Tips for a beginner interested in watching trains?

935 views
16 replies
1 rating 2 rating 3 rating 4 rating 5 rating
  • Member since
    January, 2018
  • 14 posts
Tips for a beginner interested in watching trains?
Posted by RailroadXplorer on Tuesday, February 06, 2018 6:17 AM

Hi everyone. I am new here and also new to the world of trains. I would like to start train watching but I don't know where to start, what to look for, where ...

If you have any tips it would be very helpful. Thanks.

Tags: railfanning
  • Member since
    June, 2001
  • From: Lombard (west of Chicago), Illinois
  • 13,009 posts
Posted by CShaveRR on Tuesday, February 06, 2018 10:31 AM

First of all, welcome!  You're in the right place!

Second, tell us a couple of things about yourself.  Are you able to drive (or do you have parents who are willing to take you to places close by)?  And where do you live?  Once we know your location, there's likely to be someone familiar enough with the area to at least point you in the right direction.

Third, if you do venture toward the tracks, be safe.  Railroads are private property, and trains could sneak up on you if you're not careful.  Stay off the tracks, or cross them only at crossings after carefully looking.

Fourth, avail yourself of the knowledge that's out there (or in here!).  Since you're on this Forum, you must have some awareness of its sponsor, Trains Magazine.  Chek it out for news, interesting articles, and answers to questions posed by its readers.  It will also contain advertisements by the publisher (Kalmbach) for books that might be of interest, dealing with such things as locomotives, the hstory of specific railroads, and "hot spots", where trains are likely to be found.

Have fun (and don't take yourself, the hobby, or us, too seriously!)!

Carl

Railroader Emeritus (practiced railroading for 46 years--and in 2010 I finally got it right!)

CAACSCOCOM--I don't want to behave improperly, so I just won't behave at all. (SM)

  • Member since
    April, 2007
  • From: Iowa
  • 2,767 posts
Posted by Semper Vaporo on Tuesday, February 06, 2018 10:36 AM

I don't know what kinds of Railroad property is near you, but I'd suggest that you find a little used county road near one end of a major railyard on a mainline.  STAY OFF THE PROPERTY, but park on the side of the road well away from the tracks, but in a position to see a portion of the yard and mainline.

As to what to look for... ummmm... Trains?  What else?  I suppose you may have to watch a while before you find something more specific to watch for.  Do engines appeal to you?  Speed?  Specific types of cars?

I use a stopwatch (on my cell phone) to time how long it takes a car to pass a specific point and then knowing the length of some cars, I can determine the speed of the train.  I also used Google Earth to measure the lenght of track from one point to another that I can see from my favorite spot and can time trains using that too (much easier and more accurate when the speeds are over about 30 MPH!)

You might keep track of which engine numbers you see, to see how often you see the same ones.  Possibly try to determine what kinds of trains are most prevalent in the area. 

See if you can determine which cars are loaded and which are empty and which way they normally go; then watch for cars that seem to be going the wrong way.

There is a way to determine if a car is full or empty... Looking at the springs is one way, but I find it difficult to tell just by looking at them (different cars have springs with different coil spacing so it is difficult to know if the springs are compressed or not).  A better way is to look at the gap between the lower edge of the top of the truck sideframe and the cross member that the springs support... it is subtle, but if that space is about as tall as the cross member, then the car is probably full.  If the space is shorter in height than the crossmember, then the car is probably empty.

Get a radio scanner that can tune to the Railroad frequencies to listen in to the dispatcher and the yard workers.  It will take a while to figure out what they are saying... they have their own lingo... but you will find it interesting.

Semper Vaporo

Pkgs.

  • Member since
    September, 2003
  • 5,086 posts
Posted by Overmod on Tuesday, February 06, 2018 10:45 AM

I don't want to sound like a grumpy old parent, but I have to start that way.  The rule anywhere on a railroad is 'Safety First, Last, and Always' and the moment even the slightest tinge of lip service comes into that, very substantial danger can result.  That means that anywhere around railroad property, observe proper safety (as mentioned in many threads on these forums) including when you choose to cross over them in legal ways or set up for good shots if photographing.  (It is easy for some people (I am one) to get carried away in the viewfinder and not keep real-world situational awareness -- don't be me in those situations.)

There's a general 'right' to observe trains from adjoining public property; be sure to get explicit permission (probably wise to have it be in writing of some sort) if you use any private property.  Be aware that a wide range of nosy and in some cases dangerous individuals may cause trouble; best to be prepared to 'move on' if you get questioned, but don't be afraid to tell the police you're railfanning from public property if they stop to ask.

I find that watching trains is more interesting when you know something about the locomotives involved and how they're used.  Members of my family love to watch trains but don't care if the units are, say, ES44s or SD70ACe's ... unless they know a particular unit happens to be rare ... then they watch for it.

And be prepared to be interested in the train as well as just its approach or the locomotives that pull it.  Several people who will likely follow this thread can give you reasonably detailed things to watch for or appreciate, and you can learn quite a bit about practical railroading, if you have that interest, in ways much more memorable than just reading textbooks or other accounts.

  • Member since
    December, 2001
  • From: Northern New York
  • 17,840 posts
Posted by tree68 on Tuesday, February 06, 2018 11:16 AM

Start out by just watching and enjoying (keeping in mind the safety and property rights considerations already mentioned).

You may find that something piques your interest, be it motive power, certain types of cars, and any number of other things.

Carl didn't mention it, but he has a great interest in cars in general.  If someone has a question about a certain car, he may well give us chapter and verse about that car - when it was built, by whom, who owns it now, etc.  Others of us have operating experience or other real-world knowledge and experience that we'll be glad to share.

You can gain a wealth of knowledge just by reading old threads here.  Just be careful about resurrecting a ten-year-old thread to make a random comment.  Sometimes it's just easier to start a new thread.

If you have any rail-served industries in your area, you may be able to see the nitty-gritty of switching.

Having a scanner is a great idea.  The frequencies are generally readily available.  One caveat - check the laws regarding scanners in your state.  There are a few that prohibit them in vehicles, and even outside your home.

As was already suggested, give us your general area, and perhaps what you've observed to be the railroads in your area.  

Remember that you represent all railfans.  A bone-headed move by one railfan can make it tough for all.

LarryWhistling
Resident Microferroequinologist (at least at my house) 
Everyone goes home; Safety begins with you
My Opinion. Standard Disclaimers Apply. No Expiration Date
Come ride the rails with me!
There's one thing about humility - the moment you think you've got it, you've lost it...

  • Member since
    August, 2010
  • From: Henrico, VA
  • 7,676 posts
Posted by Firelock76 on Tuesday, February 06, 2018 3:20 PM

Some good advice from all above.  I don't know what part of the country you live in, but I'd say try to find a place where you know there'll be plenty of action, otherwise you'll get bored pretty quickly.

A multi-track mainline is a good place to start.  A place to watch?  See if the line abuts any shopping centers, there will be plenty of parking and since you'll be on what amounts to public property no-one's likely to bother you.

Another good spot can be an old train station on a mainline that's been repurposed, there'll be parking close by and again no-one's likely to care if you're there.  Both of the above work for me if I feel like train-watching.

Keep in mind there's the "Thrill of the hunt."  In this day and age of power run-throughs you never know what you might see.  I live in what amounts to CSX country but I've seen BNSF, UP, NS, CN, and CP locomotives come through, in addition to some very colorful leased locomotives.  If Amtrak comes though you might see some private cars in the consist.

Here's a thought.  Quite a few railfans video their favorite spots and then post them on You Tube.  Looking for a place to go?  Do a You Tube search of your area and see what comes up.

For example, if I'm feeling nostalgic for my old home grounds I'll do a You Tube search like this:  You Tube Pascack Valley Line, that's up in New Jersey, and I'll get something like this...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GSxNqBPGm-Y

See how that works?  A pretty useful tool, plus there's a menu on the right side of the screen with (usually) other related vids.  A good place to start a search of your area.

And welcome aboard!

  • Member since
    October, 2003
  • 7,816 posts
Posted by K. P. Harrier on Tuesday, February 06, 2018 5:09 PM

Hi, RailroadXplorer!

It would be helpful to know your GENERAL area of residence, like near the Rochelle, IL webcam, or the San Diego (CA) Trolley area, etc.

Examples of things to see:

The new San Gabriel Trench near Los Angeles:

New UP Sunset Route signals in Arizona:

The out of service Union Pacific western Phoenix Line in Arizona:

The Amtrak stop for Nos. 1 and 2 in Pomona, CA:

You can safely get real, real close to the tracks at the Towne Ave. underpass in Pomona, CA

The possibilities go on and on.

It is hoped you find joy in your new hobby, as you define more what interests you have, like locomotives, passenger trains, historic equipment, photographing trains, etc.

Best,

K.P.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- It is believed that the overpowering stench of photobucket.com is what killed me! Coming to you from the afterlife … On the other hand, PostImage.org is cool!
  • Member since
    August, 2005
  • From: At the Crossroads of the West
  • 8,935 posts
Posted by Deggesty on Tuesday, February 06, 2018 7:38 PM

Hi, Beginner! Welcome

As has been said, we who have been interested in railroading are glad to have another fan join our ranks. As you may well know, some of us are railroad employees and most are not such, but have a great interest in the matter--and we are ready to share our knowledge.

Indeed, you have a great advantage over many of us who became interested in this matter as you begin learning--when I became interested, more than 65 years ago, there were books and a few magazines available, but there was not much opportunity to ask questions such as what we have now.

Dont't be bashful when you have a question or you want to share an experience.

Johnny

  • Member since
    January, 2018
  • 14 posts
Posted by RailroadXplorer on Thursday, February 08, 2018 11:37 PM

Hi everyone and thanks for your welcome and tips.

A little bit about myself. I am a 47 years old man who lives on the south shore of Montreal, Canada. I have a car. I dont know much about trains but I have one railroad just in my backyard and every time I see a train, I stop and watch it for a few minutes. 

I am not planning to buy a scanner but I would like to know if there is another way to know when a train is going to come?

 

Thanks again :)

  • Member since
    December, 2001
  • From: Northern New York
  • 17,840 posts
Posted by tree68 on Friday, February 09, 2018 10:32 AM

RailroadXplorer
I am not planning to buy a scanner but I would like to know if there is another way to know when a train is going to come?

Passenger service notwithstanding, the closest you'll come is learning what time certain trains happen by.  Freight trains generally aren't scheduled, but are often "called" at about the same time each day.  A simple log showing time, direction, and consist may help you sort out what's moving.  You'll find that the same trains travel the same corridors daily, or at least on a regular basis.

What time they pass by your door is dependent on work they may have to do in the yard before they leave, work they have to do enroute (if any), and other traffic on the line, among other things.

I'd suggest you reconsider buying a scanner - even an inexpensive model, with an accompanying "wall wart" power supply (saves you money on batteries) will help you.  I've even programmed in the EOT frequency a few times.  If you hear the data burst, you know a train is really close.

About the only extra expense you could consider with a scanner is an improved antenna.

 

LarryWhistling
Resident Microferroequinologist (at least at my house) 
Everyone goes home; Safety begins with you
My Opinion. Standard Disclaimers Apply. No Expiration Date
Come ride the rails with me!
There's one thing about humility - the moment you think you've got it, you've lost it...

  • Member since
    September, 2003
  • 5,086 posts
Posted by Overmod on Friday, February 09, 2018 10:47 AM

RailroadXplorer
I am not planning to buy a scanner but I would like to know if there is another way to know when a train is going to come?

Does he know the ways to 'read' signals in his area?  That's certainly a method I use, and while it's not as good a 'guarantee' as scanners or EOT transmissions or even knowledge of regular repeating movements is, he might not know how yet.

  • Member since
    July, 2008
  • From: Marietta, GA
  • 976 posts
Posted by rdamon on Friday, February 09, 2018 11:12 AM

Spend some time on Google Maps checking out the line by you. There may be some industrial areas or intersections with another line. Pick a spot near a grade crossing or near some block (red/yellow/green) signals so you can get some advanced warning of a train.

Also, not everyone hanging out by train tracks are railfans. ;) 

If they have a camera and/or a radio chances are they are...

 

  • Member since
    August, 2010
  • From: Henrico, VA
  • 7,676 posts
Posted by Firelock76 on Friday, February 09, 2018 5:54 PM

This is where a good set of binoculars comes in handy.  If you have a good line-of-site down the tracks and can see signals, good.  Not all 'roads operate the same way, but around here if you've got a green signal there will probably be a train along shortly.  All red, not so likely. 

Freight trains are fairly unpredictable in most cases, but if you've got passenger trains in your area so much the better, those are scheduled and can be a good predictor of rail action. 

Any rail hobby shops in your area?  Ask the folks in there, many model railroaders are also railfans and can guide you to some good spots.

  • Member since
    November, 2006
  • From: NW Pa Snow-belt.
  • 1,290 posts
Posted by ricktrains4824 on Saturday, February 10, 2018 9:39 PM

As has been mentioned, Welcome.

While crossing signals will be a very good indicator that there is a train nearby, sometimes the lineside train signals are not... Case in point, there is a interlocking in my area (two lines cross at grade) where the approach signals are always lit, and never change unless there is a train entering the interlocking on the other line. (And, with a scanner here, I did catch some entertaining conversations between a train crew and dispatch, when a signal was not quite what the crew expected it to be....)

Conversely, the new signals on the CSX (Old NYC Waterlevel route) line in my area are "approach lighting" style, where they are dark unless there is a train nearby. (Vandals tend to not shoot at a dark signal, while a lit up one makes a easier, and better, target....) 

A scanner is a better indicator, unless the line near you had already gone to the digital band, then you need a digital band capable scanner.

However, some lines radio frequencies are monitored by websites, such as broadcastify, and are streamed online. If that line is one, you only need Internet access to listen in.

And, as has been mentioned, No trespassing on railroad property... Ever.

I find that, at least in my area, early morning 7:00 to 8:30, (depending on how late they are running) you get the Amtrak train, and maybe a couple of others, then a slight break, then a burst of traffic before lunch, then a break, then another burst of traffic. (It's odd, because the crews onboard mainline runs will stop for lunch at red signals, or a siding, or yard, not always right at noon time...) Once you start paying attention, you start to pick up on patterns.

And, if you are at a road crossing, be alert not only for rail traffic, but also road traffic, and always have an "escape route" in mind, just incase anything goes way wrong. (Over the years I have witnessed many "close calls" while railfanning. And I helped avert one grade crossing collision between a road user and a MOW crew. But that story is for another thread...) If you are at a road crossing, always try to stand on the side of the road the train is approaching from, if possible. 

And, if possible, try to be back a little ways from the crossing, so that the train crews don't get too nervous about what your intentions are.

Myself, if I am photographing trains near a road crossing, I will set up off the side of the road, and wear a yellow conspicuity vest, as this does a few things. 1 - Others who happen to see you there, will readily see you and that will help you to be safer when near vehicular traffic. 2 - Most train crews are less nervous if they can tell that you are trying to be visible and not startle them. (If I am doing night photos, I will also fire a "warning shot" as I call it, as the train is approaching my location, so that the train crew can see, and therefore expect, a flash of light when I release the shutter as they pass the intended spot for my photo.) 

Some areas, train crews will expect railfans, such as at railfan parks and museums. Other areas, we just might startle them, and the less we make them worry about our intentions, the better. This is why I advise to not be close to the rail line, and to be readily visible if you are close enough to the rails that they can see you from a bit of distance.

Also, if you have a short line railroad nearby, the same crew will most likely be on the train each day, so they just might start to get used to seeing you, and this will work to your advantage. One crew in my area got so used to seeing me, they would give a "horn salute" at the crossing I frequented, eventually even if I wasn't there. (I worked nearby at the time, and heard them, so I knew what was happening.) 

Don't be surprised by crews reactions, as some like seeing us, and others don't. (I have had everything from very friendly crews, to those not so friendly...)

And, above all, be safe, and enjoy your railfanning time!

Ricky W.

HO scale Proto-freelancer.

My Railroad rules:

1: It's my railroad, my rules.

2: It's for having fun and enjoyment.

3: Any objections, consult above rules.

  • Member since
    January, 2018
  • 14 posts
Posted by RailroadXplorer on Tuesday, February 13, 2018 8:53 PM

tree68
Passenger service notwithstanding, the closest you'll come is learning what time certain trains happen by.  Freight trains generally aren't scheduled, but are often "called" at about the same time each day.  A simple log showing time, direction, and consist may help you sort out what's moving.  You'll find that the same trains travel the same corridors daily, or at least on a regular basis.

What time they pass by your door is dependent on work they may have to do in the yard before they leave, work they have to do enroute (if any), and other traffic on the line, among other things.

In the last days, I just started to record the time the train pass by behind my house and also the direction. Are there any other infos I should add on my log as a beginner?

Overmod

Does he know the ways to 'read' signals in his area?  That's certainly a method I use, and while it's not as good a 'guarantee' as scanners or EOT transmissions or even knowledge of regular repeating movements is, he might not know how yet. 

Thanks Overmod. No I don't know anything about the signals. 

rdamon

Spend some time on Google Maps checking out the line by you. There may be some industrial areas or intersections with another line. Pick a spot near a grade crossing or near some block (red/yellow/green) signals so you can get some advanced warning of a train.

Thanks rdamon. I just check on Google Maps and yes it's a very good idea. I will be able to find freight yards.

Firelock76

This is where a good set of binoculars comes in handy.  If you have a good line-of-site down the tracks and can see signals, good.  Not all 'roads operate the same way, but around here if you've got a green signal there will probably be a train along shortly.  All red, not so likely. 

Freight trains are fairly unpredictable in most cases, but if you've got passenger trains in your area so much the better, those are scheduled and can be a good predictor of rail action.

Thanks Firelock76 for the info.

ricktrains4824

As has been mentioned, Welcome.

While crossing signals will be a very good indicator that there is a train nearby, sometimes the lineside train signals are not... Case in point, there is a interlocking in my area (two lines cross at grade) where the approach signals are always lit, and never change unless there is a train entering the interlocking on the other line. (And, with a scanner here, I did catch some entertaining conversations between a train crew and dispatch, when a signal was not quite what the crew expected it to be....)

Conversely, the new signals on the CSX (Old NYC Waterlevel route) line in my area are "approach lighting" style, where they are dark unless there is a train nearby. (Vandals tend to not shoot at a dark signal, while a lit up one makes a easier, and better, target....) 

A scanner is a better indicator, unless the line near you had already gone to the digital band, then you need a digital band capable scanner.

However, some lines radio frequencies are monitored by websites, such as broadcastify, and are streamed online. If that line is one, you only need Internet access to listen in.

And, as has been mentioned, No trespassing on railroad property... Ever.

I find that, at least in my area, early morning 7:00 to 8:30, (depending on how late they are running) you get the Amtrak train, and maybe a couple of others, then a slight break, then a burst of traffic before lunch, then a break, then another burst of traffic. (It's odd, because the crews onboard mainline runs will stop for lunch at red signals, or a siding, or yard, not always right at noon time...) Once you start paying attention, you start to pick up on patterns.

And, if you are at a road crossing, be alert not only for rail traffic, but also road traffic, and always have an "escape route" in mind, just incase anything goes way wrong. (Over the years I have witnessed many "close calls" while railfanning. And I helped avert one grade crossing collision between a road user and a MOW crew. But that story is for another thread...) If you are at a road crossing, always try to stand on the side of the road the train is approaching from, if possible. 

And, if possible, try to be back a little ways from the crossing, so that the train crews don't get too nervous about what your intentions are.

Myself, if I am photographing trains near a road crossing, I will set up off the side of the road, and wear a yellow conspicuity vest, as this does a few things. 1 - Others who happen to see you there, will readily see you and that will help you to be safer when near vehicular traffic. 2 - Most train crews are less nervous if they can tell that you are trying to be visible and not startle them. (If I am doing night photos, I will also fire a "warning shot" as I call it, as the train is approaching my location, so that the train crew can see, and therefore expect, a flash of light when I release the shutter as they pass the intended spot for my photo.) 

Some areas, train crews will expect railfans, such as at railfan parks and museums. Other areas, we just might startle them, and the less we make them worry about our intentions, the better. This is why I advise to not be close to the rail line, and to be readily visible if you are close enough to the rails that they can see you from a bit of distance.

Also, if you have a short line railroad nearby, the same crew will most likely be on the train each day, so they just might start to get used to seeing you, and this will work to your advantage. One crew in my area got so used to seeing me, they would give a "horn salute" at the crossing I frequented, eventually even if I wasn't there. (I worked nearby at the time, and heard them, so I knew what was happening.) 

Don't be surprised by crews reactions, as some like seeing us, and others don't. (I have had everything from very friendly crews, to those not so friendly...)

And, above all, be safe, and enjoy your railfanning time!

Thanks ricktrains4824 for the welcome and all those infos. Very grateful guys to help a little newbie like me :)

  • Member since
    December, 2001
  • From: Northern New York
  • 17,840 posts
Posted by tree68 on Tuesday, February 13, 2018 9:14 PM

RailroadXplorer
In the last days, I just started to record the time the train pass by behind my house and also the direction. Are there any other infos I should add on my log as a beginner?

Perhaps a general idea of the consist - all one type of car, mixed, containers, trailers, whatever.  Long train, or short?  You may find that certain types of trains may only run every few days, or on certain days of the week.

Another map program I like is "Acme Mapper."  It offers the ability to look at US topo maps - unfortunately that's not true outside the US, so is of no value to you.  The nice part about that is that sometimes you'll find out who used to run on that line, at least in the US. Acme Mapper also shows the lat/lon where the crosshairs are, if you want to ask a question or otherwise post about a specific location.

LarryWhistling
Resident Microferroequinologist (at least at my house) 
Everyone goes home; Safety begins with you
My Opinion. Standard Disclaimers Apply. No Expiration Date
Come ride the rails with me!
There's one thing about humility - the moment you think you've got it, you've lost it...

  • Member since
    January, 2018
  • 14 posts
Posted by RailroadXplorer on Wednesday, February 14, 2018 5:59 AM

Thanks Larry for the suggestions :)

Join our Community!

Our community is FREE to join. To participate you must either login or register for an account.

Newsletter Sign-Up

By signing up you may also receive occasional reader surveys and special offers from Trains magazine.Please view our privacy policy

Search the Community