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Railfan Technology > A very legitimate question that I get about railfan radio


Date: 08/22/21 17:05
A very legitimate question that I get about railfan radio
Author: WW

The question:  With railroads seemingly using radio much less for a lot of communication than they used to, why should I spend money for an expensive radio, especially one of the expensive NXDN radios?

The first part of the question is absolutely factual.  The railroads ARE using radio for voice communication much less than they did even a few years ago.  Both the railroads and their regulators have been pushing to eliminate "chatter" on the railroad radio as much as possible.  I live near a fairly busy Class 1 railroad mainline.  A few years ago, there would be a nearly constant stream of radio communication.  Today, there can be periods of silence on the channel that last more than a hour.  So, why bother with having a good radio to monitor the railroad radio channels, or even have a radio at all?  Well, the answer at first blush may seem counter-intuitive, but here it is:  If there is going to be relatively little railroad radio communications, you'd better have a radio that will effectively "hear" what little traffic there is.  Here is an example of what I mean.  Not long ago, I was photographing along a secondary mainline--it has CTC, but not a huge amount of traffic.  I had photographed a westbound, but then "leap-frogged' about a 50 mile stretch where the lack of a good road network made chasing along the line impractical.  I timed my driving so that I could catch the westbound train at an accessible and scenic spot, leaving myself ample time to get set up.  I sat waiting in my vehicle for a long time (it was a hot day) with the train seemingly long overdue to arrive.  Fortunately, I was in my vehicle with a mobile radio and a good antenna.  Finally, I heard a signal maintainer about 20 miles to the east "tone up"  the Dispatcher, asking the Dispatcher where the westbound was. The Dispatcher replied that the train had come up on a sun kink and the train had stopped about 15 miles east of the signal maintainer's location to wait for MOW to arrive to fix it.  The Dispatcher said that the crew was short on time, so that they were tying down the train and that nothing was going to be moving for about 4 hours.  I was too far away to hear any conversation between the train and the Dispatcher (even with my good radio setup), but I DID hear the signal maintainer's conversation (which was far enough away that I would not have heard it without a very good radio).  So, that one conversation that I did hear saved me waiting for possibly hours for a train that would not have even showed up before dark. Similar scenarios have happened to me numerous times in the past, and being able to hear whatever scant radio communications there are can often save you a lot of time, trouble, and expense.  



Date: 08/23/21 04:02
Re: A very legitimate question that I get about railfan radio
Author: bobwilcox

I'm finding conversations with mantanince crews provide far more information.

Bob Wilcox
Charlottesville, VA
My Flickr Shots



Date: 08/23/21 07:35
Re: A very legitimate question that I get about railfan radio
Author: WW

bobwilcox Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> I'm finding conversations with mantanince crews
> provide far more information.

True, both for radio conversations and, with friendly MOW crews, a face-to-face conversation.  Unlike some railfans, I don't avoid speaking with railroad employees.  Maybe that's because I worked in and around the railroad industry for some years.  One thing that I learned from my work in the industry was knowing when it's OK  to talk to railroad employees when it won't interfere with their work or cause a safety issue.  Respecting those limits, I've found most railroad employees to be friendly and helpful.  When it comes to knowing what train activity may be coming along, MOW people are often not as helpful than they used to be--not because they don't want to be helpful--but because they often don't know themselves.  Some railroads have pretty much ceased issuing lineups, so MOW people often don't know what's out there, aside from what may relatively immediately affect them.



Date: 08/23/21 11:05
Re: A very legitimate question that I get about railfan radio
Author: RFandPFan

Another good use for the radio is the defect detectors.  Both NS and CSX in my area have numerous defect detectors.  It is a great source of info as to when a train is coming.  If you become familiar with train traffic you can even guess what the train is based on speed, axle count, length.  I know some areas are doing away with defect detectors that broadcast over the air, but this does not seem to be the case in the Georgia/Florida areas.  CSX still provides all the train information on their broadcasts, NS simply gives the milepost.  However, both are helpful when deciding where to set up.



Date: 08/23/21 11:43
Re: A very legitimate question that I get about railfan radio
Author: WW

^In the effort to reduce radio traffic, more and more railroads are using detectors that are "talk on defect only."   Even full talking detectors often give less information than they used to.  Not that long ago, many talking detectors might "talk" like this:
"ABC detector, milepost 303.3 XYZ Subdivision, now checking train."  When the train had past, "ABC detector, milepost 303.3 XYZ Subdivision, no defects, no defects, total axles 432, train speed 41 mph, outside temperature 91 degrees, detector out."
Today, the detector, might sound like this:
"ABC detector, milepost 303.3 XYZ Subidivsion, no defects, total axles 432. detector out."  

Also, many defect detectors use low wattage transmit power and modest antennas because long distance transmission of information is neither necessary nor desirable.  So, the detectors can often not be heard for more than a few miles away from the detector, even if the listener is using a good receiving radio with an efficient antenna.  



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