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Logging 'Rare Miles' by Train

Daniel Machalaba

September 6, 2012 10:32 p.m. ET

HAZENS, N.H Some people collect stamps, others collect bird sightings and a few count the state capitol buildings they visit. Mike Rose is riding a train to this remote railroad junction in the White Mountains of New Hampshire to track railroad miles.

Mr. Rose's journey takes him past steep cliffs, towering trestles and cascading brooks. Vitally important is that he is riding over this track for the first time and can therefore add it to his collection. "I got the mileage ”that's all that counts," says Mr. Rose, a 65-year-old Toledo, Ohio, tool and die maker.

The train stopped at the Crawford Notch train station.Mr. Rose is a "rare mileage" collector, one of about 300 in the country. Such collectors strive to ride as much of the U.S. rail system as they can, often chartering special trains to access routes ordinarily off-limits to passengers. Collectors mark off the routes they ride on rail maps and record interesting sights, an unusual bridge or a complicated track layout, for example.

"They are looking for the rare and difficult to see views from the rail system and add it to their wealth of experiences," says Ed Ellis, president of Iowa Pacific Holdings, which owns short-line railroads and rail-related businesses.

"I want to ride every track before I check out," says Bill Crawford, 68, a retired engineering manager for General Electric Co. in Nahant, Mass. He was one of several dozen collectors who paid $8,000 each to go on a 2,500-mile, weeklong train trip last April from St. Louis to Tulsa, Fort Worth, El Paso and Kansas City. The train covered freight routes that hadn't seen regular passenger train service in decades. "I have lusted after that track for 35 years," Mr. Crawford says.

Mr. Crawford collects unique, unduplicated mileage, one time over one mile of railroad route. To qualify, collectors have to travel on steel wheels on steel rails. Riding along the track in an automobile or on a bicycle doesn't count. Most collectors have been at it for decades. Young collectors are rare indeed. The most accomplished collectors have the time, money and freedom to respond quickly when, for example, a weather-related Amtrak detour takes passengers over a different route.

Even if they wanted to, most young people can't do that. "The problem with younger people is that most of them have to earn a living," says Bart Jennings, 54, a professor of transportation in Avon, Ill., who organizes trips for mileage collectors.

Some of the oldest collectors have logged miles that now are impossible to get. Ed Graham, 84, a mileage collector in Daly City, Calif., rode the Olympian Hiawatha in 1959 or 1960 from Minneapolis to Seattle; a good chunk of that route has been torn up.

The most fanatical compete for bragging rights. "It's about who has this line, and not that one," says J. David Ingles, 71, senior editor of Classic Trains magazine and a Wisconsin buff whose collection of U.S. rail miles totals 116,000 miles.

A RARE-MILEAGE TRAIN Some collectors go to extraordinary lengths to get miles. "They fly in at great expense, ride and then take off," says Otto Dobnick, a Waukesha, Wis., collector. Collectors call that "parachuting in."

Randy Jackson, 55, a retired manufacturing technician for Intel Corp. in Rio Rancho, N.M., covered rare mileage on both coasts in a single weekend last May. He got off one rare-mileage trip in California, caught an overnight flight to the East Coast and hopped aboard a rare-mileage train in Vermont.

Mr. Jackson almost didn't pull it off. When the California train was running hours late, he bailed out in Barstow and accepted a ride from his friend and fellow mileage collector Chris Guenzler, who was chasing the train in his car (a different hobby). Mr. Jackson made the flight.

"Stars aligned, friends came through and I got mileage that may not be repeated for a while, if ever," he says. That "made it a weekend to remember."

The U.S. railroad system has nearly 140,000 miles of routes. Passengers can ride about 26,000 miles of the system aboard Amtrak, commuter and tourist trains. The rest of the system is freight only and considered rare by mileage collectors.

Mileage collecting isn't new. Some collectors fancy themselves modern-day followers of rare-mileage pioneer Rogers E.M. Whitaker, the late New Yorker magazine editor who wrote stories in the 1960s about his rail-riding adventures under the pen name E.M. Frimbo. Miles weren't so rare when passenger trains still blanketed the country. But when the passenger network shrunk, a cottage industry of rare-mileage charter trains emerged. Many of them are day trips in coach cars. At the high end is Clark Johnson, 82, a retired 3M Co. physicist in Madison, Wis., who operates lavish excursions under the name High Iron Travel Corp. The El Paso trip that he organized consisted of vintage sleeping cars, a dining car and observation car.

Collectors face obstacles. Trains show up late and equipment breaks down. A trip over bumpy track in Virginia and Maryland a few years ago, warned one buff online, will lead to "one heck of a bunch of seasick riders." Some rare mileage is boring.

Not every railroad is eager to accommodate mileage collectors. Canadian National spokesman Mark Hallman says the railroad puts its priority on serving freight customers. "It's the freight that pays the bills," he says. Gary Sease, a spokesman for CSX Corp., which operates in the eastern third of the country, says, "we are not able to host excursions on our busy network."

Rare is a relative term; if collectors have never ridden over a track, it is rare to them. Some miles are rarer than others. Among the most prized miles are picturesque, freight-only Tehachapi Loop in California, the Craig Branch in Colorado and the Inside Gateway in northern California.

The trip that tool and die maker Mr. Rose took last July covered some rare miles. Tourist train operator Conway Scenic Railroad frequently covers most of the line from North Conway to Fabyan, N.H. The rare sections are from Fabyan north to Hazens and the Redstone Branch, southeast of North Conway. The tourist train covers those miles only once or twice a year, and the train stops along the way to allow passengers to photograph the train in scenic or historical settings.

Mr. Rose wasn't the only mileage collector aboard. A few other collectors "needed" at least part of the route. Before he retired, Bob Heavenrich, 65, of Ann Arbor, Mich., tracked automotive mileage fuel efficiency for the federal government. Now he wears a floppy green hat with a Union Pacific Historical Society button and pins from mileage trips.

For his part, Mr. Rose says he keeps working to afford the trips. Otherwise, he says, "I would have retired years ago."