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Rhody Rails: The Little State With Big Railroading

On April 7, 2023, Providence & Worcester’s PR-3 crew is aboard a loaded unit ethanol train heading east down Track 7 past the Amtrak MofW base located in the remains of the former New Haven Railroad Northrup Avenue hump yard. At right on Main 2 is the rear end of Amtrak Acela Train 2152 trailing away toward Boston.

Rhody Rails: The Little State With Big Railroading

Railroads Illustrated 2023by David Blazejewski/photos by the author

Other than Hawaii, Rhode Island — the place I call home — has the least active rail mileage of any state in the union. This shouldn’t come as a surprise given that the state is the smallest at only a bit over 1,200 square miles — but 3 percent bigger at low tide as natives like to joke with a wink! With only 93 miles of active railroad in the state, it has less than 1 percent of the trackage of leader Texas, and given its diminutive size, “little Rhody” is not often considered a destination for railfan photographers.

For most fans it’s an afterthought if it’s given any thought at all, and yet one could build a whole railfan trip around it. It’s worth a day or two of your time. So should you find yourself visiting southern New England, whether for the hobby or the countless other natural, historical, and cultural attractions that draw people here from all over the world, don’t forget about the railroads of the Ocean State. You just might find something you like!

Rhode Island

ABOVE: On April 8, 2021, P&W Train PR-3 is headed south on the main line at MP 5.5 crossing Chace’s Lane in the tiny city of Central Falls.

Rhode Island is an old state, founded in 1636 by Roger Williams. It became one of the original 13 colonies in 1663. Born of independent thought and always the home of the free-spirited, Rhode Island was the first colony to declare independence from England on May 4, 1776, yet the last state to ratify the Constitution on May 29, 1790.

Only three short years later, Samuel Slater opened the first water-powered textile mill in the U.S. along the shore of the Blackstone River in Pawtucket when he brought technology from Great Britain and inaugurated the Industrial Revolution in America. By the 1830s, industrialization was in full force as mills sprung up throughout the state, and with them followed the need for improved transportation to move in raw materials and move out finished products.

Rhode Island

ABOVE: Amtrak Acela Train 2159 from Boston to Washington cruises south along the New Haven Line main near MP 172 in East Greenwich on March 6, 2019. This view is from the docks in the Greenwich Cove Marina.

Consequently, one of the nation’s earliest roads was built in Rhode Island when Boston & Providence Railroad spiked down the state’s first rails in 1835 between its namesake cities. Two years later, New York, Providence & Boston Railroad arrived from the south, and a decade after that, Providence & Worcester Railroad opened, connecting its namesakes on a north-south route fol-lowing the Blackstone River of Slater Mill fame. By 1920 when railroad mileage in the U.S. peaked, Rhode Island had 211 miles of trackage stretching to all corners of the diminutive state. All but three tiny short lines would eventually come under the control of New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, which ruled southern New England for the first nearly seven decades of the 20th century.

Like the rest of the U.S., contraction in the area began during the depression and accelerated in the post-World War II era with only about 30 percent of peak mileage remaining by 2023. What survives, however, is a true credit to those earliest builders’ vision for the future when they chose those pioneering routes. The only remaining through routes in the state are the original B&P/NYP&P main line, an integral part of modern-day Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and Providence & Worcester, which remains fully intact and serves as the only freight line in and out of the state.

Rhode Island

ABOVE: This is the face of the modern P&W, which has been a part of the Genesee & Wyoming family since November 2016. Three matching B39-8Es lead an empty ethanol train north beneath the Slatersville Branch overpass and through Woonsocket Yard, approaching River Street at MP 16.5 on the original P&W main line. The date is July 11, 2020.

Today, passenger trains are dominant with the Amtrak main line stretching the breadth of the state from the Massachusetts line at Pawtucket to the Connecticut border at Westerly. Frequent Acela and Amtrak regional trains cross the state with the typical weekday seeing about 38 trains. The corridor also hosts MBTA commuter trains to and from Boston with 40 additional trains operating east of Providence to Boston. All of them now serve the new Pawtucket-Central Falls station that opened in early 2023, returning service to that city for the first time in 40 years. On weekdays, 20 of those commuter trains operate 20 miles farther west to the Wickford Junction station in the town of North Kingstown, making an intermediate stop at the T.F. Greene Airport station in Warwick…

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This article was posted on: October 15, 2023