New York Railroads And Railfanning In "The Empire State"

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, Pennsylvania Railroad, and many others moved freight and passengers to and from New York City today that service is carried on by CSX Transportation, Norfolk Southern Railway, Canadian National, and Canadian Pacific (along with numerous commuter operations in and around the New York City region). Outside of New York's largest city, however, one can still find numerous shortline operations all across the state, nearly two-dozen to be exact! The diverse history of the state's railroads is far too deep to cover in a single article. However, hopefully after reading through it you will at least have a better understanding of New York's past, and present, with trains and how they have come to shape the state.

A New York Central publicity photo featuring a new set of F3's leading equally new 40-foot boxcars at Rochester, New York on October 16, 1947.

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).

Delaware & Hudson 4-6-2 #605 (Class P) has the "Laurentian" (New York - Albany - Montreal) at Mechanicville, New York in July, 1948. The D&H was America's oldest transportation company, which began in 1823 as the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company.

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. 

A pair of beautiful Lehigh Valley PA-1's in striking Cornell Red with a passenger consist pass the Columbian Rope Company of Auburn, New York along the Auburn Branch on a summer's day in the 1950's.

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.

Delaware & Hudson's pair of Baldwin "Sharks" (RF16's) exit off the Rutland Branch and onto the main line at Whitehall, New York during the 1970s.

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. 

It's the early Penn Central era as a former New York Central E8A has train #80, an "Empire Service" consist, easing to a stop in Hudson, New York on September 2, 1968. Roger Puta photo.

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!

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Header Photo: Drew Jacksich

Researching Rights-Of-Way

A popular pastime for many is studying and/or exploring abandoned rights-of-way.  Today, there are tens of thousands of miles scattered throughout the country.  Many were pulled up in the 1970's and 1980's although others were removed long before that.  If you are researching active or abandoned corridors you might want to check out the United States Geological Survey's (USGS) Historical Topographic Map Explorer.  It is an excellent resource with thousands of historic maps on file throughout the country.  Just type in a town or city and click on the timeline of maps at the bottom of the page!

Studying Diesels

You will be hard pressed at finding a better online resource regarding diesel locomotives than Craig Rutherford's  The website contains everything from historic (fallen flags) to contemporary (Class I's, regionals, short lines, and even some museums/tourist lines) rosters, locomotive production information, technical data, all notable models cataloged by the five major builders (American Locomotive, Electro-Motive, General Electric, Fairbanks-Morse, and Baldwin), and much more.  A highly recommended database!

Electro-Motive Database

In 1998 a gentleman by the name of Andre Kristopans put together a web page highlighting virtually every unit every out-shopped by General Motors' Electro-Motive Division.  Alas, in 2013 the site closed by thankfully Don Strack rescued the data and transferred it over to his site (another fine resource).  If you are researching anything EMD related please visit this page first.  The information includes original numbers, serials, and order numbers.