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Date: 12/05/16 13:34
Scanners 101 - Help
Author: JLW2K

Howdy all,

I want to get a scanner for rail fanning but I don't know the slightest.  Can anyone point me in the right direction?  What scanner is good and what frequencies do I monitor?  Also what jargon tells me a train is close to my position?


Date: 12/05/16 14:29
Re: Scanners 101 - Help
Author: NKP715

Many, many posts on these subjects  - try the search function.

Date: 12/05/16 15:12
Re: Scanners 101 - Help
Author: JLW2K

For starters, I am looking for scanners...how many search results do you think the word scanner brings up?  Also, I am trying to get a few basic instructions on getting off the ground all wrapped up in one response instead of thread trotting for four hours.  

Date: 12/05/16 15:21
Re: Scanners 101 - Help
Author: jkh2cpu

Recommendations? I'd go for an amateur radio 2 meter
hand held. You don't have to be licensed to own one,
only to transmit. These rigs cost in the neighborhood
of $100-150. They can be tedious to program by hand,
and I belive most have an adapter that allows programming
via a cable to your computer. The advantage to the
ham radio is that is is designed to listen on 130 to 170
mHz, which includes the railroad frequencies (160-161 mHz)
and these babies are really sensitive. Google 'ham radio
suppliers' and you'll get a load of dealers.


John, aka K6KMJ.

Date: 12/05/16 17:33
Re: Scanners 101 - Help
Author: sptno

I would not spend a lot of money on a scanner, you could get a great 'ham' radio 2-meter capable radio that would receive the railroad frequencies.
Like what was posted, there are numerous ham radio equipment supplier that sell these radios, I would get at least 200 channel capable and also get the programming software.
At some point in time, the railroads will switch to NXDN digital and these radio capable of receiving the digital signals are expensive.
Yaesu, Kenwood and Icom all make excellent radios capable of receiving the railroad frequencies.
Good luck!
Austin, TX

Date: 12/05/16 19:32
Re: Scanners 101 - Help
Author: K3HX

Ditto on the use of amateur radio ("ham") 2 meter handheld radios for RR monitoring use.

I am partial to Yaesu for handheld radios and would recommend the FT-270R.  If you are unfamiliar
with programming, RT Systems makes a kit which includes a disc and cable kit which provides a
Excel-like spreadsheet which makes setting up the radio MUCH easier.  There are many functions
on ham radio handhelds that are of no use to railfans and some of these features, if invoked whilst
programming the memories, may render the unit ineffective as a RR band scanner.  The disc and
cable are about $50.  If you get stuck, RT Systems has excellent technical support.  The disc and cable
are not radio serial number specific so you can sell the cable and disc to an amateur radio operator
or another railfan with the FT-270R radio and they can use it to program their radio.
If you choose to go with the RT Systems kit, a tip: use a fine point "Sharpie" and print the disc
identification number on the disc itself.  Another tip: get a slim "jewel box" to store the disc
rather than the sleeve that comes with the disc.

Accessories:  You may find it useful to get a battery CASE that holds AA alkaline batteries in
addition to the battery PACK  rechargable battery that comes with the radio.  Be sure to get
a genuine Yaesu branded item, some of the 3rd party aftermarket units  do not fit well.  The
rationale being that if your battery PACK runs down, you can still listen using the battey CASE
and replacement AA batteries for the CASE are as close as the next  gas station.

Speaker-mike.  This is a small speaker that clips to your collar.  When listening with the radio on
your hip, it saves you the trouble of removing the radio and pressing it to your ear.  With the
speaker on your collar, just tilt your head or raise the appropriate shoulder to cause the
speaker to be closer to your ear.  MFJ offers a decent speaker-mike for less money than the
genuine Yaesu part.

Power cord.  Allows you to run the radio from a cigar lighter in your auto and / or charge the
battery PACK.  Genuine Yaesu power cords are pretty costly, If you have "model railroader"
level soldering and electrical construction skills, send me a PM and I'll tell you how to
construct your own power cord.

Also, an amateur radio handheld radio has a residual value of about 50% after 3 years.  If the
NXDN system is  implemented at some future date, the radio will still retain value.

The antenna that is supplied with any 2 meter amateur radio handheld radio is set up ("tuned") for operation
at about 146 MHz.  Rail operation in the US is centered about 160.890 MHz.  While the supplied antenna
will get signals on the RR band, you could do better.  I've been beating the drum for the MFJ-1717S
antenna for some years.  It has a measured improvement over the stock antenna and runs about $18.
Whilst intended as an amateur radio antenna for the 2 meter and 70 cm ham bands, it has a "sweet spot"
in the RR band.  The catch is that the whip is quite long and will slap you in the back as you walk  if you
have the radio on your hip.

I've dealt with "Smiley Antennas" .....once.  I do not care for the way they conduct their business.

I have had good experiences with: DX Engineering, Universal Radio, MFJ Enterprises and Giga Parts.

I'll be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Be Well,

Tim Colbert  K3HX

In the 2-way radio business 30+ years

In amateur radio 52+ years.

Date: 12/05/16 22:01
Re: Scanners 101 - Help
Author: wa4umr

The above entries are all great.  Basically, any scanner I've ever seen would cover the railroad frequencies, 160-162 MHz.  

You can find a list of the AAR frequencies at http://kohlin.com/freq/AAR_freqs.htm or other places.  
If you are looking for a particular railroad you can try http://www.whrc-wi.org/railfreqs.htm  
I have all of the AAR frequencies programmed in my radio.  AAR chan 12 in memory channel 12, AAR 84 in mem 84, etc...
K3HX, Tim started a great article a few days ago â€‹[url=http://www.trainorders.com/discussion/read.php?9,4167391]http://www.trainorders.com/discussion/read.php?9,4167391[/url].  Several good comments on that thread.  Look at the one by WW.  It explains a few things you might want to know.  

The aftermarket antenna that Tim mentioned above is a good addition.   Ditto on the programming software.

The ham radios are excellent and in many cases, price comparable with a scanner only radio.  As WW said, they are not "scanners" but they have a scan function.  They don't scan quite as fast as a scanner but they will usually go through 100 channels in about 10 seconds.  The Baofeng radios mentioned in that thread have good receivers but terrible scan functions, about 30 seconds for 100 channels.  It's fine if you want to listen to a single frequency for the line you are watching.   The manual I got with mine was 16 pages, including the covers.  My ham radio had over 160 pages, much more detailed.

You ask, "Also what jargon tells me a train is close to my position?"   That sort of depends on your territory.  There could be a defect detector that talks as the train passes.  Some talk for everything that passes, others only talk on a defect.  You should be able to hear them about ten miles away, again, depending on the territory.  They identify by Milepost location so you need to learn where you are in relation to them.  Listen to the dispatcher and you can learn where trains might be.  Along some routes the engineer has to call out signals as he passes.  Sometimes it's a place name (Hillview North or MH Tower) and other times it's a milepost number.  Regardless, you should familiarize yourself with the approximate location of various MP.  A signal with a sign 1234 would most likely be mile 123.4.   At some grade crossing they have signs on the crossing signals that have the mile location on them.  If not, there is usually a signal shack near the crossing and they often have the MP location.  Knowing where things are will help you.  Talk to other fans in the area.  They can help you with some information, or ask for some help on the Eastern or Western discussions.  

If you have more specific questions, drop me a PM and I'll see what I can do to help.  There's a lot that folks on here can help you with if we know exactly what you need to know and your location.  I have some frequency information for a lot of CSX and NS, and somewhat less for BNSF, UPRR, and some short lines.  As far as radio experience, I've been a ham for over 50 years.  Tim K3HX, JKH2CPU John, WW, and sptno (WA5VRO) are all hams.  If you see any of us with call letters starting with one or two letters, the first being  A, K, N, or W, followed with a single digit number, and then 2 or 3 more letters, then we're hams.

John  WA4UMR


Date: 12/05/16 22:42
Re: Scanners 101 - Help
Author: TCnR

Try searching on the manufacturers name, Yeasu, Kenwood, Bearcat, Icom. There is quite a bit of confusion using the term 'scanner' as it includes a slide or photo scanner as well. There's also retail outlets that will show up on a Google search, Ham Outlet, Scanner World, for example. Amazon also handles lots of HAM and scanning receivers.

I've tried a number of Bearcats and also have two of the popular Yeasu receivers. Something that I found of interest when 'chasing' a train or waiting at a photo location is to monitor the End-Of-Train device on 457.9375 (going from memory so maybe somebody can verify) and one or two nearby channels. DPU's may also be using this frequency or something nearby, the data stream produces an audible 'chirp' when the transmitters are within a certain distance. That means a hobbyist receiver can/should include the 457.xxx band, something that general tri-band hobby receivers usually have but a HAM receiver needs to be verified that it is designed for that band combination.

So I have a Yeasu FT-270 and a FT-60r and wind up using a 20 year old Bearcat BC100XL with Amazon replacement battery packs, since it receives the State Police and the Highway Dept; the RR band and State and BLM Fire; and the EOT. The Yeasu's are rugged and have good reception (with the proper antenna) but the keyboard commands and functions are a real pain to deal with. There is a software and connector package, but that's getting farther away from the chase and the photo. They should also have a decent resale value if/when the RR's do go digital.

Another challenge is finding accurate frequencies, we all have our favorite sources. Mine being the series of Altamont Press Timetables, but anything printed or posted could be out of date almost right away. There's also http://www.radioreference.com/apps/db/?aid=4010  ; or railroad radio dot net that streams the audio from volunteer locations.

Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 12/05/16 22:51 by TCnR.

Date: 12/06/16 10:46
Re: Scanners 101 - Help
Author: cchan006

JLW2K Wrote:
> For starters, I am looking for scanners...how many
> search results do you think the word scanner
> brings up?  Also, I am trying to get a few basic
> instructions on getting off the ground all wrapped
> up in one response instead of thread trotting for
> four hours.

I second the advice above about keeping an eye on the upcoming NXDN (digital) implementation. That means eventually, the scanner you buy now might become obsolete sooner than you realize... so you don't need to go fancy, buying CHEAP is OK.

My suggestion is buy something reasonably priced ASAP and start listening, because that's the best way to learn. You need to know the name of control points where you are railfanning, and that means you need to look for a timetable and start studying maps. If timetable is not available, many of the signal boxes at control points have names, so you can get started that way. Some local railfan sites include milepost/control point information - it takes time to find it, and sometimes it's quicker to do it yourself than wait for a response in a discussion board.

Railroader lingo will remain meaningless unless you know where you are.

I bought a cheap Uniden BC72XLT 8 years ago, and I still use it. I think I can boast here that my "kill ratio" for catching trains using that scanner is pretty good, based on many of the reports I've posted here. Some have called these Unidens garbage, but remember, you can buy cheap and get something better later. I'm convinced Uniden has updated the internal circuitry since I bought mine, since I did a side-by-side performance test with jmf1910 (who has the same model, bought several years later), and even with the same Diamond RH77CA antenna, his reception is better than mine.

Anyway, the expertise here on TO is quite impressive, so be patient and don't demand to have them respond in a certain way. I've learned quite a bit from their free advice, even if I'm still using the cheap, garbage Uniden. :-)

Date: 12/07/16 08:33
Re: Scanners 101 - Help
Author: WW

My advice to James:  Take the time to do the search on scanners on this forum, read the posts about them.  Do the research--don't expect people to spoon-feed you the answers.  All of James' questions (and a lot more) have been answered numerous times on this forum.

Getting a radio is just part of learning about how to use it to one's benefit for railfanning.  That also means researching the line where one plans to railfan.  What are the station names?  Where are the mileposts?  What does the information transmitted by a Track Warrant or Track and Time mean?  What do all the various abbreviations and slang mean?  How does one piece together what is happening when one can only hear one side of a conversation, or when more than one conversation is happening concurrently?  What do talking defect detectors tell about train operations?  All of this requires research and, then, experience.  And, with the coming changes in communications technology, it is going to become more challenging than ever for railfans to ferret out the information that they want from what they hear.  In short, it's not easy, but most things that are worthwhile aren't.

Date: 12/07/16 16:33
Re: Scanners 101 - Help
Author: CPRR

Radio Shack....

Posted from iPhone

Date: 12/07/16 21:52
Re: Scanners 101 - Help
Author: Rick2582

Ham radios are good for RR reception.  Some scanners are pretty good.  I have had several models of each type over the last 35 years and they have their specific uses and modes where they shine.  I still use some of the tried and true radio sets from those days.  Here's my extra 2 cents for perhaps an unusual alternative radio.

For most outside listening to RR VHF voice channels, I currently use the Bendix King EPH5102, X metal case or S lexan case suffix, handheld radio.  The radios are field or computer programmable, can be set for narrowband operation (narrow filter on receive and transmit as now used by the RRs and required by the FCC since 2013), have very good sensitivity, very rugged (military version is the PRC-127).  The batteries can be switched out easily in the separate clam-shell battery holder, quite long battery life with NIMH batteries in the pack, though the charging needs be done with a separate charger like the MAHA.  The radios are inexpensive since the US Forest Service and other gov't Agencies are switching over to analog/digital capable radios so the market is flooded with these old analog-only versions.  Accessories are easily available new and cheap if you shop carefully.  Programming instructions are easy to find and programming very easy to do.  Loud and clear audio from the built-in speaker, one of the best speaker/mikes I've seen (though it's not pretty), nylon carrying cases are military design and most are padded for good radio protection.  Radio will scan and does priority watch.  20 channels per bank, 210 channels total.  Antennas easy to find and rugged.  Telescoping antenna is expensive but works great out in the sticks.

One does need to be careful because the used condition of radios for sale varies greatly.  I buy mine off ePay for about $70 apiece.  So far so good but I've been burned once or twice from other sellers.  The push to talk switch is very weak, the rubber covers disintegrate quickly.  But listening doesn't need transmit.  You won't find much review or talk about these radios on the InterNet, they are not good looking or fancy radios.  No fancy bells or whistles.  Very common appearance bordering on ugly.  But they work quite well and that's what we want.

It's a big heavy brick and won't ever do digital, but as an interim radio before digital becomes common and after the recent mandatory narrowbanding, it's one heck of a good deal !  Just ask the Armed Forces - they were used in Iraq, Afghanistan and God knows where else since the 1990s.  Ask the LA County firefighters, the State Forestry departments,CCC boys, etc.  They are the ones who told me.

Rick Somers, KK6EL
Redding, CA

Date: 12/08/16 11:58
Re: Scanners 101 - Help
Author: WW

I've owned the 5102 and I do not recommend them.  Here's why:  First, they are field programmable, but the programming steps are complicated and if one makes a mistake, it pretty much means having to start over.  Not all 5102's are narrow-band capable, depending on the version.  Newer ones are, older ones aren't.  Buying one used is a gamble as to which version one gets.  The older non-narrow band capable versions are flooding the used market because they are no longer legal for transmitting in the commercial bands.  

Second, many of the older 5102's have a weakness in the circuit board that can cause intermittent or total failures in the radio.  Again, caveat emptor if you are buying a used one.   While the radio is physically tough, the way the battery mounts is a weak spot and can break if the radio is not protected in a sturdy case.  That is the Number 1 complaint that I've heard from the people who use them daily (Forest Service, BLM, etc.). 

A far better choice in the used market is the Kenwood TK-290.  The 290 has excellent selectivity and sensitivity specs, good audio, and is a robust, tough radio.  Its only downside is only 128 channels, not enough to hold the 97 "original"  AAR channels and the new splinter analog channels (the latter not in any widespread use that I know of).  The 290 is the portable that many railroads preferred for the their crew use until they started replacing radios with NXDN digital-capable models.  Beware if you see 290's on E-bay that are advertised as being already railroad-programmed unless you trust the seller.  Some stolen railroad radios have shown up for sale on various websites.  I've owned a TK-290 for nearly 20 years and, other than replacing the battery, the radio has performed flawlessly.  One note---the TK-290 and most any other commercial band radio can not be field programmed with frequencies.  The 5102 was one exception--built with limited field frequency programming capability because a major buyer of the radio demanded it--the US Forest Service.

All of the above radios are toast once the railroads actually go digital.  Though I believe that this is still coming, the current economic downturn for the railroads may push it a little farther into the future.  Also, I do not know of any portable amateur radio that will tune the analog "splinter frequencies" created by narrow-banding--a fact generally omitted from posts here and also from most of the advertising of those radios.  One of the few amateur mobiles that will is the Kenwood TM-281, a relatively inexpensive and excellent performing analog radio.  Its receive specs are as good or better than many commercial radios at a fraction of the cost.  

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 12/08/16 12:03 by WW.

Date: 12/08/16 13:24
Re: Scanners 101 - Help
Author: ChessieSystem

Honestly, from a fellow HAM, I suggest you ignore the HAM radio recommendations. I believe this route sets up a too much too fast scenario. For entry level into the hobby I would look for a second hand hand held scanner from a pawnshop, online (ebay etc), or yard sale. A scanner removes the temptation to key up without a licence and offers ease of use for someone unfamiliar with radio. Maybe add a run of the mill all band mag mount antenna with a matching connector if you want better mobile reception from a vehicle.  Check Radio Reference or another website (there are others if you search) for help in guiding you to specific frequencies in your area.


JLW2K Wrote:
> Howdy all,
> I want to get a scanner for rail fanning but I
> don't know the slightest.  Can anyone point me in
> the right direction?  What scanner is good and
> what frequencies do I monitor?  Also what jargon
> tells me a train is close to my position?
> Thanks,
> James

Date: 12/08/16 13:27
Re: Scanners 101 - Help
Author: exhaustED

I can second the comments of K3HX above. I've got a Yaesu (FT-250R) and the MFJ antenna. I've been really pleased with them, very sensitive and clear pick-up, very robust and long battery life, pretty compact and easy to carry too.
The MFJ aerial takes an already very good device and just makes the sensitivity that little bit better and the sound clearer at the railroad frequencies.

A google search will pretty easily find the railroad frequencies for specific railroads at specific locations in a few minutes...the info is readily out there. There's something quite exciting about sitting somewhere quiet by the tracks.... and then your scanner suddenly crackles into life....'UP detector, milepost xxx.x, no defects.....'!

Edited 3 time(s). Last edit at 12/08/16 13:40 by exhaustED.

Date: 12/08/16 13:33
Re: Scanners 101 - Help
Author: TCnR

Agree that a lot of our discussion could be scaring away an entry level hobbyist. Check some prices on ScannerWorld or Amazon website, find some Altamont Press timetables or on the many websites and you're good to go...listen.

Date: 12/09/16 11:02
Re: Scanners 101 - Help
Author: joemvcnj

Why are the 2 way radios much cheaper than tradtional scanners ?

Date: 12/09/16 16:04
Re: Scanners 101 - Help
Author: WrongMain

Back in April I purchased the Uniden BC125AT and it has been excellent.  In fact, two of my friends have purchased this scanner, too, based on what they have seen and heard with my scanner.  It will hold 500 channels, does narrow band, and you can label each channel.  It uses only two AA batteries and has a nice display.  Not too hard to program, either.  I have all the AAR channels and all the narrowband channels programmed in it and have used several of the other banks to handle frequencies for trips.  There are ten banks and each bank holds 50 channels.  The antenna has a BNC connector so it is very easy to change  I would buy it again in a heartbeat.  You can get it on Amazon for less than $100.


Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 12/10/16 12:02 by WrongMain.

Date: 12/11/16 07:55
Re: Scanners 101 - Help
Author: sptno

Some scanners that are digital capable are quite expensive.  Analog only scanners with around 100 or so channels should be quite inexpensive.

South Austin, TX

Date: 12/11/16 11:37
Re: Scanners 101 - Help
Author: WW

When it comes to reception--and to receive railroad radio signals is what a railfan buys a radio to do--nearly all scanners have the same basic shortcomings.  They are this:  scanners generally have either good selectivity, but poor sensitivity; or they have good sensitivity, but poor selectivity.  The challenge for a radio manufacturer is to produce a radio that has BOTH good sensitivity and good selectivity.  For railfans, having a radio that has both is pretty important.  Why?  Because railfans generally operate their radios in one of two environments:  metro areas where there is a ton of radio interference (RF).  That requires a radio that has adequate selectivity to reject unwanted signals while still being able to hear the desired signal.  Or, the railfan may be monitoring in a rural area where railroad radio traffic (mobiles, remote bases, repeaters) may be some distance away.  That requires a radio with adequate sensitivity to receive weak radio signals.  I have yet to see a scanner that has both very good selectivity and very good sensitivity--even some really expensive ones.  As an example, I have a pretty darned expensive GRE scanner--supposedly top of the line.  It's deaf as a post to weak signals.  I also used to own a Uniden mobile scanner.  It was very sensitive, but would pick up even weak RF interference constantly.

One of the reasons that commercial radios (and many amateur radios) cost more than scanners is that they are designed to meet fairly rigorous specs for sensitivity and selectivity.  I use commercial radios daily in my work and I also use them frequently for railfanning.  The difference between them and cheap scanners is that I can be standing right next to a railfan and hear radio traffic that his/her scanner can't even hear or that comes through as just static.  Given that there already is a lot less railroad traffic out there, missing that one transmission because of a poor quality scanner can be the difference between knowing what is going on and missing the whole show.

Oh, there is one other place where most scanners get a big "fail" in my book--audio output.  Listening to a radio is one thing when one is sitting, say, in a quiet room; it's quite another when one is outside near a busy railroad.  Most portable scanners skimp here, too.  They use smallish speakers and low audio output wattage, usually 200 to 300 milliwatts.  Most amateur and commercial portable radios have at least 500 MW of audio output.  Some commercial models are now using 800 MW and several have 1 watt of audio output.  Commercial models generally have bigger speakers that will distort audio output less, as well.

Sadly, most scanner manufacturers don't want you to know the shortcomings of their radios.  That is why many of them don't publish their specs, or leave out many of the important ones.  They will brag about stuff like scan speed, etc., and conveniently omit any revelations about selectivity, sensitivity, or audio output.    

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 12/11/16 11:45 by WW.

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