Railfan Atlas: The latest tool in the railfan arsenal

on Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Railfans are an ingenious lot. Over they years they developed an assortment of tools to make railfanning fun and more productive. They adopted radios to listen in on railroader’s conversations. With the advent of digital cameras and related technology, they can shoot night flash photos the way O. Winston Link did in the 1950s, but minus any wiring. Tech savvy fans developed ATCS Monitor, which allows you to monitor rail traffic on a computer screen and see if any trains are coming. 

For railfan photographers there’s been no shortage of websites to post to, the largest of which include and Yahoo’s Flickr. If you are heading into unknown territory, you can look at these sites and see what other fans have shot to guide you. But to do so can require extensive and time-consuming searches – until now.

Railfan and web developer Nick Benson of Burnsville, Minn., has built a solution to the search problem. He created “Railfan Atlas” a search tool to allow fans to instantly see photos of trains at a particular location.

The Railfan Atlas is a map interface for exploring railroad photography from Flickr. You enter a location in the Railfan Atlas search engine and presto! – photos from that location pop up. There are more than half a million photos from over twelve thousand photographers on the Atlas right now, with more being added all the time.

For example, just typing in “Proctor, Minnesota” – site of the large former Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range yard now operated by CN – produces dozens of photos. The Atlas is detailed too – the range of photos at Proctor varies from shots at the diesel shop, at grade crossings, and an overpass at the north end of the yard. They vary from historic photos of the DM&IR to current shots.

Benson started Railfan Atlas in April 2014. Why? “When I was planning a trip to go and shoot somewhere I just wanted one place where I go and see shots from that area,” he says. “And there wasn’t a good way to do that.”

As it turned out, Flickr had ways the information Benson was looking for could be retrieved and automated. Flickr has what computer geeks call an “API” – an interface that allows anyone to write a program asking Flickr for public information about pictures it has. Benson’s program asks Flickr to give him a list of photos that are in dozens of rail photo groups on the site. His program constantly searches the groups and gives the program the latitude and longitude of photos so they can be placed on maps in the Atlas, which is based on Google Maps. Current rail lines are highlighted in red on the maps.

The Atlas works when a rail photographer posts a public shot to Flickr, publicly “geo tags” it to a map or GPS coordinates and adds it to one of the rail groups Benson’s program is monitoring. The program respects all of Flickr’s privacy settings, including a setting that allows photographers to opt out of API searches. The program further narrows the selection process by picking images based on the number of comments, followed by number of “favorites,” number of views, along with the number of photos a photographer already has in the Atlas. It looks at the percentile ranks of each of those factors and assigns them points; those with the highest point rankings go on the Atlas.

The Railfan Atlas website is entirely public, with no login required. “The goal is that it is so simple and basic you can just look at it and immediately know how it works,” says Benson. The more you zoom in to a location, the more photos show up, and you can select a specific photographer if you like, but features are intentionally minimal to keep it easy to use. While it works best on a fast computer, it works pretty well on smartphones and tablets – you can even zoom into your GPS location when in the field.

To keep it running, Benson rents a server on a monthly basis. He says the site will never make money, because it doesn’t really generate enough traffic for advertising, but a bigger factor he says is that he’s not comfortable trying to make money off other people’s images. “I’m happy to share it with other people because I put the work into it so I might as well let other people see it too,” he says.

The Atlas even shows locations on abandoned lines as long as the photographer has geo tagged it. It is also worldwide – while there is not a lot of activity in Africa or South America, other areas, like Europe, Japan, and of course Great Britain see a lot of activity.

To check it out go to


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