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Watching The Big Trains Roll

Aug 17, 2007
The hobby of railroading has many exciting avenues of pursuit. Train watching is perhaps the least expensive of all aspects of railroading. Depending on what you see, it can be a lot of fun or the most boring and unrewarding sport you ever tried. Here are a lot of words that will make train watching interesting.

First off, you have to know where to look to find where the trains are..and where they are not. If you find a stretch of track where there is only one set of rusting rails, the chances are great that you have come upon an abandoned or seldom used line. On the other hand, if you see a multiple track rail line with shiny rails, you will see trains appear frequently.

If you are fortunate enough to have a railroad underpass located over a busy rail line, you are in train watcher heaven. Here, you might see all sorts of yard activity as well as main line freight and possibly a few Amtrak passenger runs thrown in for good measure. If you live in an area where one or more of the four principal railways are located, you will most certainly find what we call a railroad hot spot. Check your local street map or better still, the USGS maps for your area. Also, it would be a good investment to buy a railroad radio frequency scanner and look up the radio frequencies where railroad transmissions are found. Scanners can be had for between $100 - $300 but they will let you know when you can expect to see a train appear.

If a railroad underpass overlooks a railway yard, you are one league above and beyond train watcher heaven. In addition to main line activity, you will also see yard and switching moves. A railroad underpass is a very safe place from which to watch the trains, since it may be on a public thoroughfare and will always be removed from railroad property. However, in finding a railroad underpass, you must observe highway safety at all times. Do not park or stop your car anywhere on the roadway that passes over the tracks. Parking or stopping your car on a highway can cause a bad accident.

If you find a pedestrian walkway that overlooks the tracks, act responsibly. Never throw any object you might find down onto the tracks or onto a passing train. Avoid standing in a roadway that does not have a sidewalk or at the very least, a pathway that adjoins the roadway. A little bit of common sense will go a long way in your getting spectacular train views from up above.

There may not be any railroad underpasses in your city from which you can watch trains safely. Your next best bet is to find a local grade crossing where the railroad right of way crosses a public road. Your first and foremost word of advice is stay off the tracks at all times! You must do your train watching from a public right of way and must never venture onto the railroad right of way.

If you like to photograph trains, you will need a telephoto lens to get that up close feeling when trains go by. You can obtain some great rail photos if you still keep your distance away from the railroad right of way. Some railway security officials have indicated that your safe zone is fifteen feet from the nearest rail.

One last word of advice. If you find yourself trapped away from your car by a train that has stopped in the middle of a grade crossing, Never try to get back to your car by climbing over or under the couplers between cars or else trying to climb over a railway car using its ladders. You could be killed or seriously injured. Not only could you end up in the hospital, but the police will arrest you for trespassing.

Here are a few of the railroad hot spots you might wish to consider in your quest for ideal train watching locations. Many more are listed in railfan publications

1. Horseshoe Curve, Altoona, PA.

This is the first and foremost train watching spot in the USA, with the exception of the Tehachapi Loop in California or the crossover of two main lines in Rochelle, Illinois. The Pennsylvania Railroad first opened the Horseshoe Curve as a park. It has remained a railroad attraction ever since. The Penn Central subsequently maintained it. The Horseshoe Curve has since passed over to Conrail and now belongs to the Norfolk Southern.

2. Rochelle, IL

Rochelle, Illinois is where the Union Pacific (UP) and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) main lines cross. Over 100 trains a day pass through this area. The City of Rochelle has built an observation gallery strictly for train watchers, and this has drawn international interest as a place where US railroading passes by. TRAINS Magazine has installed a webcam that operates round the clock.

3. Cresson PA

Cresson is located on the Norfolk Southern main line that runs from Pittsburgh over the Alleghenies to Harrisburg and Philadelphia. There are a number of bed and breakfast hotels located in Cresson, where you can watch the NS action all day and all night.

4. Northeast Corridor Amtrak

Any place from Lanham, MD to Northern New Jersey is fair game to watch Amtrak Northeast Corridor trains in operation. All of the activity is passenger trains, except for way late at night when the passenger train traffic subsides for the day. Then, you may be privileged to watch one or two NS freights sneak out onto the Corridor to cross over to the coal docks area north of Baltimore.

The Northeast Corridor is a steady repetition of passenger train operation and you run the risk of watching repetitive scenes. The scenic areas are the crossings of the Susquehanna River, the areas around Philadelphia, and the Northern New Jersey areas north of Trenton.

A word of extra caution: Trains in the Northeast Corridor travel at speeds in excess of 120 miles per hour and since the entire line is electrified, you do not even hear trains approaching. Exercise utmost caution if you visit this train watching area. The blast of air coming from the slipstream of a high speed passenger train can knock you over.

Also remember that the Northeast Corridor is a very strategic piece of real estate. Even if you plan to photograph trains from a railroad overpass, it is a very good idea to check in with local law enforcement or Amtrak security to let them know who you are and what you are doing. Failure to do this could result in your arrest and detention as part of the Homeland Security initiative.

5. Point of Rocks MD

The Point of Rocks Brunswick MD Harpers Ferry WV area is a very scenic place to watch and photograph trains. Over 60 trains a day go through there. Point of Rocks is where many trains leave the southern branch of CSX and proceed northward directly to Baltimore, bypassing the Washington DC area.

6. Gaithersburg MD

There are several good train watching spots in the ex-B&O southern branch that passes through the Washington DC metro area and then swings north to rejoin the line at Baltimore. Gaithersburg is a good location because the trains are at grade level and train watching does not interfere with the Metro Red Line that begins at Shady Grove Station. Here, you can see CSX main line freights, MARC commuter passenger trains, and Amtrak Capitol Limited.

7. East Main Street Overpass, Rochester NY

You would not think Rochester NY would be a good train watching spot, but it is. Here at the East Main Street Overpass, you can look directly into the Goodman Street Yards, and see mainline CSX freight as well as switching moves and branch line operation. At one time, this was the fabled New York Central Water Level Route. It subsequently became the Penn Central after the NYC merged with the Pennsylvania Railroad, and it ultimately became Conrail. When Conrail fell part, it became the NYC portion of CSX.

8. Fairport NY

Fairport is located about 15 miles east of Rochester. Here, the old New York Central West Shore line comes in contact with the ex-New York Central main line. A number of freights go around Rochester on the West Shore, thereby bypassing congestion at Goodman Street Yards. Result: Fairport is an excellent place to watch trains

9. Hammond IN

Hammond, Indiana is a very active piece of railroading operation. Rail lines belonging to CSX and NS run through here, and there is scarcely a moment of quiet where you do not hear the sound of train horns as they signal their approach over the many grade crossings in the area.

10. Avon Yard, Indianapolis IN

Avon Yard is located just west of Indianapolis. It is a former New York Central yard serving the line between Cleveland and St. Louis. The area west of the yards is a good spot to watch the trains up close, since two public roads dead end at the tracks. There is a service road which goes into the yards which is not accessible unless you are a CSX employee or you have permission from CSX to enter the area.

Webcam Sites

You can do a lot of train watching without even leaving your home. A number of operators have set up webcams that overlook railroad hot spots. All you need is a broadband internet connection and a computer which has a fast internal processing speed. You must also understand the pros and cons of trainwatching through webcams. The pros are obvious. You can see trains anywhere you are linked to a webcam as soon as the train passes by. Come rain or shine, the trains run and you see them without getting wet or getting chased away by railroad security.

The cons are also significant. Some webcams do not focus in too well on the railroad scene, resulting in some blurred scenes. Sometimes, unwanted objects are photographed along with the trains. You can get a listing of webcam sites from Google or other search engines.

The Rochelle IL webcam is one of the very best to be found anywhere on the internet. Here, you see the railroad crossover between the BNSF and the UP main lines. Over 100 trains per day go through here and the webcam quality is very good. You can see the detailing of each of the locomotive types that go through here as well as the type and characteristic of the trains themselves

In Conclusion

So, ladies and gentlemen, there you have it. Watching big trains can be fun. It comes in all sizes and shapes. In subsequent articles, we will show you the various rail museums and railfan groups that are out there and will direct you how to get into these groups and enjoy them. Remember also that railfanning can be a single sport which you can do yourself, but is loads more fun when you can do it by belonging to a group. You can even start or participate in an on line conference room, where rail enthusiasts around the world can gather to share ideas and show off their photographic work. Please click on the website listed in the About The Author section to get started with a railroading web conference. Meeting other railfans could be very exciting indeed.
About the Author
Bob Carper is a veteran information systems consultant. He holds a BS and an MBA degree. He is an ardent railfan and belongs to the New York Central Historical Society. To meet with other railfans, please visit http://www.secure-webconference.citymax.com
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