Making your rail mileage count

Mileage collection can add a new dimension to the railfan hobby
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.
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