New York's rail operations are immensely rich in history and diversity (for instance, its railroads predate the Baltimore & Ohio's chartering by a year and is only behind Pennsylvania in the most route miles prior to 1840), and continues to be a vital link in the chain today. Where once railroads such as the New York Central; Delaware & Hudson; Erie; Pennsylvania; New York, Ontario & Western; New York, Susquehanna & Western; and even the Rutland moved freight and passengers all across the state, today these services continue on under CSX Transportation, Norfolk Southern Railway, Canadian National, and Canadian Pacific (along with numerous other short lines and commuter operations). Outside of New York's largest city, however, one can still find numerous small operations all across the state.
The diverse history of the state's railroads is far too deep to cover in a single article. However, hopefully it will provide a better understanding of New York's past, and present, with the iron horse and how they have come to shape the state. Finally, be sure and view the mileage map below detailing how much trackage the state has lost since the 1920's.
New York railroads date back to 1826 when the Mohawk & Hudson (a future subsidiary of New York Central) was chartered to build a railroad between Albany and Schenectady to connect the waterways of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers (remember that this was during an era when river transport ruled and was the most efficient way to move people and goods). One of the reasons for the railroad's construction was to provide for another transportation option as the Erie Canal was not yet completed). Interestingly, the M&H was one of the few such companies to be named solely after waterways with no city or state as part of its name (the Delaware & Hudson was another, incorporated at around the same time).
The Mohawk & Hudson was able to complete its main line in about five years, opening service to the general public on September 24, 1831 originally using horse power to pull its trains. Following the completion of the Mohawk & Hudson, New York would be home to a entire slew of celebrated railroads by the early 20th century the most famous of which included the New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroad. However, these two were certainly not the only railroads to operate within the state. During the state's classic era of the mid-20th century a train enthusiast could enjoy a mecca of operations from east to west: car ferry operations were abundant along the Manhattan waterfront where traffic move to and from New Jersey; main lines of the Erie, Lehigh Valley, Lackawanna, and New York Central headed west towards Buffalo, and famous short lines peppered the state.
One of the most unique operations was Rutland's Chatham Division, a twisting and steep route that wound its way south from Bennington, Vermont to provide a connection with the New York Central at Chatham, New York. The Rutland was always struggling financially but managed to finally open this corridor in 1901 to provide itself a direct connection into New York City via the NYC. The railroad envisioned the route being a more direct link between New York and Montreal while also offering an outlet for its robust dairy business. Unfortunately, as the famous Commodore Vanderbilt predicted, it was too circuitous and languished for years until its abandonment in 1953.
Today, New York is still home to considerable container traffic albeit under the CSX and Norfolk Southern banners, which move the freight between New York and Chicago. Additionally, as mentioned above, Canadian Pacific and Canadian National both also operate lines into New York via control or ownership of former US systems. New York railroads also feature a dizzying array of smaller lines including regionals (Class IIs) NYS&W (mentioned above), Buffalo & Pittsburgh Railroad, Pan Am Railways and Providence & Worcester along with shortlines Albany Port Railroad, Arcade & Attica Railroad, B&H Rail Corporation, Batten Kill Railroad, Buffalo Southern Railroad, Central New York Railroad, Clarendon & Pittsford Railroad, Depew, Lancaster & Western Railroad, Falls Road Railroad, Fingers Lake Railway, Housatonic Railroad, Livonia, Avon & Lakeville Railroad, Lowville & Beaver River Railroad, Massena Terminal Railroad, Middletown & New Jersey Railroad, Wellsboro & Corning Railroad, and many more.
Today, New York is home to about 3,500 miles of track, which is a far cry from the 8,400 miles during the industry's heyday era of the 1920s. With a loss of 58% of its rail infrastructure, New York is well above the state average of between 45%-50%. This can mostly be explained by the nature of the Northeast itself, which after World War II was simply too overpopulated with railroads. In other words, as manufacturing centers moved either to different areas of the country or overseas and as highways, automobiles, and air travel became faster and more efficient the traffic in the region could no longer support the amount of rail lines serving it. For more in-depth information about New York's rail mileage over the years please refer to the chart below. As for passenger and commuter operations, well, just take your pick! While the 20th Century Limited may no longer skirt the Water Level Route and call at Grand Central Terminal, and the Broadway Limited may no longer call from Penn Station but Amtrak continues to serve the Northeast Corridor (which runs directly through NYC and the southeastern corner of New York) and operate several passenger trains in, around and through New York State.
* New York's first operating railroad was the notable Mohawk & Hudson. It opened 16 miles between Albany, along the Hudson River, to Schenectady located along the Mohawk River. It eventually became a part of the modern New York Central System.
Some of these services include the Lake Shore Limited between Boston-NYC-Chicago, Empire Service between NYC-Albany-Niagara, the Maple Leaf to Toronto, the Adirondack to Montreal, and the Ethan Allen Express to Rutland, Vermont.
Aside from Amtrak there is the NJ Transit, PATH and MTA services, the
latter two of which are the country's busiest commuter/passenger and
subway railroads. If you thought that New York included plenty of freight and
passenger trains, you should just see the excursion trains and railroad
museums! New York
is home to nearly two-dozen museums or tourist lines, the latter of
which is operated by some of the state's shortline freight carriers as
well. There are far too many to name here but some include the Catskill
Mountain Railroad, New York Museum of Transportation and the Empire
State Railway Museum.
Other interesting features of New York includes the American Locomotive Company's famous Schenectady Works, NYC's regal Grand Central Terminal and the PRR's late Penn Station (the underground station still remains but the above building was demolished in the late 1960s). All in all the state offers about any interest you may have in the hobby of railfanning from history to main line freight railroading. And, don't expect to see everything in one visit because that won't happen! A planned trip to focus on one or a few things you're interested in is probably the best route with future trips to see more at a later time. In any event, with so much to see and do, you shouldn't have any trouble having a wonderful and memorable time!