OTOL RailFests: Our History

Created 10/19/06; Updated 4/1/22

The nucleus of our group began in the mid-1990's with the Prodigy Trains Group, a bunch of people who were members of the Prodigy online service. There were informal meets during this period under the name Prodigy Rail Fest.

When Prodigy Classic went away and Prodigy Internet replaced it in 1999, we became public since we were now an internet-based service. While our meets in various places were always open to everyone whether they were members of Prodigy or not, now we had much exposure to the "outside" world, and thus our nucleus group started to be comprised of many who were never a part of Prodigy. We began to drop the name "Prodigy" from the name of our Fests, and instead named them solely for the city in which they were taking place.

Although we'd held quite a few Prodigy Fests in New York City, Baltimore, and Washington, DC, and had a few informal meets without their announcement as "Fests" in places like North Jersey and Philadelphia, the contemporary series of meets really began with the "MetroFest" in Washington, DC on January 13, 2001, hosted by Don Weinstein. On that day, 20 people from around the country met on an unseasonably warm winter day to ride the Metro, specifically the Green Line segment to Branch Avenue on its opening day. We also had a very successful timetable exchange in Washington Union Station.

Two months later, on March 17, 2001 we had our first AppleFest in New York City. Brooklyn was featured this time around, as we rode all or part of the West End, Culver, Sea Beach, and Brighton Lines. We visited Coney Island and lunched at the original Nathan's Famous. We took a ride on the Long Island Railroad's Atlantic Branch between Brooklyn and Jamaica, Queens, and then returned to Manhattan via the then-newly-opened 63rd Street subway tunnel under the East River. Unfortunately, this was before the days of creating homepages for the Fests, so nothing is available online.

In July of 2001, we met for the third time that year at our group's first PhillyFest. Our summer meet drew 17 people as we rode the subways, streetcars, and commuter rail lines around the Philadelphia area, as well as NJ TRANSIT's Atlantic City Line to Lindenwold, returning on the PATCO High Speed Line.

Over an August weekend in 2001, a small group met in Cleveland, to ride that city's rapid transit lines. Our Cleveland Fest was hosted by Mike Hammond. Besides the RTA, on Saturday we also took a Cuyahoga Valley RR tourist train excursion, and visited nearby (and now defunct) Trolleyville USA to sample some vintage streetcars. On Sunday we were given a tour of RTA's train maintenance facility. Mike's wife Lynn shuttled us around by car to the places not served by rail.

We returned to the Big Apple for AppleFest 2002 on January 19, 2002. Ten people braved the elements as that winter's only major snowstorm happened to hit on our Fest day. This time we featured the subway lines of the Bronx and upper Manhattan, and also took a short ride on Metro North Railroad from Grand Central Terminal to Wakefield.

Our big summer event that year was Boston "T" Party 2002. Our total count was 14 people, including three new friends we made in the Boston area who now join us for subsequent meets in other cities. This was our first event that ventured beyond two days to three, so that we could ride as much as possible. In Boston we rode just about all of the transit system, and several commuter lines. We also took a brief ride on Amtrak's Downeaster train to Haverhill.

We met a third time in 2002, and had the often-postponed Jersey Fest. On this trip, our group rode NJ TRANSIT's Hudson-Bergen light rail system, including the newly-opened section between Newport Centre and Hoboken. We also rode the Newark City Subway, which had recently been extended to Bloomfield. In addition, we took NJ TRANSIT's commuter rail line along the Northeast Corridor, including the Princeton "Dinky" shuttle train. Half a dozen people were involved in this event. Our only disappointment was that the AirTrain monorail at Newark Liberty International Airport had an unscheduled outage that day.

AppleFest 2003 was next, on a January weekend. Ten of us came back to New York once more. This time our Saturday activities included a round trip on the Long Island Railroad's Port Washington Branch, some subway riding, and the Staten Island Railway. Since we did not stick to one portion of the city, this limited our possible activities. On Sunday, five of us took a round trip on NJ TRANSIT between Hoboken, NJ and Port Jervis, NY. We capped off the weekend with another ride on the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail.

Meanwhile, in mid-2003 the owners of Prodigy Internet pulled the plug on our online home, which forced us to put into effect the contingency plans we had in the works. Thus was born On Track OnLine (OTOL), the website, and the Forums. Subsequent RailFests thus took place under the OTOL name.

Our big event in the summer of 2003, and the first under OTOL, was the OTOL Windy City RailFest 2003. At this event a number of us took a round trip together on the LAKE SHORE LIMITED between the east coast and Chicago. We had a "Pre-Fest" day in which we rode the South Shore Line commuter railroad between Chicago and South Bend, IN. The second day of the Fest was devoted to the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), as we wore out the rails and our rail passes traveling all over the city. On the same day we took a short one-way METRA trip to Evanston, and a much longer round trip to Joliet. On Saturday and Sunday, we made excellent use of our $5 Weekend Passes, riding twelve movements in various parts of METRA's system.

The fall of 2003 brought us back to the New York area for our next meet. The OTOL Metro New York RailFest 2003 was a two-day event that focused on Connecticut on Saturday. We rode the New Canaan and Danbury branches of Metro North, as well as the New Haven Line mainline in between them and to/from Grand Central Terminal. On Sunday we took a morning run in New Jersey to inspect the new Secaucus Junction station, and then a 7-hour round-trip excursion on the Long Island Railroad to Montauk.

Our winter Fest in 2004 took place in Philadelphia, as we had twenty people participating or helping with the planning at various times. The OTOL Philadelphia Area RailFest 2004 event was a huge success as we rode SEPTA regional rail, heavy rail, and trolley lines throughout the area.

OTOL Toronto RailFest 2004 was our summer meet that year. Thirteen railfans from all over the United States crossed the border for our first-ever Fest outside the country. We had a blast on Toronto's subways and streetcars. Some of us also rode Buffalo's light rail line as a Pre-Fest activity. Some highlights of our time in Toronto were the impromptu after dinner Fests we took each night after the main Fest.

We started 2005 with OTOL Big Apple RailFest 2005, a two-day, twelve-person fest in New York City and New Jersey that saw us ride several subway lines, AirTrain JFK, Long Island Railroad's Far Rockaway branch, a small portion of Metro North Railroad's Hudson Line, the newest segment of NJ TRANSIT's Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, and NJ TRANSIT's North Jersey Coast and Raritan Valley Lines. Three of us also had a pre-Fest aboard the Newark City Subway.

Then in March of 2005 we followed up with OTOL Philadelphia Area RailFest 2005. This event also spanned two days. Sixteen people were involved in this one. We did SEPTA Regional Rail lines to Thorndale, Trenton, and Fox Chase, as well as portions of two others. We rode all or part of five SEPTA light rail lines, a portion of PATCO's Speedline, and NJ TRANSIT's RiverLINE in its entirety.

OTOL Eagle RailFest 2005 was our big summer meet that year. Fifteen people rode the rails in Chicago, St. Louis, and Dallas, and many of us took Amtrak trains to, from, and between them.

OTOL Washington RailFest 2005 followed five weeks later. We rode the entire Metro system, and also one VRE line and part of one MARC line.

Our first fest of 2006 was OTOL Big Apple RailFest 2006. We had 21 people involved in this one. Saturday we rode mostly elevated subway lines around Brooklyn and Queens. Then on Sunday we took a round trip on the Long Island Railroad to Greenport.

Next was the OTOL New Jersey RailFest 2006 during which we rode heavy rail, light rail, and commuter rail between Philadelphia and New York, spending most of the day in New Jersey. Fifteen people were involved in this one.

In the summer of 2006, we had our second fest north of the border. Seven people participated in OTOL Montreal RailFest 2006. We did all of Montreal's Metro system, as well as three commuter rail lines north and west of the city. We also rode Amtrak's ADIRONDACK round trip, and rode VIA Rail Canada to briefly visit Toronto and Ottawa. In Toronto, we completed our heavy rail and streetcar rides that we did not get to in 2004. In Ottawa, we rode that city's diesel light rail line, known as the O-Train.

Our next fest was held in August of 2006, entitled OTOL Mid Atlantic RailFest 2006. This was our first all-weekday fest, during which we spent two days in the Baltimore area riding two MARC lines as well as MTA's Metro and Light Rail. One day was spent in the Philadelphia area; highlight of this trip was the Girard Avenue Streetcar in Philly. We also did round trips to Newark, DE and Cynwyd. Although it was all weekdays, we still had a respectable thirteen people.

Then in November of 2006, we had a one-day meet during which we rode Keystone Service from various points along the Northeast Corridor to and from Harrisburg. The OTOL Keystone Excursion 2006 drew eleven people.

2007 started out with yet another event in the New York City area. OTOL Big Apple RailFest 2007 drew 16 people. This group got to ride the LIRR's Lower Montauk Branch, many segments of the subway system we had not yet ridden, and on Sunday we took a round trip up the Harlem Line to Wassaic.

OTOL Northern California RailFest 2007 happened in July 2007. It included a round trip on Amtrak's California Zephyr, two other short Amtrak rides within California, and the transit systems and commuter rail lines in the San Francisco, San Jose, and Sacramento areas. At one time or another, a total of 18 people were involved.

Twelve people participated in OTOL Boston "T" Party RailFest 2007 in November of that year. The two-day event featured commuter rail lines on the south side, including all Old Colony Lines, the Providence Line and the Stoughton Branch. We also rode the Green Line trolley to Boston College.

Sixteen people braved the January cold and wind to participate in our first event of 2008, the OTOL Big Apple RailFest 2008. Our subway journeys on Friday evening and Saturday filled in segments of the system that our group had not yet ridden. On Sunday we turned our attention to New Jersey, riding the newest segment of Newark Light Rail, as well as the Gladstone Branch and the Pascack Valley Line.

For the OTOL Florida RailFest 2008, held in July of that year, the group visited two Florida cities. We rode the TECO Line Streetcar in Tampa as well as Miami Dade Transit's MetroRail and MetroMover, and also the TriRail commuter line between Mangonia Park and Miami Airport. Fourteen people were involved.

OTOL Garden State RailFest 2008 took place on a Friday and Saturday in August. On this trip we rode NJ TRANSIT's Montclair-Boonton, Morristown, and Atlantic City Lines in their entirety, and also one SEPTA line out to Elwyn. We also did Newark LRT in the opposite direction from our winter trip. A total of thirteen people participated in the event.

Sixteen people braved misty but mild weather two days in November 2008 as we held our OTOL Boston "T" Party RailFest 2008 event. We rode the Fitchburg, Framingham-Worcester, Newburyport, and Rockport commuter lines in their entirety, and also completed a segment of the Haverhill Line we didn't ride back in 2002. Both evenings featured impromptu trolley rides on lines we have already ridden before.

The big story was the cold weather as a total of twenty people attended all or part of the three-day OTOL Metro New York RailFest 2009. This differed from the previous winter AppleFests and Big Apple RailFests in that we did primarily commuter rail and did not feature rapid transit. Friday was the entire NJ TRANSIT Raritan Valley Line out to High Bridge. Saturday we did AirTrain Newark and Metro North's entire Hudson Line. Sunday we completed the whole Metro North New Haven Line, and also rode Shore Line East in Connecticut.

A record 28 people were a part of the OTOL Southern California RailFest 2009. The trip featured the commuter rail and rail transit lines around the Los Angeles and San Diego areas. We also rode the Waterfront Red Car line in San Pedro. Amtrak got our business too as we took the Crescent, Sunset Limited, Pacific Surfliner, Southwest Chief, and Lake Shore Limited.

The next event was OTOL Metro New York RailFest 2010. Fifteen people rode the rails as we did Metro North's Waterbury Branch, Long Island Railroad's Port Jefferson and Hempstead Branches, and a little subway and Amtrak riding too. This one was only two days, but still quite memorable. The weather was much nicer than it had been the previous winter over our weekend together.

That summer, OTOL Pacific Northwest RailFest 2010 was held. While some spent 2 weeks or more in their travels, the main focus was the 6 days a total of 17 people spent in Portland, Seattle/Tacoma, and Vancouver (though at no time were all 17 together). In each city we rode some light rail and/or streetcars. Throw in the WES DMU's in suburban Portland, the Seattle Center Monorail, and Sounder, and you can see that we encountered many different and interesting modes of rail travel. Between those cities we also enjoyed Amtrak's Cascades service.

August of 2010 saw eleven people come together in the New York City area once more for the OTOL Long Island RailFest 2010. Besides a couple of subway rides, our main focus over the two-day event was the MTA Long Island Railroad. As a group we completed all lines we had not ridden since we began our Fests in 2001.

OTOL New York Area All Request RailFest 2011 was the answer to the dilemma of what to do when you've already done everything. We instead collectively presented ideas and then put them together for a weekend full of train rides. Both days featured trips to New England -- one on Amtrak and the other on Metro North. A total of 14 people were involved in this 2-day event.

Next was 2011's only summer event, the OTOL Southeast RailFest 2011. Seventeen people were involved riding the rails around Atlanta, New Orleans, Memphis, and even Chicago. We also featured riding Amtrak's Crescent and City of New Orleans in their entirety.

Over the weekend of January 28 & 29, 2012 we had the OTOL Philadelphia Area All Request RailFest 2012. Based on the above experiment we did in the New York area a year before, the concept was expanded to Philly. Over the two days, a total of 10 people rode several SEPTA trolley, regional rail, and subway lines. The weekend ended with a short round trip on Amtrak's Keystone Service to Paoli.

OTOL Chief RailFest 2012 took place between July 17-23, 2012 and it included visits to Albuquerque to ride RailRunner, and then Chicago where we filled in some missing CTA and Metra gaps and also rode the Kenosha Streetcar. A total of 18 people attended.

The first event of 2013 was OTOL New England RailFest 2013. We had a total of 19 people over the period of January 18-20, during which we explored the new MBTA commuter rail service to Wickford Junction in Rhode Island, and rode Amtrak's Northeast Regional and Downeaster trains as well as a rehash of some MBTA trolley and heavy rail lines and the Kingston/Plymouth and Lowell commuter rail lines.

Twelve people took part in OTOL Atlantic Coast RailFest 2013, between July 14th and 19th, 2013. On this Fest we rode Amtrak's Piedmont, Carolinian, Silver Service and both the old and new routes to the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. We also did the Fredericksburg Line of Virginia Railway Express (VRE), Jacksonville Skyway, and the light rail lines in Charlotte, NC and Norfolk, VA. Again we all survived extreme heat most of our days in travel.

The following winter brought us the OTOL East Coast RailFest 2014 event, held on the weekend of January 18th & 19th. We filled in some missing segments that opened in the past few years in New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Connecticut, and also used the recently opened Pennsauken Transit Center in Southwestern New Jersey.

Summer, 2014 saw 13 people involved in OTOL Rockies RailFest 2014, which took place July 12-19. The host cities were Salt Lake City (where we rode FrontRunner commuter rail, TRAX light rail, and the S-Line Streetcar) and Denver (which brought us a vast light rail system and a heritage trolley). We also rode four Amtrak segments that brought us as far west as Reno.

21 people came out on January 17-18 of 2015 to participate in OTOL Washington Area RailFest 2015. At this event we rode MARC's weekend service, some light rail and heavy rail in Baltimore, and many got their first ride on Washington Metro's Silver Line - Phase 1 to Wiehle/Reston East.

Between July 15th and 21st in 2015, a total of 15 people came out at various times during that period to ride the rails as part of OTOL Midwest RailFest 2015. We stopped in Pittsburgh, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and made a return to Chicago to get some rail mileage new to this group. We covered the entire light rail systems in both Pittsburgh and the Twin Cities, and Northstar commuter rail in Minneapolis. In Chicago, we rode one Metra line our group has not ridden in the modern era, did a Metra round trip to Blue Island over two different lines, and covered the Airport Transportation System at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.

A total of 23 brave people came to the New York City area for the OTOL New York Area RailFest 2016. This Fest featured a Friday night run on NJ TRANSIT's Raritan Valley Line to Plainfield exploiting the relatively new through service to New York's Penn Station, the same agency's Northeast Corridor Line and its Princeton Branch, Metro North's Harlem Line, Long Island Railroad's Port Washington Branch, and New York City Transit's 7 line as well as two different routings to and from Coney Island (where we ate at Nathan's).

The OTOL Pacific Coast RailFest 2016 took place July 11-20, and included three long distance Amtrak trips on the Empire Builder, Coast Starlight, and Southwest Chief, as well as rides on the Pacific Surfliners and Cascades. We rode both light rail and streetcars in Seattle and Portland, and two light rail lines in the Los Angeles area, all additions to the systems that didn't yet exist when we visited those cities the last time. A total of 17 people were involved, although never all at the same time.

The Winter 2017 event was OTOL Virginia RailFest 2017. This Fest took place over the weekend of January 14-15, and included Amtrak round trips between Washington, DC and points in Virginia, as well as finally riding the DC Streetcar. A total of 17 people were involved over the course of the weekend.

Fourteen people total were involved in our event for the Summer of 2017, the OTOL Missouri-Texas RailFest 2017. During the 8-day period of July 15-22 the group rode the Southwest Chief, Missouri River Runner, and Texas Eagle. We did the RideKC Streetcar in Kansas City, Metrolink in St. Louis, completed the DART light rail system in Dallas, and also in Dallas rode the M-Line heritage streetcar and the modern Dallas Streetcar. We rode the Las Colinas Area Personal Rapid Transit in suburban Irving, and the DCTA A-Train between Carrollton and Denton. In Chicago we rode one Metra commuter route out to Harvard and back.

OTOL New York Area RailFest 2018 took place over the weekend of January 13-14, 2018. In bitter cold temperatures 17 people braved the conditions to ride trains, including the Second Avenue Subway in Manhattan and four numbered lines in the Bronx. We also rode Metro North and two Amtrak trains.

We had ten people involved at one time or another at OTOL Louisiana-Texas RailFest 2018, which spanned a ten-day period between July 11th and 20th. Our group dealt with temperatures in the 90's and 100's at times to ride streetcars in New Orleans, light rail in Houston, and commuter rail in Austin. We rode Amtrak's Crescent, Sunset Limited, and Texas Eagle together, and also visited San Antonio, which has no rail transit. This event was marred by tragedy as Alan Burden lost his life during the first Amtrak trip.

Having done Fests every January since 2001, we were very lucky in all those years not to have had any weather related interruptions. Bad storms and/or extreme cold seemed to happen either right before or after our Fest weekend, which for just about all those occasions happened over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend. That luck changed in 2019. OTOL New York-Massachusetts RailFest 2019 was originally planned for that same weekend; however snow and extreme cold were correctly predicted for both Rochester and Springfield. The core participants instead agreed to meet 2 months later on the weekend of March 23-25, 2019. This Fest was another all-Amtrak trip, utilizing Empire Service, the Lake Shore Limited, Shuttle (now known as Amtrak Hartford Line), and Northeast Regional. Eight people were involved over all or part of the 3-day event, with the peak happening on Monday.

Six people participated in OTOL Toronto RailFest 2019 over a 6-day period in mid-July. While the focus was on Toronto, we also rode Amtrak's Maple Leaf and Empire Service trains. Stopovers in Utica and Schenectady were made to prevent very long days on the Maple Leaf and that train's poor calling times in New York City.

We had another event that year, called OTOL Denver RailFest 2019. A small group rode all of Denver RTD's commuter rail lines, and portions of its light rail system that weren't in operation when we last visited Denver in 2014. An even smaller group rode Amtrak's California Zephyr in both directions. Some also joined my pre-Fest and post-Fest activities, riding the Kansas City Streetcar, HOP Streetcar in Milwaukee, and Amtrak's Hiawatha, Missouri River Runner, and Southwest Chief.

OTOL Boston RailFest 2020 was scheduled for March 2020. Enter Coronavirus, and that and likely all such events we might have done in the year 2020 had to be postponed.

Our return to the rails once Coronavirus was less of a threat was the OTOL Blue Ridge Roanoke Excursion 2021. Eleven people took an overnight trip using two Amtrak Northeast Regional trains to and from Roanoke, VA.

Over a weekend in late March of 2022, we did another weekend Amtrak journey, the Silver Star Raleigh Excursion. Two people rode the southbound Silver Star from New York City to Raleigh, while another two started in Florida on the northbound Silver Star. All four continued together on the latter train from Raleigh northward, and then 3 detrained in Alexandria and one travelled as far as Baltimore.

In the coming years, hopefully we will ride the various rail systems in Little Rock, Oklahoma City, El Paso, Cincinnati, Detroit, Phoenix, Tucson, Milwaukee, Orlando, and the Waterloo Region in Canada. We also will eventually return to places such as Montreal, Ottawa, Miami, Fort Worth, Charlotte, Denver, San Francisco/Oakland, Atlanta, Washington, and Boston to ride lines or segments that did not yet exist on our previous visits.