long by taking the distance the MTA says the Port Jefferson station is from Manhattan, 59.4 miles, and subtracting the milepost of the Floral Park station, 16.7 miles, where the Hempstead and Port Jefferson branches split. In turn, the Oyster Bay and Ronkonkoma branches split from the Port Jefferson Branch. (I’m very grateful for Google Sheets for helping me keep all this information straight.)

So using the MTA’s website to figure out how many route miles are covered by the LIRR and Metro-North was relatively easy. The length of the New York City Subway and the Staten Island Railway? Not so much.

The New York City Subway has 232 miles of routes, 656 miles of revenue trackage, and 842 total miles of tracks—enough to stretch from here to Chicago. But which number did I need for tracking my own goal?

The problem here is that there are multiple ways to calculate how long the tracks are, and it’s not always clear what method is being used or if that method is consistent with the how the region’s other rail systems are measured in a way that gives me an accurate number. Here’s what I mean. Statistical data available on the MTA’s website states that New York City Transit, with subway lines in four of New York City’s five boroughs, operates 659 miles (1,060.6 kilometers) of tracks. But is that route miles—the lines shown on the subway map—or total trackage? Much of the subway runs over four parallel tracks; in some spots as many as six or even eight. Is that counting the four tracks—two local and two express—that run approximately two miles under Queens Boulevard from the Grand Av-Newtown station to Forest Hills-71 Av as two miles, or as eight miles—two miles for each of the four tracks?

According to the final arbiter of all truth in today’s world, Wikipedia, 659 represents the latter. According to the online encyclopedia’s article on the New York City Subway, the system contains 656 miles (1,056 kilometers) of tracks in revenue service—tracks over which trains carrying fare-paying passengers run—and 842 miles (1,355 kilometers) of tracks if you include tracks in places such as railyards. The lines on the map represent 232 miles (373.4 kilometers) of routes. And that’s the number I’m looking for.

The same goes for the Staten Island Railway. That same statistical page at states that it has 29 track miles (46.7 kilometers), but Wikipedia clarifies that the railway’s route from St. George to Tottenville covers 14 miles (22.5 kilometers).

For New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority, I relied upon data reported in the articles for each system on Wikipedia. That means, of course, that the data are subject to change if different, more reliable numbers come to light (or if, regrettably, I made an error in my math).

And even Wikipedia didn’t have all the numbers I was looking for. So a few questions remain, including:

  • What is the distance between Atlantic Terminal and Jamaica on the Long Island Rail Road? No mileage is listed on Atlantic Terminal’s station page. The Wikipedia article on the LIRR’s Atlantic Branch places Atlantic Terminal at 2.0 miles and Jamaica at 11.3—a different mileage than that indicated elsewhere for Jamaica, so I’m not sure what’s correct.
  • What is the length of the Raritan Valley Line? I can’t find a number anywhere, so I made an educated guess based on the fact that its western terminus, High Bridge, is in fare zone 21.
  • What is the length of the Atlantic City Line? I found two articles from The Press of Atlantic City that mentioned a length, but one said it was 64 miles (103 kilometers) and the other said it was 66 miles (106.2 kilometers). After making an arbitrary decision, I’m going with 66 unless someone tells me otherwise.
  • What is the distance between Secaucus Junction and Hoboken—3.5 or 5.0 miles (5.6 or 8.0 kilometers)? I saw both (I’m currently using 5.0 miles).

If anyone can help clarify any of these, I’d really appreciate it.

See the complete data and details on my Google Drive spreadsheet—and please send me additional information or corrections.

Newark Penn Station.
By Oleg Dulin via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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