Why Are Train Museums Not Transit-Oriented?

By popular demand…


Here is Sandy’s look at how a genre of institution one would expect to be transit-oriented–train museums–in fact often fails that test. This piece is in part inspired by Cap’n Transit’s look at how many American rail factories are located in sprawly areas, in part by Trains Magazine writer Malcolm Kenton’s attempt to get to a rural museum without a car, and in part by my own musings and travels.

For the most part, the difficulty of reaching railroad museums by transit is reasonably understandable. Most American museums date to the postwar period, when a) railfanning became a serious hobby b) people had extra time on their hands and c) the rapid transition from steam to diesel locomotion and from dominance of rail travel to autocentrism set off alarms about the need for historical preservation. Often, museums–established in a mad scramble to preserve right-of-way and rolling stock, happened wherever they could. As a result, many are very rural. There are some, though, that are located in or on the fringe of major urban areas, and these could generally be trying harder to be transit-accessible. And there are others that could offer a basic connection to intercity or commuter trains, but haven’t even tried that.

The truth is, though, that if you read railfan boards (as I admittedly do sometimes), there’s also a serious suburban bias that goes with the generational territory of the folks who established these museums. Most of the founders became accustomed to transit and trains as a hobby or a profession, not an ethical or planning calling. For the most part, they think of accessibility in terms of cars. And surely NIMBYism and Euclidean zoning–as my friend and planner colleague Matt says, trains are “pretty much the definition of a nuisance”–have played their role. But enough speculation, let’s look at some museums! I’ve divided some thoughts I have into a few somewhat arbitrary categories.

Museums of My Childhood

Say what you will about Connecticut, it’s actually fairly rich in train museums!

  • Despite living across town in Westville, I virtually grew up at the Shore Line Trolley Museum in East Haven (one of the nation’s earliest and most influential museums), including having a birthday party there. Located along a short stretch of preserved interurban right-of-way, the museum is a few blocks from (very limited) bus service at the East Haven Green. It’s a doable trip if you’re willing to be patient with CTTransit’s extraordinarily crappy service.
  • The Naugatuck Railroad/Railroad Museum of New England operates out of Thomaston, 10 miles north of the end of a Metro-North branch in Waterbury. The bus that would cover the gap runs an extremely limited schedule and not at all on weekends, when museums do most of their business. There are some ownership and liability issues with making a connection, and service on the Waterbury branch is hit-or-miss, but the intervening line is operable and I’m frankly surprised no one has put forth the effort to make it work. It seems like a natural use of state economic development dollars in a downtrodden post-industrial area; it’s not too hard to imagine New Yorkers schlepping up to Waterbury to ride vintage trains.
  • The Danbury Railway Museum is located in the historic Danbury station, around the corner from the end of another Metro-North branch, and right next to downtown Danbury. Bravo!
  • The Essex Steam Train is the really infuriating one. Well-run as a partnership between a Friends group and a for-profit entity, it’s a high-profile regional tourist attraction with pretty deep pockets by train museum standards. And yet! The trains run from a station five miles north of the modern Old Saybrook station, served by Shore Line East and the occasional Amtrak train. Transit connections between them consist of “nope.” But there is still track connecting the stations–and it’s leased by the museum! Though not used in revenue service, it’s used for storing trains and moving occasional new acquisitions. There’s plenty of room around the wye at Old Saybrook for the museum to build a rudimentary station. Instead, the volunteer crews have been clearing brush to extend the museum’s operating segment north toward Middletown–a valiant effort, but perhaps making the museum transit-accessible would be a better one? How cool (and potentially lucrative) would the ability to market a cross-platform connection from a modern train to one hauled by (a Chinese-built imitation masquerading as) the last remaining New Haven Railroad steam locomotive?Old Saybrook (1)
  • I’ve never been to the Connecticut Trolley Museum at Warehouse Point, but they do have a bus collection, so here’s to hoping that when the planned Hartford Line station at Thompsonville in Enfield, a short drive away, opens, the museum will offer a shuttle service.  
  • I’ve only been to the Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum in Willimantic once. Points for being near downtown and next to the Air Line trail I guess?

Now for some others…Many of these I’ve been to, some I haven’t, and I won’t claim it’s a representative selection. But this is my blog, so my selection and division of it can be arbitrary.

The Bad

  • The Illinois Railway Museum might be the best railroad museum in the country. Too bad it’s 90 minutes outside of Chicago with zero transit access.
  • National Capital Trolley Museum: more like National Spend All Your Capital to Get Here Trolley Museum.
  • The Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. & Museum is an interesting, and potentially illustrative case. Currently located right on the waterfront in a touristy part of Portland, it’s in the process of moving almost 20 miles north to exurban Gray, where they’ll be able to expand operations–but at the expense of having to put the question “Will I be able to take the train all the way from Gray to Portland? No.” on their website.

Has Potential

  • Of personal interest, since my grandmother lives not far away, the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris is currently essentially inaccessible by transit, but they’re in the middle of construction on the kind of cross-platform transfer to real transit that I’d love to see more of, with Metrolink’s Perris Valley Line in downtown Perris. They can’t do much about the terrible schedule, but hey, this is what I think more museums should be doing!


    The pocket track for OERM operations at Metrolink’s Perris station. Source: http://www.oerm.org/capital-campaigns/

  • The Niles Canyon Railway has some tenuous bus connections to BART’s Union City station, but a 2.5 mile extension along existing ROW would make a walking connection possible. Should ACE ever deign to run weekend service, there’s also the possibility of a connection at the other end of the line in Sunol.
  • The Trolley Museum of NY in Kingston gets points for being right next to the touristy Rondout area, but it would be helpful for transit-based tourists if they ran a shuttle over to the Amtrak station at Rhinecliff! Indeed, that trip is pretty roundabout by car, so perhaps the museum could strike a deal with one of the ferry companies that runs tourist trips out of the Rondout to make ferry runs.
  • The West Chester Railroad occupies the outer leg of what was once a commuter line whose inner sectors are still served by SEPTA. As I understand it, the entire line is still intact, although not necessarily authorized for passenger use. With SEPTA re-extending the Media/Elwyn line to Wawa (sidebar–are there any other train stations named after convenience stores?) perhaps the time is ripe to extend the museum trips and make the connection. SEPTA’s 104 bus–a former trolley line that, should the agency choose to use it, could still have a dedicated reservation in the middle of the West Chester Pike–runs to the end of the line in West Chester from 69th Street Terminal hourly on Sundays, which is not too terrible, but not great.

Pretty to Very Good

  • The Baltimore Streetcar Museum offers decent bus and LRT connections and is walkable from Penn Station.The walking path from the LRT connection could benefit from attention. Perhaps on weekends the dinky little LRT shuttle that serves the 1-stop Penn Station branch could turn around and run to North Ave. (which has a third track!) for a connection to the museum.
  • The California State Railroad Museum has to be one of the best, if not the best, train museums in the country for actual transit connections. Very close to the Sacramento LRT, buses, and even the Amtrak station.
  • The New York Transit Museum. Ok, too easy.

Connections to Intercity Rail

There are some museum operations–and in this case, I’m talking about more or less exclusively operating railroads–that have the potential to make connections not to urban transit but to intercity rail, but still don’t. You’d have to be making a special trip to make it out there, but at least it would be possible.

So what are the good examples?

Generally speaking, it seems like train museums–or “heritage railways,” as they’re often known–in other countries do a better job connecting to actual transit than in this country. Some examples:

And a few suggestions from the peanut gallery:

Oh, and there’s one more example to think about:

The Mattapan Line


By Derek Yu – DJY_2075, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25519303

Just kidding.


Most railroad museums operate on a pretty shoestring budget, and I’ve suggested a few capital investments that are most likely out of the range of realistic budgets. Is it the role of government to help out here? Maybe. There are certainly worse ways to spend economic development dollars. Train museums can play an important role in transit education, and making them transit-accessible is an important part of their future (there’s a crying need to bring in new, diverse blood while the postwar generation ages out), while keeping them inaccessible via transit sends the message that the history and technology featured there is just that, history, and nothing more. For transit agencies, working with museums could be both a way to connect to heritage and potentially a way to grow ridership on weekends. Is there a future here? It’s hard to tell, but many of the disconnects I’ve identified in my illustrative examples here are low-hanging fruit. Let’s think about how to pluck them.

13 thoughts on “Why Are Train Museums Not Transit-Oriented?

  1. I guess the overarching issue here is that if there’s a railroad museum somewhere, then it’s probably on abandoned track, and then accessing the piece of track the museum is at is by definition hard.

    • Yes. Though in briefly going through this the number of cases where there are, in fact, possible connections surprised me. I think one thing that has happened is that transit, especially rail transit, has re-expanded since its nadir; for a while, you couldn’t have easily taken the train to Old Saybrook or Perris, but now you can again. So connections that would’ve been remote at the time of the museums’ founding are now possible again, but people haven’t quite grasped it.

  2. Perhaps it’s related to the (false) idea that railways are part of the past, which museums exist to preserve. With that thinking it’s natural one would be expected to drive to the museums rather than taking transit.

    How about the Canadian Railway Museum (Exporail) near Montreal? It appears to be right next to a commuter rail line. That’s the most impressive rail museum I’ve visited.

    • Yes, I think so. I’ve never been to Montreal, but someone brought up Exporail on Twitter! Have to get there some time. Toronto also has a new train museum right near Union Station.

    • Yes the Canadian railway Museum is within walking distance of a commuter line, but service is only weekdays and only during rush hour. Bus service is also available weekdays.

  3. It’d be fun to see the Strasburg Railroad make the 15-mile journey all the way to Lancaster on the weekends, when the Keystone Service is less busy; the platform space is certainly there. It would capture the Amtrak day trip market coming from the east. But it’s also bewildering that Strasburg is just about the only radial that Lancaster County’s transit system doesn’t cover!

    And speaking of cross-platform transfers, here’s a picture of the New Hope & Ivyland making it down to Warminster. They make the 2 1/2 hour round trip exclusively during October at very slow speeds; perhaps SEPTA could at least offer a combined pass that would allow passengers to continue on to Philadelphia.

  4. Richmond, Virginia was overbuilt with rail because of multiple competing companies, so there is lots of excess (but badly interconnected) track for this. The railroad museum is small, but has a bus stop and is walkable from downtown. The science museum is in one of the two grand old railway stations, and so has a bunch of trains too. Both are stub-end terminal stations, so even though the active main lines are just a few hundred metres away, the parked trains didn’t bother anyone after the stations closed to trains. It’s possible this is a factor in keeping some museums downtown.

    The Roanoke museum, which is the state’s transportation museum, is right next to the new Amtrak station, though with a train leaving for DC before the sun is up and arriving back long after it’s set makes that unhelpful for day trips.

    The Montreal museum, which I went to many times as a kid, is on a commuter line which could easily but doesn’t turn reverse-peak deadheading into revenue service, but you can get a nice 3 hours there on Friday s only, from 10-1. It’s also accessible by a very nice bike day trip along the river that’s almost entirely protected from downtown.

  5. One of the ironies of railway preservation is that railway museums are often accessible only by driving one’s own or a rental car. I’ve been a member of Orange Empire for over 50 years, and can remember when we could tell who was on the property by whose car or pickup truck was in the work area. When the predecessor of OERM was looking for a location back in the 1950s, a site in Azusa, with relatively good bus service on Route 66, was considered, but Perris won out for a number of reasons. And yes, Illinois Ry Museum is probably the poster child for inaccessible location unless you’re driving. Even Seashore Trolley Museum, which calls itself the “Museum of Mass Transportation is a long way from any bus or Amtrak stop. Western Ry. Museum is not quite as remote as some, but it’s still over 10 miles from the Fairfield-Suisun Amtrak station. One subtle advantage of difficult access by transit is that it discourages some of the more marginal railfans, the weird ones who might fit the Texas expression “Big hat, no cattle”. These are the guys who are never seen when there’s work to be done, never contribute to fund drives, but show up after the locomotive is running and complain loudly about some obscure detail.

  6. Of course many railroad museums are located where land was cheap, and if there was an existing railroad line or right of way that could be adapted, all the better… So often in remote places. Modern transit needs density to be affordable, and is unlikely to serve those museums in remote places unless that museum is located between to locations being served.

    Our museum in Boulder City Nevada has bus service…

  7. I can think of a few more examples. The B & O Railroad Museum in Baltimore was one of my favorite places to visit as a kid. There’s local bus service in the neighborhood, and the Camden Yards MARC/light rail station is about a mile away. The Brunswick Heritage Museum in MD is mostly focused on the railroad, and is about a block away from the local MARC station. The Western Maryland Railway Historical Society museum is far away from any form of transit.

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