February 4, 2020

GUEST ROOM | In Defense of Railfanning

Print More

For most individuals, trains are just part of the landscape. But for this special group, trains are a major attraction. These people are known as railfans. A railfan is defined as a person who has a deep interest in anything relating to railroads. You may have seen them standing around the tracks and at the station, listening for the next train. Every railfan is different: Some just photograph and videotape every train they see; others are here for special locomotives; some are highly interested in railroad history and how it’s changed over time; others are more interested in model and virtual railroading. A vast percentage of railfans carry cameras, timetables and radio scanners — the latter notifying railfans of the nearest train’s location. In turn, the railfan community consists of all ages and backgrounds.

Even though Ithaca doesn’t contain many trains in the modern era, the Finger Lakes region is rich in railroad history. The earliest railroads in Ithaca were constructed in the early nineteenth century, the first being the Ithaca and Owego Railroad. Other railroads have come and gone with names such as the Cayuga, the Susquehanna and the Cortland Railroad. Now, there is one railroad running through Ithaca, which happens to be the Ithaca Central Railroad. Up until 1976, the line once belonged to the Lehigh Valley Railroad, serving much of New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. This was also the route of the Black Diamond, eventually forming the Ithaca Central Railroad, which runs from Sayre, Pennsylvania to Ludlowville, New York.

There are many other places within 60 miles of Ithaca to view trains. To the south, the old Erie Lackawanna passes through Binghamton, Elmira and Corning. This line now belongs to Norfolk Southern, operating up to 20 trains per day. The Finger Lakes railroad operates through Geneva, Seneca Falls and Auburn, rolling over tracks once owned by the New York Central, Pennsylvania and Lehigh Valley Railroads. Alongside the Finger Lakes Railroad is the former New York Central Water Route; this is one of the busiest lines in Central New York, passing through Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica and Albany.  The Water Level Route was passed onto Conrail and now belongs to CSX; the line sees up to 60 trains a day including 8 Amtrak trains, such as the Empire Service, the Maple Leaf and the Lake Shore Limited. To the east, the New York, Susquehanna and Western operate from Syracuse and Binghamton and downward to New Jersey.

There are some tourist railroads around Ithaca, but most are over 80 miles from the city.  A few tourist rails of note include the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, the Arcade and Attica Railroad, the Catskill Mountain Railroad and the Cooperstown and Charlotte Valley Railroad. These train rides pass through magnificent scenery and can be enjoyed by all age groups.

Railroads have remained central to United States cultural and economics for almost 200 years. Many are fascinated by tales of train robberies in the Old West, have heard stories of traveling the country by rail, and there are countless songs praising the railroads; trains have remained part of the American psyche.  The connection between the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific in Promontory, Utah, the formation of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, is a pivotal moment in American history. In today’s world, high speed railways are being built at rapid pace throughout Europe and Asia. Further, high-speed rail is being constructed in the United States. By engaging the public on the importance of railroads and raising the next generation of railfans, perhaps passenger rail can be restored to its former glory and even come back to Ithaca.

There are many ways to get involved in railfanning in Ithaca and Central New York.  One railfan group within Ithaca is the Cornell Railroad Historical Society which is a chapter of the National Railroad Historical Society. The organization holds meetings every second Tuesday of the month at The History Center in Tompkins County from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. in addition to hosting special events such as auctions and field trips.


Matthew David Press is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.