Scanning the Railroads By Richard Carlson
Copyright 2009/2012 Rich Carlson & Scanner Master Corp.
One of the most popular tools in a Railfans arsenal is a scanner. Not the device used to copy your pictures to a computer, but a radio receiver. Scanners have become an important part of the railfanning experience and to many are as indispensable as a camera. Scanners allow one to monitor multiple channels and when activity is present it will allow you to hear the radio traffic.
Scanners you can use
Most railfans will want to have a handheld scanner that you can use while standing line side. This is the most convenient method of listening as you are not then tied to the car. Handheld scanners, especially some of the newer models, are small enough to be easily kept in the camera bag.
Things to look for in a handheld scanner for railfanning are:
Imagine standing alongside a locomotive watching it switch a yard track, not knowing what frequency they were using to communicate. With Near-Field reception, your scanner will sense a strong radio signal and lock onto it so you can monitor the communications. Press a button and you can see the frequency, enter it into your radio or jot it down in your notebook for future reference.
Range on this feature ranges from across the street on low power handhelds to across town on strong base stations. Some radios also allow you to automatically store frequencies discovered in this way.
Digital, Narrowband and Trunking
In most areas you will see narrow bandwidth operations replace the current wider bandwidth operations in the next few years. These operations are likely to remain mostly analog and conventional (in other words, not digital and not trunked) in most areas. The reason for the switch to narrow band is that railroad channels, like those in every other radio service, are a finite resource. There is a limited amount of frequencies available, so in order to squeeze the most channels out of the available spectrum the spacing between the channels will be reduced. With the narrower channel spacing comes the need for more strict technical specifications. As radios are replaced with newer ones they are capable of both the older wide channels as well as the newer narrow channels. When all the radios are capable of the new narrow channels the radios will be reprogrammed for them. Not only the locomotive radios have to be replaced and reprogrammed but also all the portable radios carried by rail crews, as well as all the base stations, defect detectors and other radio equipment need to be swapped out.
Digital and trunked changeovers are more complicated. There are no regulations that require either mode now or in the future but several railroads are trying these modes to see if they will help improve communications. APCO-25, the same mode used by many police departments, is being used in a few localized operations, thus these communications can be monitored by existing digital scanners. APCO-25 was chosen since the protocol is well tested and equipment is fairly easy to come by.
Trunking has a more limited appeal to railroads. While it might be appropriate for large metro areas or other areas with large scale communications needs, the vast distances covered by railroads as a rule negates most benefits that trunking could bring to the table. Railroad use of trunking will most likely be limited to yard and localized operations or the use of existing commercial services in metro areas. Often railroad police agencies will use commercial SMR's in large cities. Railroad police might also have access to statewide or metro area Public Safety radio networks.
Another huge reason that these new technologies will be slow to be adopted is the fact that railroads are unique in that they not only compete against each other but they also cooperate with each other on a scale not equaled in any other industry. This is necessary due to railroads crossing each other all over the country, sharing use of tracks in many areas and having many Trackage Rights, Run-Thru and other agreements in which trains and locomotives of one railroad being operated on tracks belonging to others. Thus, any change in technology has to be agreed upon by all railroads. Changes like this are expensive and are planned years in advance so railroads can budget the funds needed to make the changes. Locomotive radios can cost up to $5000 each, if the Union Pacific wanted to replace the radios in each of its over 8500 locomotives it could cost up to $42 million just for the locomotive radios alone, not to mention installation and other equipment.
Currently the largest installation of trunked and digital communications is a system used in a corridor in Oregon and Washington shared by the Union Pacific and BNSF railroads, Amtrak and local commuter authorities. This system has not been used to it's full capacity since every radio used on it would need to be of the new style, existing radios do not work on the new system. This limits the locomotives that can be used on the corridor to those with the new radios.
New digital and trunked systems allow for some types of data to be carried along with voice traffic. This data can be used for location reports (connect a GPS receiver to the radio and let the radio send the data to a computer) as well as other data signals.
Many scanners available now allow one to use a computer to program them. This greatly simplifies programming, and most radios have several different applications available to suit your personal preferences. While computer programming is a great tool, you should be familiar with programming from the keyboard as well so that you can make changes in the field as new information is found.
Mobile and Base Scanners
Base/Mobile scanners usually work with the 12 volt DC provided by most cars and trucks and allow for external antennas. For use at home or the office, a 120 VAC power supply is needed, and is usually provided for most base/mobile scanners. Sometimes they are built into the radio but most often they are a wall-wart type that plugs into the same power jack as used by the car power cord.
Mobile and Base Antennas
Using a handheld scanner in the car or home
Since all handheld scanners have power jacks on them be sure to have an AC adaptor for it. While many scanners come with the power adaptor not all do. You may want to buy an extra adaptor for travel so you don't have to pull the original one when you go on a trip. When buying an extra adaptor be sure that the one you buy is either a direct replacement or has the proper voltage, polarity, current capabilities and power tip. Same goes for vehicle adaptors, if your radio doesn't come with one, make sure you get the right one.
At home or in the car you may want or need a better antenna. You have a couple options, ranging from a remote mount that uses your rubber duck antenna to elaborate roof mounted high-performance antennas. Depending on local situations, an external antenna usually works best, but if it isn't practical then you may do well with an antenna that uses a window or magnet mount. At home you can use a magnet mount on a metal file cabinet or air conditioner.
How far can I hear railroads?
The distance that you can hear a communication can be measured in hundreds of miles down to city blocks. Usually the greatest distances result from base station scanners and transmitters during periods of special atmospheric conditions that cause radio signals to travel further. These events are unpredictable however. More common are distances around 50 miles or so for base station transmitters heard from base or mobile scanners with external antennas. Locomotive radios travel less far, and portable radios used by train crews may sometimes only be heard at distances under a mile or so.
Often you don't really want to hear distant traffic, you may only be interested in local activities, this might make a handheld scanner sufficient for your needs. If you need more distance than you are getting try using a better antenna or mount it higher on the building for base station installations.
You can also try using signal amplifiers (Pre-amps) if you really need more range. Be careful with these as they tend to overload sensitive handheld scanner fairly easily.
Which scanner is best then?
All three manufacturers of scanners employ different programming methods and some people tend to find one method easier to work with than others. Check the ScannerMaster website and view the scanners and their manuals to see how they work, you can get a great idea of how they work by reading the manual.
Here are a list of current models that would work well for railfans. Look for other features for your local area if you are interested in using it for listening to other services:
RadioReference (www.radioreference.com) Radio Reference is a website that has become the central point for scanner users nationwide. It has an extensive database of scanner frequencies as well as an active forums system and Radio Wiki. If you have the right type of scanner and software you can even load your scanner directly from the site. While this feature requires a paid membership, viewing all of the information and forums participation is free of charge. Paid memberships allow you to also retrieve formatted reports about scanner information in your area.
Other websites also have scanner information. By using Google (www.google.com) you can find websites that cover any area of the country. Some sites that have extensive coverage of the local areas include CARMA (www.carmachicago.com/profiles), All Ohio (www.aosc.org) and SoCal (http://socalscanner.com/). You can also go directly to the FCC's license database at http://wireless2.fcc.gov/UlsApp/UlsSearch/searchAdvanced.jsp if you feel adventurous.
Magazine feature articles from such titles as Trains, Railfan & Railroad often report scanner frequencies for covered areas. Radio magazines such as Monitoring Times also cover rail operations.
Since there are less than 100 regularly use radio frequencies allocated for use you might find that just by monitoring these channels you will find the information you want. Make a note of the channel use as you figure it out and you can lock out channels that do not interest you or place important channels in specialized banks or groups. Use the Priority feature of the scanner to put the local Road channel at the top of the list.
You can also place your radio in Search mode using 160 as the lower limit and 162 as the upper limit. Again, note the channels that are active for future reference.
AAR and radio channels
Railroads in the USA and Canada operate on a group of VHF channels in the 160 and 161 MHz. range, arranged as 97 numbered channels. These VHF channels contain most communications of interest to railfans and radio hobbyists. All Common Carrier railroads in the USA and Canada se these channels for most communications between trains, work crews, dispatchers and support staff. While there are other channels and systems in use, these channels support the vast majority of communications of interest.
The railroad's main trade organization, the Association of American Railroads (AAR, http://www.aar.org), coordinates many activities of railroads, including radio channels. The AAR assists the Federal Communications Commission (FCC, http://www.fcc.gov) by assigning radio channels to the various railroads so that the channels are efficiently used and interference problems are reduced.
The AAR has organized the available channels into channel numbers so that radios from one railroad operate correctly on other railroads. This helps allow locomotives from one railroad operate on other railroads for run-thru traffic, locomotive leasing and coordination of shared facilities (track crossings, joint track and yards).
Up to the 1990's the FCC had segregated many different industries' radio channels into strict "Services". Under this plan various industries, including railroads, were assigned specific frequencies. It was unusual (and required much work) for a user from one service to acquire a license to operate on frequencies assigned to another service. While this protected various services radio channel allotments, it reduced the ability to share resources. Eventually the FCC merged many services together into just a few. Railroads are now part of the "Industrial Business Pool" (IB). This has resulted in situations like plumbing companies using frequencies once reserved for taxi cabs for example.
Railroads and railroad channels however have worked to avoid this situation due to the unique needs of the industry and bonds forged as a result. While there are more non-rail operations working on traditional rail channels now it is still the exception rather than the rule as it is on other channels. The AAR has protected railroad channels from most other users over the years.
Railroads usually use the AAR Channel Numbers in a 4 digit format, where the first 2 digits are the trains Transmit channel and the last 2 digits are the base station's transmit channel. If the channel is simplex (both the base station and train operate on the same frequency) the channel number would look like "5252" for 160.890 (AAR Channel 52). If the train operates on 161.040 and the base station operates on 160.770 then the channel would be shown as 6244. Radios used in locomotives have a 4 digit display that matches these channel umbers.
Recent FCC rules have produced a set of addition radio channels spaced between existing channels. These are called Interstitial Channels, these are interweaved 7.5 KHz away from existing channels.
Maintenance of Way
End of Train Devices ("EOT's"), also known as FRED's (Flashing Rear End Device") as well as other names, are used to assist the engineer in controlling his train. They transmit a data signal from the rear of the train indicating movement and brake pressure. Some of these devices are also capable of activating a brake application from the rear of the train, helpful on heavy grades. These are called 2-Way EOT's. Most EOT devices use 457.9375 MHz. to send data to the locomotive. 2-Way EOT's use 452.9375 to send data from the locomotive to the rear EOT. Some older NS EOT's use 161.115 MHz. These are being replaced by standard UHF units.
ATCS (Advanced Train Control System)
Mainline railroads and mergers
The mainline railroads are products of dozens of mergers over the decades. Many of the radio channels in used date from the prior lines before the mergers. Listed below are the mainline railroads and the main predecessors. Since many of these channels are still listed in many sources as "used on former XXX Line tracks" or even licensed to former railroad companies this list will help determine the best channels to listen to.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF)
Kansas City Southern
While we are not lawyers there are a few things to remember, most of them are common sense.
1) Stay off private property without permission.
Occasionally railroad employees will give permission for a quick foray into a yard or facility for some pictures if you ask nicely first. If they say no, just say thanks anyway and move on. On a hot summer day a bottle of water from your cooler might help matters.
2) It is perfectly legal to watch and take pictures of trains.
3) It is (usually) legal to listen to railroad communications.
http://www.afn.org/~afn09444/scanlaws/ has good information on scanner laws around the country.
4) Follow safety rules and guidelines.
5) If stopped by the police follow their requests.
6) Be a smart railfan.
* Channel 1 is often programmed for local use, on factory delivered radios it is the same as Channel 2.
# Channel's 1 thru 6, as well as 161.580 thru 161.610 are not railroad allocated in the USA but are
often found on railroad radios.
@ Factory delivered radios do not normally have these channels programmed but they may be added
& 161.610 was once allocated to railroad use but later changed. The Rock Island Railroad was
grandfathered in on this channel so was able to retain it's use. It is still used by some successors
on former Rock Island trackage, most notably Metra in the Chicago area.
In the USA most operations occur on Channels 7 thru 97, Canadian railroads also use channels 2 thru 6.
From these channels most railroads are assigned 1 or more for use at specific locations and for specified uses. Before the mega-mergers of the last 20 years, most larger railroads had 1 to 4 mainline "Road" channels that were used system-wide as well as other channels used for Yard, Maintenance of Way and other uses. Many of these allocations were changed after the mergers to reduce interference and to standardize company operations but many actually remain as they were before the mergers. For example, after the Union Pacific merged the former Chicago & Northwestern in the late 1990's most former CNW channels remained in use on the old CNW lines.
There have been conflicting reports on channel numbers for these new channels, some reports have them starting at 98 and going in order to 187 (immediately following the existing AAR 97 channel plan) and others show them as starting at 107 and going thru 196, with Channel 107 following channel 7 and so forth. Both plans are shown here.