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Railfan Technology > Railroad Radio's
Date: 04/09/17 15:58
Thinking about a new scanner but remembered something that at some point were the railroad were going to have to change radio types? If that was/is true will we still be able to listen on a scanner? Assume different frequencies in another band.
Thanks in advance to all that respond.
Date: 04/09/17 16:31
Re: Railroad Radio's
If you are comfortable with TO's search engine, type in NXDN regarding the proposed change to digital, which hasn't happened yet.
Are you "upgrading" to a better scanner? Are you a first time buyer? Answer can be different depending on your specific situation. I bought an entry-level Uniden handheld 8 years ago (BC72XLT) and I'm still using it.
Based on side-by-side comparison (Yaesu, GRE, etc.), I've been tempting to buy something "better" but I haven't, because the cheapo Uniden has helped me nab almost all the trains I wanted to catch, so it's "good enough." My "loss" in investment will be minimal, in case the railroads do switch to NXDN and I'm forced to buy a new scanner.
Date: 04/09/17 16:41
Re: Railroad Radio's
Thank you I will search.
I been listening off and on for years and thinking like most electronics my older scanner is probably as outdate as old PC from the 1990's.
Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 04/09/17 16:41 by northridgeswitcher.
Date: 04/09/17 16:48
Re: Railroad Radios.
There are 3 significant radio trends in RR communication.
The one involving a frequency band change is the government-mandated anti-collision system which
operates on @220 MHz ( previously used by amateur radio operators.)
The other two are "narrow banding" and Digital mode.
Narrow banding reduces the bandwidth required and effectively increases the number of channels
per allocated "space." The method used causes the received signal in a typical scanner to sound
less loud. Some scanners and some amateur radio units have a "narrow" position which attempts
to compensate for the reduced output......with varying degrees of effectiveness.
The digital mode is in limited use and will require a radio specially configured to decode the transmissions.
The digital mode is very easy to encrypt making the system potentially useless for railfans.
Keeping in mind that the RR are noted for inertia and that the digital system is not currently mandatory,
my thought is that it will not be a significant factor for several years.
For the time being, I'd recommend an amateur radio "Handie-Talkie" such as the Yaesu FT-270. If the RR radio systems
change to the digital system, there will be a significant secondary market in the amateur radio community.
Tim Colbert K3HX
Date: 04/09/17 16:52
Re: Railroad Radios.
Thanks Tim. Great information.
Date: 04/09/17 17:50
Re: Railroad Radios.
We've had quite a few discussions about radios in the past year or two. I have chased down the HAM radio idea but also have revived my older tri-band scanners as well. There's some hidden tradeoffs and selections to be made depending on how a person uses their radios.
The 'better' receivers should list a sensitivity of 0.2 microvolts in the RR band, one of the first major advantages of the HAM radios is selecting one with a higher audio output, 700 mW audio is available. It makes listening in the car or a medium outdoor noise environment a great deal easier. The HAM radios are also more rugged, usually better battery life and almost always better sensitivity. I'm finding the selectivity problem, most recognized as all those wierd tones and unwanted noise problems, to be found in the strangest places due to the numerous repeaters we have for modern life, less for HAM radios but it still happens and usually at a power level making the receiver useless until simply moving out range. For example at Orin Junction in Wyoming there's a number of repeaters in the area that hangs up the radios. Since hobby scanners as well as ham receivers have this problem going on, the issue becomes how easy it is to lock or skip over that channel.
Hobby receivers are usually have tri-band capability, so they usually include State or Hiway Patrol or State road maintainance depending on the State. These are really handy in heavy weather conditions, if that's part of the hobby. Storm chasers for example monitor a number of tactical Public Safety channels (not just NWS), so would somebody chasing Snow equipment on Donner, or Iowa.
The End of Train and DPU data channels can be handy for discovering a train especially in branch line or little used districts. If that's part of the tool box then the Tri-band scanners can receive that band where a 2-meter radio doesn't. Selecting a dual band HAM receiver also covers that band, The phrase seems to be '144/430' MHz or 'VHF/UHF 2 Meter & 70cm'.
So the Hobby scanner runs about 100 bucks, the Ham 2 meter around 150, dual band 150 to 200 USD plus any s/w and antenna upgrades. The RR Bands do require an antenna replacement for the HAM radios to make the investment work right. Another consideration is the HAM radios have a re-sale value if the big bad NXDN really happens. Most of the more complex radios have aftermarket S/W to avoid complex keyboard entries.
I'm using Yeasu FT60 dual-band and a FT-270 2m. My ancient Bearcat 100XLT works really well and gets a lot of time in bad weather since it covers 42-47 MHz. Had I known about the FT-250 I would have considered that. I just realized there is an Icom IC-T70A-HD dual band with 700 mW audio that would have been interesting as well.
Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 04/09/17 21:41 by TCnR.
Date: 04/09/17 22:55
Re: Railroad Radios.
I've covered a lot of this in other posts, so I will try to approach this from a slightly different angle this time. Before I do, for the record, I've been around two-way radio most of my life and I've been monitoring railroad radio for over 30 years now. So, I have some perspective on what works, what doesn't, and what's changed.
Here are the challenges of monitoring railroad radio communications as I see them, and what equipment does the job best.
Radio interference. When I started monitoring railroad radio back in the 1980's, radio interference--"noise" or "intermod"--was not a big problem, except in large metro areas with a lot of radio communications. With the proliferation of all kinds of interference-producing electronic devices, radio interference is now a big problem almost everywhere. A monitoring radio tries to filter out this interference by having a good "selectivity" spec--that is being able to reject unwanted signals from interfering with receiving the desired signal. Scanners generally have only mediocre to poor selectivity, their biggest single drawback for being effective for railfanning. Amateur radios are generally better, and commercial radios being generally the best at rejecting interference.
Receive sensitivity. The more sensitive the receiver of a radio is, the better it will receive weak signals. Today, most radios usually have pretty good sensitivity. The problem is that sensitivity and selectivity often work at sort of cross purposes. Oftentimes, inexpensive scanners go for good sensitivity, but sacrifice selectivity in the process. One of the reasons that commercial radios cost considerably more than scanners or even amateur radios is that commercial radios are built with enough sophistication in their electronic componentry to achieve both good selectivity and sensitivity.
Audio output. This simply means how loud the radio's audio is and how intelligible that audio is. Unfortunately, most radio specs only show the wattage output of the radio's audio. The size and quality of the speaker is usually omitted from the specs and is equally important in how audible the radio is. In portable radios, I consider an audio output power spec of anything less than 500 MW inadequate for railfanning. Many scanners fall below that threshold. Most amateur and commercial radios are from 500 MW to 1 Watt audio output. As for speaker size and quality, the best way to test it is to physically listen to the radio. Turn the radio to full volume. Is the audio loud enough to be heard in a noisy environment AND is the audio clear and undistorted? A "no" answer to either question should mean looking for a different radio.
Narrow banding and "splinter" frequencies. Essentially the entire VHF two-way radio band was "narrow-banded"--that is, cutting the width of each frequency in half in 2013, from a 25 kHz width to a 12.5 kHz width. The exception were the amateur VHF frequencies, which remain at 25 kHz wide. In the VHF railroad radio band, that means that there are now 184 authorized frequencies, double that of the 97 before narrow-banding. Those new "splinter" frequencies are available for licensure and use right now. Unfortunately, most amateur radios, while they can be "narrow-banded" to receive the 12.5 kHz width signals better, have NOT been upgraded to tune those splinter frequencies. Old scanners may not tune them, either. Most newer scanners will tune the splinter frequencies, and most all commercial radios built after around 2000 will--any commercial VHF two-way radios built after 1/1/2013 are REQUIRED to be able to tune the splinter channels. The lack of splinter tuning capability has knocked the otherwise fine Yaesu FT-250 and FT-270 amateur radios off of my "recommended" list of railfan radios. Oddly, in portable amateur radios, some of the Chinese radios are the only ones that I currently know will tune the splinter channels--the "mainstream" Japanese amateur portable radios won't, as far as I've seen to date.
NXDN digital. Yes, it's coming to most all of the railroads at some point. NXDN actually does two things. First, it is a digital platform, one that, in scanners, only one portable and one mobile scanner currently in production can decode (either of which that are currently priced about as high as a commercial NXDN-capable digital radio). Second, NXDN narrows the frequency width from 12.5 kHz to 6.25 kHz, creating yet another pile of potential frequencies for railroad use. So, for a railfan to listen to NXDN, he or she must be willing to spring for one of the very spendy NXDN scanners, or buy a commercial two-way NXDN capable digital radio--currently only sold by Kenwood or Icom. There are NO amatuer radios currently marketed that can decode NXDN. Warning here: DO NOT confuse "digital capable" or "digital radio" with NXDN digital. There are numerous digital platforms out there (P25, DMR, D-Star, etc.) that ARE NOT in any way NXDN-compatible.
Number of channels. Nothing is worse that having to fumble around trying to field program channels in a radio while one is out railfanning. So, it's best to have a radio with all the available AAR railroad channels pre-programmed into the radio and, when scanning, simply lock out the unneeded channels from the scan list. Prior to 2013, that meant that a dedicated railfan radio could have a 99 channel capacity (a common scanner channel capacity for years) and they all would "fit" into the radio. Well, just in analog, that potential number is now 184, This has knocked some more excellent radios off of my recommended list, including the extremely good performing Kenwood TK-290 commercial portable radio--its only 160 channel capacity knocks it off of the list. With an NXDN radio, number of potential frequencies can zoom to close to 500.
Radio programming. Frequencies in scanners and amateur radios can generally be programmed from the keypad, In most commercial radios, they must be pre-programmed via a computer software program and programming cable. Most scanner and amatuer radio manufacturers have "wised up" and now offfer programming cables and software for their radios, as well. I've spent hours hand entering frequenices into radios and, with the proliferation of channels created by narrow-banding, it's no longer worth it. I program all the AAR channels into the radio via PC and software these days. Typically, I can go years without modifying the frequency programming after that. Also, programming software for scanners and amatuer radios are free or low cost, and cables are usually fairly inexpensive. On commercial radios, however, programming software and cables can often be quite expensive. In those, having a dealer or qualified radio service company program the radio may be more cost-effective. Also, most commercial radios,especially NXDN radios, can be extremely complicated to program, even by someone with lots of radio experience. I program NXDN radios in my work, and they can be a bear, even for a guy who like me who has been programming two-way radios for many years.
Physical ruggedness. If you use a portable radio very much for anything, railfanning included, sooner or later you are going to drop it. In many railfanning locales, there's a good probability that radio is going to land on something solid and hard. Will the radio stand up to it? Most scanners won't--they are not built to a high spec for ruggedness. By contrast, most amateur and commercial radios are. Commercial radios, especially, have to be designed to take a lot of physical abuse. That has bled down to the amateur market, where many portable amateur radios are encased in the same bodies as the commercial models. Not so with scanners. For scanners, especially, I recommend purchasing a sturdy leather type case to protect the radio.
Antennas. OK, all "rubber ducky" portable radio antennas suck at reception compared to good vehicle-mounted antennas, some rubber duckies just suck less than others. Hang the portable radio on your belt and the reception is compromised some more. Have the portable inside a vehicle with the antenna inside the vehicle and the reception really goes down the tubes. So, what to do? Well, first, get a "gain" type rubber ducky antenna that is tuned specifically to the railroad band. I like the Smiley 5/8 Slim Duck or the Laird EXH-160 models the best. In a vehicle, I strongly suggest getting an external mount antenna (not a glass-mount antenna, they stink as far as reception goes) that is tuned to the railroad band. Best solution is to have a permanent, professionally-installed external antenna on your railfanning vehicle, connected to a good quality amateur or commercial mobile radio--use the portable only when you're railfanning outside the vehicle.
Cost. Sorry to say, when it comes to radios for railfanning, you usually get what you pay for. The key is to find the compromise between how well you want the radio to perform vs. what it costs. If missing a lot of communications is not a big deal to you, then a relatively inexpensive setup will likely work OK. If, however, getting that once-in-a-lifetime photo or video means being able to hear every available railroad radio communication as clearly as possible, then spending a fair chunk of money for the best equipment may be in order.
Is railroad radio as we know it going to still be around? This is a fair question. My answer is "yes," but with a lot less communication useful to railfans. There are already ways to electronically deliver things like track warrants to trains by means other than voice. NXDN will open that capability further. PTC may also change things, too. Also, with NXDN, the railroads could encrypt their communications, making it un-hearable by railfans, even with an NXDN radio. There are reasons concerned with interoperability of radios on the railroads that make full encryption unlikely, in my opinion, but it still could happen.
One thing for sure, things have come a long way from the days of having a 2 to 16 channel scanner, with a box of crystals for each desired channel rolling around in the glove box. Yes, I do remember those days . . .
Date: 04/15/17 22:27
Re: Railroad Radios.
What they said ! A lot of great advice above.
So far, no frequency change in local channels in Northern California on the Shasta Route - Marysville north to Klamath Falls. Some loss of volume due to narrowing the transmitted signals makes some transmissions difficult to hear even though frequency is spot on. And yes, more track and time and other orders are being transmitted by cell tower than before, but still much radio talk since cell coverage is spotty in mountainous areas like the Sacto River canyon. Still using a Yaesu mobile transceiver in the car and Icom 32at and Regency HX-1000 (34 years old and sounds great) portables. Notice the engineers and conductors are talking more quietly than they used to - the new cabs are quieter - the DS sometimes asks them to speak up ! Then I usually hear them clearly.
PTC in use and testing on 220 mHz.