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Railfan Technology > Should I buy a "railroad radio" model for railfanning?

Date: 05/21/23 08:54
Should I buy a "railroad radio" model for railfanning?
Author: WW

I've touched on this subject before, but I'll cover it bit more thoroughly here.  I've had this question posed to me back when I worked in the railroad industry and since then.  The short answer is no, I don't recommend it.

First, what is railroad model radio?  Starting in 2013, when both narrow-banding was mandated by the FCC and when railroads settled on NXDN as their future digital radio platform, two manufacturers introduced portable and mobile railroad-specific models--Kenwood and Icom.  These radios were not entirely new models--they were existing radio models with specific firmware and software modifications for railroad use.  Their main firmware and software modification was to enable the user to enter and AAR channel no. (see my recent discussion about AAR channel nos.) from the keypad and go directly to that channel.  For example, if the user wanted to go to AAR Channel No. 023 023, the user could just enter those numbers on keypad and the radio would go to that channel, with no scrolling, knob twisting, etc. necessary.  At first blush, these would seem to be an attractive option for a railfan radio, but, in fact, it is not, for reasons that I will describe below.

The main issue for railfans with "direct channel entry" on a railroad model radio is that, as soon as the AAR Channel No. is entered (023 023 in our example), the radio becomes "hot" for transmit (capable of transmitting) on that channel.  On any railfan radio, I do NOT recommend that the radio be transmit-capable on railroad channels, for the obvious reason that inadvertent transmitting by the railfan can potentially interfere with railroad radio communications.  Another major disadvantage of railroad model radios is that they are not primarily designed for scanning ability.  They can scan, but the procedure for adding and deleting channels from a scan list can be complicated, time-consuming, and "clunky" on the railroad radio models--the Kenwoods, especially.

There are other problems, as well.  Railroad radio models, as noted earlier, are based on existing radio models (more on that in a minute), but they have different firmware and programming software from their non-railroad model counterparts.  Icom and Kenwood have very differing philosophies about their railroad firmware and software.  Most Icom dealers are free to sell railroad radio models and their firmware and software if they choose to do so, and a few do.  Kenwood is far more restrictive.  Kenwood will generally only sell railroad radio models to railroads or contractors associated with them, and will not provide railroad firmware and programming software to anyone without a signed contractual agreement with the railroad or associated contractor.  Many, if not most, Kenwood dealers have never even seen the RR firmware and software. The contract usually contains a program key, without which the firmware and software are useless.

Unless one is buying a new, most likely Icom, railroad radio model and the associated firmware and software, the most likely place for railfans to purchase railroad radio models is on the used market from sources such as Ebay.  I urge EXTREME caution in buying railroad model radios used.  First, railroads do not generally "surplus" radios unless they have some significant problem.  There also is the real possibility that a used railroad model radio on the used market may be stolen.  A used railroad radio model also may be password protected such that the user may not even be able to get into the radio to program it.  So, the used radio buyer may be stuck with how ever the radio had been previously programmed.  Finally, most used railroad radios have led a tough life--remember that old adage that railroaders can wreck an anvil with a rubber mallet.  I remember getting a destroyed portable radio brought to me when I worked in the railroad industry.  What had happened?  A train crewman had used the radio for a wheel chock!

For reference, here  is a list of the common railroad radio models from Icom and Kenwood.  All of these are NXDN and analog-capable radios.
Icom IC-F3161DT  RR.  This is the railroad firmware/software version of the IC-F3161DT.  
Icom IC-F3261DT RR.  This the railroad firmware/software version of the IC-F3261DT.  The 3161 and 3261 are essentially the same radio, except that the 3261 has a louder speaker and is waterproof, but the 3261 uses a different programming cable than the 3161. Both the 3161 RR and 3261 RR are in wide railroad use.
Kenwood NX-200 RR and NX-210 RR.  The NX-200 and 210 are essentially the same radio, except the 210 has a larger keypad. The 210's larger keypad was designed specifically for railroads, so it the common railroad model, many of which are in railroad use.
The firmware/software of the Icoms and Kenwoods are structured very differently.  The RR software features of the Icom essentially co-exist with regular 3161/3261 features.  The railroad channels do not take channel storage  space in the regular software.  This means that the Icoms can function as a "normal" radio, with the RR features available in addition.  Kenwoods operate much differently,  The railroad channels and other parameters take up channel storage space in the regular program, and many other radio features must be set up in a very specific way or the radio will not function correctly.  Bottom line: with only some exception, the Kenwood RR radios essentially are dedicated to railroad functions.

Icom IC-F5061D RR with keypad microphone.  This is the railroad version of the IC-F5061D.
Kenwood NX-700 RR with keypad microphone.  This is the railroad version of the NX-700.
These radios program very similarly to their portable counterparts, the Kenwood having the same limitations as the Kenwood portables.

Note:  "Civilian" models of all of these radios can be "converted" to RR models by overwriting the "civilian" firmware with RR firmware, then using the RR software to reprogram the radio.   One final note--most of these models in "civilian" form are being phased out of the general catalogs of the manufacturers, replaced with newer models.  They likely do remain in production for railroad use, as I've not seen any specific info on newer models having an "RR" counterpart available as of yet, though there may be some models out there of which I'm not aware.  The only radio on this list that I've not owned or used is the NX-210.  They are all very good performing radios, but, for railfans, I only recommend the "non-railroad" versions.  The non-railroad versions will do everything that a railfan needs to do, with the exception of being able to monitor the UHF train telemerty channels (head-of-train, end-of-train, and DPU devices).  These are all single-band VHF radios.

Date: 05/21/23 17:40
Re: Should I buy a "railroad radio" model for railfanning?
Author: spohnsl

I recently came across a couple of new Icom IC-F3261DT radios and picked them up for railfanning use. I deliberately did not want the RR versions for the same reasons that WW mentioned. Cloning cables and software were easy to find.

Thanks to a couple of threads here and on RadioReference, and a utility so I could read the help files I was able to get them programmed the way I wanted. I second WW's advice about programming all of the AAR channels into the radio. I put them all into one zone, matching the AAR channels to the zone channel numbers. I then assigned all of the local channels I use to one talkgroup. When I'm traveling I can assign any channels I need to a second talkgroup. It's very easy to add or delete channels from a talkgroup, making the radios very easy to use.

I can attest to their superiority over any of the scanners in the market. I also agree with WW that the Bearcat BC125AT comes the closest to these radios in performance among the scanners out there. I will have to keep one of my BC125AT's handy to monitor DPUs and EOTs.

Steve Spohn

Date: 05/22/23 07:35
Re: Should I buy a "railroad radio" model for railfanning?
Author: WW

I've talked to some factory reps about the possibility of a dual-band NXDN/analog portable or mobile commercial radio being offered.  None are currently offered or even planned to be offered, with one exception:  The Kenwood VP-8000.  This is a tri-band (VHF/UHF/800 mHz) portable radio built for the public service market.  At some point in the future, it may be offered with an NXDN option--probably at least 1-4 years away.  It has unbelievably good specs for a multi-band radio, is tough as nails, and is nearly infinitely custom-configurable.  But, all of that comes at the breathtaking price of $4,000 and up.  Needless to say, that is out my price range and likely most any other railfan's price range.

A brief note about my own railfanning radios.  The radios that I use most for railfanning are those in my primary railfanning vehicle--an Icom IC-F5061D mobile radio, that I've had for nearly 10 years, for VHF, and a Kenwood TM-G707A amateur dual band mobile radio that I've had for going on 20 years.  The latter I use for amateur use, and to monitor the UHF train telemetry channels.  Both radios are permanently mounted, each with their own tuned antenna on the roof of the vehicle. When I am away from my vehicle, the portable radio that I carry depends on where I am railfanning.  If I need to be able to monitor the UHF train telemetry, I use either my Uniden BC-125AT scanner ((nearly 10 years old now) or my Wouxum KG-UV6X portable dual-band commercial radio (which, to mostly cure its problems of being easily knocked out of scan, I have disabled the side buttons and PTT button, essentially turning into a non-transmitting radio) that is also nearly 10 years old.  If I do not need to monitor UHF, I will usually use my Icom IC-F3161DT portable VHF radio that is now around 10 years old.  When riding Amtrak, I will usually carry my BC-125AT in my pack, but I usually use the 3161 because it is far more resistant to all of the RF interference that is common on Amtrak trains.  I also acquired a Kenwood NX-200 portable VHF radio about 5 years ago that I keep as a "backup" portable radio.  And, I have a 25+ year old Kenwood TK-290 portable that I used for years that I keep around mostly for sentimental reasons, though it is still a great radio--just pretty big and bulky compared to newer models.  I feel about radios the way that I feel about a lot of appliances--the best course is to buy quality and hold onto it.

Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 05/22/23 07:40 by WW.

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