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

Correcting my number

As it turns out, I had left out about 10 miles (16.1 kilometers) of routes covered by the Long Island Rail Road in my calculations of the total length of the New York City region’s rail network. It appears that the total route miles are 1,379.9 (2,220.7 kilometers). I’ll soon update the original blog post to reflect the more accurate number. And stay tuned for an explanation of how I came up with the aggregate number in the first place.

(Number still subject to change if I get more info, or realize I made another mistake.)

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.

Debunking myths about cross-country train travel

Apparently there are myths about cross-country train travel that need to be debunked. Fortunately, someone has:

Riding Amtrak Cross-Country: 6 Myths Debunked

If you follow this blog, you’ll know that my family and I love overnight trips in the sleeper cars. And riding the entire Amtrak system is on my bucket list.

Amtrak’s Auto Train, an overnight train with sleeper service (and, according to Amtrak, the longest regularly-scheduled passenger train in the world), passes through Folkston, Georgia.
By Gene Bowker via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0