Scanning the Railroads By Richard Carlson Copyright 2009/2017 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.
Scanner Master has a pair of special Railfan packages that include everything you need to listen to railroad operations. One package includes the handheld BC125AT scanner, a great compact analog scanner that goes anywhere. For the car the Mobile Railfan package includes the versatile BCT15X mobile scanner. Both come with great antennas for railroad channels and a railroad frequency guide as well as home and car power adapters.
Scanners you can use:
One of the most asked questions is what scanner should I use to listen to the railroads? The answer to this is usually any scanner you want to use! Most railroads use a set of 97 frequencies between 160 and 162 MHz. Most operations are in “Conventional/Analog” mode, that means they do not usually use trunking, digital or other complicated modes. 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. The BC125AT is ideal for this due to its small size and affordability.
Things to look for in a handheld scanner for railfanning are:
Battery type: Since you may spend hours or even days away from convenient charging locations look for a scanner that allows you to use standard AA batteries. While rechargeable batteries are cheaper over the long run and are more environmentally friendly you may not be able to recharge them while in the field or riding a train. By using a scanner that can utilize AA cells you can keep spares available. The spares may be rechargeable or alkaline. Do not use older carbon-zinc cells, they leak more often and do not last as long as others. (Be sure to dispose of used cells properly!)
External Power: Be sure to have a car power and 120v power adaptor available for your handheld scanner. These would be used to charge and operate your scanner in the car and home/office/hotel.
Antennas: Most handheld scanners come with a “rubber duck” style antenna that connects with a BNC or SMA connector on the top of the radio. These are usually fine for local communications, but if you use the radio for more distant communications or in a vehicle you may wish to invest in a better antenna cut specifically for the railroad band.
Radio Size: Some handheld scanners are very small, which makes it easier to carry in a camera bag or pocket. Some people however prefer larger radios since they may be easier to handle and have larger buttons. Chose the radio that fits your preferences.
Channel Capacity: Current scanners often have channel capacities in excess of 1000 channels. Most railfans only need up to 100. If you plan on using the radio for other purposes then the extra channel capacity may be useful, if you only plan on using it for railfanning then channel capacity is not a real issue.
Near-field reception: Each of the three manufacturers offer some scanners with Near-field reception, they each use a different method and name for this feature. Uniden scanners use “Close Call”, Radio Shack uses Signal Stalker and GRE uses “Spectrum Sweeper”. Each of the scanners that have this feature allows users to pick out strong local transmitters and see the frequency used. 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.
Trunking: Most railroad radio operations the railfan will monitor do not involve trunking, at least for now. Unless you plan on using the radio for monitoring other operations that use trunking then you can use scanners that do not have trunking capabilities. Remember that all scanners that do have trunking also work just fine in the conventional/non-trunked world of railroad radio, so do not fret if you have a trunking scanner!
Digital: For the most part, you will not need a fancy digital scanner to monitor most railroad operations. There are however a few areas in which these newer scanners may be desirable, especially if you want to monitor public safety operations as well. Railroads are planning on going to NXDN digital at some point. When this transition would occur is anyone’s guess, it could be years away. For now most operations (including all Road traffic) is regular plain old analog.
Programming Method: All handheld scanners may be programmed by using the radio’s keypad. This allows programming in the field. Different radios use different protocols and methods for programming. Some newer radios (such as the Uniden BCD325P2) no longer use the older Banks/Channels method of programming but rather use a “Systems/Groups” method. While the newer radios support flexible grouping of channels they can be more intimidating to program from the keyboard. 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: Many railfans like to listen to railroad radio from the car or at home. Sometimes, especially when you live in an area that has a lot of railroad activity, you can learn a lot about railroad activity just by listening to the scanner. Handheld scanners are not always the best radio for these applications, since the display and buttons are small and the audio from the speaker is often not sufficient for mobile or base use. Most base/mobile scanners are great for railroad monitoring for the same reasons as shown for handhelds. 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: Mobile and Base scanners usually come with a telescoping whip antenna that may be sufficient for local use but you will likely want to use an external antenna for better results, especially in a vehicle. Mobile scanner antennas can be as simple as a magnetic mount antenna with the cable run thru the door or window to the radio to a permanently mounted antenna on the roof or trunk. While permanent antennas work better, magnet mounts are easily moved to and from cars, leave no marks (when carefully placed and removed) and are great for rental cars.
Using a handheld scanner in the car or home: While base/mobile scanners are usually better for use in vehicles or home, you can use your handheld. You will probably need three things to make this experience better however: Power Supply, Antenna and speaker. Since all handheld scanners have power jacks on them be sure to have an AC adapter for it. While many scanners come with the power adapter not all do. You may want to buy an extra adapter for travel so you don’t have to pull the original one when you go on a trip. When buying an extra adapter 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 adapters, 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:
This is a common question that has no strict answer. There are many factors at play here, including:
Type of scanner and antenna.
Elevation of the transmitter relative to your location.
Are you hearing a base station, locomotive or portable radio?
Atmospheric conditions and terrain.
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?
This question is the most often asked. The answer is not so simple, it is like asking what is the best car or baseball team. Of the currently available scanners from Uniden and Whistler you can pick almost any for basic railfanning purposes. Scanner Master chose the BC125AT and BCT15X for the Railfan Packages due to the features and affordability as well as the size (for the 125).
Scanner manufacturers employ different programming methods and some people tend to find one method easier to work with than the other. Check the Scanner Master 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.
Sources for frequency information:
The best source of information about railroad scanning these days is of course the Internet. If it isn’t there then it probably doesn’t exist. The trick is to find the information that YOU want. There are several starting points:
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 you can find websites that cover any area of the country.
Some sites that have extensive coverage of the local areas include:
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:
Railroad monitoring is actually one of the easiest radio services to listen to. One of the reasons this is so is because of the level of cooperation and standardization the various railroads have established. In the US and Canada railroads are much more integrated with each other than on other parts of the world, while there are dozens of companies and they are intense competitors, they share many standards, including radio channelization, track gauge and other technical and operational parameters. With railroads crossing each other everywhere, trains that operate on multiple railroads and limited venders of equipment railroads have learned that it makes sense to cooperate and standardize many facets of the operation.
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.aar.org), 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 numbers.
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.
Most railroad radio operations can be defined as below. Some railroads use different names for the channels in different areas. In addition to the AAR Channel numbers railroads may have their own channel numbers for locally used channels that correspond to channel positions on the radio. Usually the main Road Channel is Channel 1 and additional Road or Yard channels follow.
Road - Used as the main communications channel between trains and other trains, line crews, dispatchers and within the train itself. The Road Channel is the most listened to channel for most railfans as it carries most traffic about the operations of the trains.
Yard - Used within yards for switching. Some railroads also use Yard channels as secondary road channels, or for “Go to” channels along the mainline.
Dispatcher - Used as a separate channel from the Road Channel on some railroads for trains to contact the Dispatcher. This allows the dispatcher to listen only to traffic directed at him and not the routine chatter.
Maintenance of Way - Used for work on the tracks. These may be used by track gangs performing routine maintenance, snow plow operations, and other workers not on road trains.
Police - Used by the railroad police and special agents. (Railroads are one of the few private operations allowed actual Police versus security).
Hump - Used in large yards for switching trains over a large hill, using gravity to help sort cars.
PBX - Basically a tie-in between railroad radios and the telephone network. These are used much less often these days due to the increased use of Nextel and cellular phones but still exist in areas with limited cellular coverage.
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) is a protocol developed by the AAR to assist railroads in controlling signals and trains by radio. It uses several pairs of frequencies to send data back and forth. There are also several similar protocols in use on various frequencies such as ARES and Safetran.
To learn more about these systems go to http://www.atcsmon.com.
Channel # Mobile / Base
Channel 1 - 896.8875 / 935.8875
Channel 2 - 896.9375 / 935.9375
Channel 3 - 896.9875/ 935.9875
Channel 4 - 897.8875 / 936.8875
Channel 5 - 897.9375 / 936.9375
Channel 6 - 897.9875 / 936.9875
Railroads are also allocated several sets of UHF channels. These are often used for local operations, trucking subsidiaries, mobile relays, remote control, and data.
Mainline railroads and mergers: There are 7 mainline railroads in the USA and Canada as well as dozens of regional, shortline and switching lines all over the country. 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.
Union Pacific: Chicago & Northwestern, Southern Pacific, Western Pacific, Missouri Pacific, Missouri-Kansas-Texas
Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF)
Burlington Northern, Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe (Santa Fe), St. Louis San Francisco (Frisco)
Chessie System (Chesapeake & Ohio, Baltimore & Ohio, Western Maryland) Seaboard System (Seaboard Coastline, Louisville & Nashville) Conrail
Soo Line, Milwaukee Road
Illinois Central, Wisconsin Central, Grand Trunk Western, Duluth Winnipeg & Pacific Kansas City Southern: MidSouth, Texas Mexican, Gateway Western, Kansas City Southern of Mexico Security Concerns:
Since 9-11-2001 there has been greater scrutiny of many facets of the railfan and scanner hobbies, positive and negative. Of course there has always been the concern of trespassing on railroad property and unknowing people calling in railfans as suspicious persons. Many railfans have been stopped by police (railroad and local), security guards and railroad employees and questioned about their presence. Sometimes railfans are told it is illegal to take pictures, listen to the scanners, and other supposed offenses. 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.
Railroads are private property and you can be arrested just for being on the property. If you want to enter private property, whether it is owned by a railroad or some other entity, make sure you have permission first. Most railroads have official policies that prohibit railfan activities on the property except for events open to the public (Tours, open houses) or with prior written 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 offering a bottle of water from your cooler might help matters.
#2 - It is perfectly legal to watch and take pictures of trains.
There are no laws prohibiting photography of trains, railroad lines and structures or other facilities other than certain military or governmental installations. Basically, if you are taking pictures from someplace you are allowed to be then you are OK. Military and governmental installations will be well posted if photography is prohibited.
#3 - It is (usually) legal to listen to railroad communications.
In most locations around the USA and Canada scanners are legal. Some states or cities have laws regarding permits or other restrictions on scanners. Some of these only apply to monitoring police frequencies. Some laws exempt holders of ham radio or other licenses. Check for these laws to be sure you have the proper license or permit before you go. http://www.afn.org/~afn09444/scanlaws/ has good information on scanner laws around the country.
#4 - Follow safety rules and guidelines.
There are several rules that railroaders must follow during their work day that apply just as much to railfans. These include things like expecting a train movement on any track from any direction at any time, and being aware of the area and your surroundings. Be sure to bring water and provisions when traveling in rural areas and to dress for the environment. Remember that railroad tracks occasionally run thru high-crime areas so keep your eyes open and be ready to leave if needed.
#5 - If stopped by the police follow their requests.
Most police officers and security guards do not know or care what railfans are. They may request that you cease railfan activities, turn off the scanner, move on, or follow other instructions. While the activities you are partaking in may be legal, it usually is not a good idea to argue about it with the police, right or wrong. If you feel you have been wronged follow the instructions of the officer and you can follow up with his supervisor later.
#6 - Be a smart railfan.
Remembering some basic rules such as these will make your time more enjoyable and reduce the amount of problems encountered. There are a lot of people who think that railfans and scannists shouldn’t be able to enjoy these hobbies, there is no need to fuel these concerns. AAR Channel Plan
The AAR Channel plan is very simple, the available frequencies are numbered in frequency order. There are some oddities that are explained in the table notes
* Channel 1 is often programmed for local use, on factory delivered radios it is the same as Channel 2. This is not an official AAR designation.
# Channel’s 1 thru 6, as well as 161.580 thru 161.610 are not railroad allocated in the USA but areoften found on railroad radios. They are allocated to railroads in Canada.
@ Factory delivered radios do not normally have these channels programmed but they may be addedby software.
& 161.610 was once allocated to railroad use but later changed. The Rock Island Railroad wasgrandfathered in on this channel so was able to retain it’s use. It is still used by some successorson 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.
Newly assigned Radio Channels (Interstitial/Interweaved):
The FCC and AAR have designed new specifications for additional radio channels. These channels use a narrower bandwidth than existing operations, allowing for more available channels. Eventually the legacy channels will operate on the narrower bandwidths as well.
There have been conflicting reports on channel numbers for these new channels. Depending on how this all shakes out with the digital migration the whole plan can change. The new channels are currently 7.5 KHZ above/below the existing channels.