Would you like to have an up to the minute picture of railroad activity around you? Do you have the urge to monitor train orders, track conditions, signal indications, train movements? Your ticket to this fun is a radio frequency scanner. This device will monitor local rail radio traffic and is limited only by the effort and imagination of the end user (that could be you).
My research found three major vendors of these devices in the USA. They are Radio Shack, AOR and Uniden. Uniden has two distinct lines, the Bearcat and the Regency. As no one seems to be claiming superiority on the Receiver side of the circuit they are probably all equal in the ability to receive and decode the signal. The differences are the scan rate, number of channels, housing, programing options, etc.
There are the home units with AC power and portable pocket size available. For railfanning the portable is best as they can be adapted to home use rather easily and be ready to go trackside at a moments notice.
The top of the line is the AOR. This is probably over kill for railfan needs as it is targeted at the serious radio amateur. The unit I played with was owned by a UFO hunter attempting to intercept intergallactic radio transmissions. A fine piece of gear which is somewhat out of place trackside.
The Radio Shack markets several workable units. The drawbacks I found were the lack of stereo output and direct 12v operation. For occasional use or to get the feet wet it is an inexpensive way to go.
The units I use are both Uniden Bearcat models. The first was a BC-60 10-channel scanner which is the bottom of the line. This can be found at Department stores for $60-$90. and uses standard AA batteries or nicads. The AC adaptor is included and a 12v cable can be had for $5. Don't use the ni-cads with the 12v car adaptor as it tends to heat up the connector. I did not have this problem with the AC adaptor which uses the same connector which leads me to believe the OverVoltage neccesary in the automotive electrical system is not handled properly by the scanners internal charging system.
This unit is currently marketed as a 30 channel although I don't feel that disadvantaged by 10. This unit lives in my briefcase and is adequate to focus on a particular area with the Road channels of interest programmed in. My short list for South East Michigan are the CSX,CR,GTW and NS Road channels which are selectively locked out when I focus on a specific track.
However, for Road trips where time is limited and no local guide is available I employ a Model SC-150B which is also known as the SportCat 150 Black. This unit is programable for 100 channels, which will cover all of the allocation of frequencys for the American Association of Railroads by the FCC. I have the channels programmed for coorespondence with the AAR assignments and scan all of them. Used in conjunction with any maps I can find, the frequency page courtesy of Jon Roma and good local interest WWW pages, rail activity can be located quickly.
The Bearcat comes ready to plug in a wide variety of Walkman goodies that are a wonderful way to compliment the scanning equipment. They will allow you to use commonly available headphones, boombox, or patch into the car audio system quite inexpensively. I use a 12v power supply to run a FM transmitter at home. This allows me to tune in anywhere around the house with a boom box or walkman. These goodies are available in the electronics section of the department store.
The scanner is only half of what is needed. The antenna is a major piece which is the true limiting factor of the scanner reception. The rubber duckie that comes with any portable scanner is only good for limited trackside use. My home base uses a 2 meter 1/4 wave ground plane antenna which was fabricated in the workshop. This design was chosen more for mechanical reasons than electronic performance, although it is more than adequate in that aspect. As the largest gain in reception will occur once the antenna is outside and in the clear the mechancal considerations do weigh in heavily.
A 2 meter amateur radio antenna will work the best for railfanning needs. Outside mounting hardware is essentially the same as a Television installation and your scanner anttena may be capable of coexisting on the TV mount. Proper grounding is very important both for performance and safety. Books on Antenna construction can be readily found at the public library.
Testing the rig is easily accomplished using the WX button which automatically scans the Weather Broadcast frequencies of 162.400,425,450,475,500,525,550. This is close enough to the AAR freqs to guage performance. It also verifies that your set is operational which can be comforting during extended dead air periods. Use a weak signal to tune your setup. These can be entered manually if you scanner lacks a WX function.
As the Railroad is a two way communication system as opposed to a commercial broadcast, performance will be quite variable. If you only catch half the conversation between train and dispatcher this usually means the locomotive is out of range. The radios on the locomotives themselves tend to vary greatly in output signal strength. Base stations such as Yard, tower and dispatchers carry about 30-50 miles.
Active Railroad Frequencies - Detroit Area Freq mz AAR Used by 160.215 7 - CN or GTW Mechanical Services 160.230 8 - CSX Road CH 8 160.320 14 - CSX Road CH 14 160.365 17 - ?? CN Switching/CR Yard 160.440 22 - NS Road CH 160.470 24 - GTW Police 160.485 25 - CN Ch 6 Dispatcher 160.530 28 - GTW Road CH 2 160.590 32 - GTW Road Ch 1 160.635 35 - CSX BX Dispatcher (Lincoln Sec) 160.665 37 - CN Ch4 Dispatcher 160.785 45 - CSX MOW CH 45 160.800 46 - CR Dispatcher Road CH 1 160.845 49 - GTW Yard CH 3 160.860 50 - CR CH 3 Hump 160.905 53 - GTW Special Agents 160.935 55 - CN Road Ch 3 160.980 58 - Milwakee Junction 161.025 61 - CN Ch8 Dispatcher 161.040 62 - GTW Yard 161.070 64 - CR Dispatcher Road CH2 161.115 67 - CP Road CH 4 161.130 68 - CR PBX, Maintenance 161.160 70 - CSX Yard 161.205 73 - CN Ch 2 Dispatcher 161.220 74 - GTW Road (Ex-DTI) 161.250 76 - NS Road 161.295 79 - CSX PD or CR Yard 161.325 81 - Conrail ("Bridge") 161.340 82 - Conrail CH 14 Carmen 161.370 84 - CSX CH 84 161.415 87 - CN Ch 1 161.430 88 - CR Ch 10 (track crews) 161.475 91 - CP Road CH 1 161.550 96 - CP Tower
Today the scanner is a Railfan essential. Thirty years ago they were about $300 for the receiver plus $25 for each frequency crystal. That would put a 100 channel unit at about $2800 in 1960 dollars, or the price of a new car. Thanks to microprocessors, today your looking at the price of a pocket camera for the same capabilities.