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Railfan Technology > Railfan radio tips when riding Amtrak (or other) passenger trains

Date: 09/14/22 19:52
Railfan radio tips when riding Amtrak (or other) passenger trains
Author: WW

Over the past couple of evenings, I've been watching some videos on YT of a trip a gentleman made riding Amtrak's California Zephyr.  It's an interesting set of videos, but the constant static on his scanner (a Uniden BC-125AT scanner that I recommend, by the way) was extremely irritating.  So, I decided to make a short post about how to avoid some of those problems while riding Amtrak or other passenger trains.

First, a passenger train will never have great radio reception--period.  Why?  Because the metal passenger train car acts as a big Faraday Cage that will partially or totally block a lot of radio signals from outside of the train. You will notice that quite often a passenger Conductor will use his portable radio while standing in a vestibule with the upper part of the "Dutch" passenger door open.  That's so his radio antenna has a good "look" outside of the train in order to get a stronger radio signal.

Second, passenger trains are notorious for having all kinds of electronic and electrical equipment on board that can create strong RF interference.  Some of this RF interference is unavoidable, but one kind is easily avoided and it can be one of the worst.  How?   Never, never use your portable radio while it is attached to an external power source.  That can introduce strong RF interference from electrical equipment (even the power generator on the locomotive) right into the radio.  Quite often, this interference will be unique to one or a few channels.  So, if your scanner continues to "hang up" on one or two channels with static, this may be why.  I always carry extra batteries or an extra battery pack for my radio when riding on Amtrak, so that I can leave my radio unattached to any external power source when I'm using the radio. Also, your own other electronic equipment may be spewing RF interference that may affect your scanner.  Laptop computers and GPS devices can be notorious for this, especially if they are physically close to the radio or plugged into a shared external power source.

Third, carry an earbud so that you can listen to your radio without irritating other passengers.  Having an audible radio in coach, diner, or lounge areas is considered rude by many, and may wind up with you being told to turn it off by a Conductor.  

Fourth, and I do this with all of my railfanning radios.  Whether or not you program in the 90+ "original" AAR analog channels or the 90+ of the "original" analog AAR channels plus the 90+ "splinter" AAR analog channels, I recommend programming ALL of them into the radio in AAR Channel Number order.  If your radio supports "alpha tagging" of the channels, enter the AAR channel number as the alpha tag (e.g.,  AAR 096).  That way you have all the channels programmed into the radio that a railroad would typically use.  Then the only "field programming" necessary is to add and subtract channels from the scan list.  Having those AAR channel "tags" programmed into the radio is very important because NO ONE WORKING FOR THE RAILROAD EVER REFERS TO A RAILROAD RADIO CHANNEL BY ITS FREQUENCY.  So, when the Conductor gets on the radio and says, "Go to Channel 23 23 (or 023 023)", you don't have to fumble around to figure out that Channel 23 is 160.4550 mHz frequency.  By the way, I've even harped at Trains Magazine about this when they list radio channels in their articles only referring to the frequency.  Put the AAR Channel No. in the article, too!  If your radio does not support alpha tagging, then put the frequency in the scanner channel no. that is the same as the AAR channel no. (e.g, put 160.4550 mHz frequency in the "23" channel slot in the scanner).  Also, when you use the scanning function, put in the minimum number of channels on the scan list that you need to scan for your locale at the time.  The more channels that the radio is scanning, the bigger the chance that you may miss a transmission or that the radio may "hang up" with interference on a channel that you don't even need to be monitoring.

Please feel free to post additional suggestions and questions if you have them.  Thanks.

Edited 3 time(s). Last edit at 09/14/22 20:16 by WW.

Date: 09/29/22 21:57
Re: Railfan radio tips when riding Amtrak (or other) passenger tr
Author: chakk

I would also recommend that railfans visit before your trip one of the websites that post "amtrak train radio scanner frequencies" to get a list of the frequencies that your train of interest uses and where on the route the frequencies change, so you won't have to worry about missing hearing a call from the conductor or engineer to switch frequencies.

I also always carry a railfan timetable for the region of the USA through which I am traveling on Amtrak; and usually a good road map for each state through which I will be traveling -- preferably one that shows railroads as well as highways.


Date: 10/03/22 03:58
Re: Railfan radio tips when riding Amtrak (or other) passenger tr
Author: JUTower

WW speaks the truth, on all of the above.

Date: 11/13/23 18:25
Re: Railfan radio tips when riding Amtrak (or other) passenger tr
Author: prr4828

From the early days with a Bearcat 200XLT, and today's BC125AT, I programmed the railroad freqs into the scanner so they align with the AAR channel number. When railroaders reference channels, I just dial the digits. Useful when I've ventured beyond my local area, too ... likely, I have the frequency.  Side note: when I visited Chicago in '99, I had to just turn it off. Seemed like *every* channel was talking.

On Amtrak, etc, I plug basic headphones to the scanner. This allow better understanding of snowy transmissions, doesn't annoy others, also permits the scanner a lower profile.

At Penn Station, in Amtrak's Phase III era, I heard some calls: train & track assignments of arriving trains. Knowing this, I was able to follow the first class passengers to the platform, then headed to a coach ... which was empty! Which seat has the biggest window? I was settled in my seat of choice by the time the coach passengers arrived. Fun days.

* JB *

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