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Zonker's Railfan Clues for beginners

I've been interested in trains, on and off, through all of my life. I grew up on the central SF peninsula (Redwood City, CA), and I've seen a few interesting trains come through the old SP corridor there. I've lived in Fremont (CA) for the past decade (close to the UP Warm Springs Sub, between Irvington and Snoboy).

I'm a co-founder of the Bay Area LEGO Users Group (BayLUG), and the Bay Area LEGO Train Club (BayLTC). Over the past five years, I've taken a serious interest in using LEGO as a modeling media for trains. My main LEGO page has links for my train projects, as well as a number of other projects. In fact, it was this modeling that has renewed my interest in railfanning. I set up a scanner in my modeling area so that I'd have some railroad-themed background noise while I built. I started scanning the rail band, then later I programmed some of the most active channels in my area into regular channels, so I could also monitor Ham frequencies. Once in a while, I'd hear about speed restrictions someplace, due to men, or Maintanence of Way crews, and I thought "Photo Opportunity", but I couldn't tell where it was, since they would refer to milepost numbers, or South or North of some block. I wanted to get some pictures, so this became a puzzle that I felt compelled to solve.

The more I looked, on the web, or in local bookstores and the library, the greater my frustration, as there doesn't seem to be much information for beginners. I couldn't find any "How To Be A Railfan" pages, and few good Glossary web pages. So, I decided to take notes about how I got started, and post this page, in the hopes that it might help someone else. So, let's begin!

Tools of the trade


I shot these images while chasing the UP2002 Olympic Torch Relay train through CP CO030 at Newark, CA, on 2002.01.17.
Photo one - I'm parked at the Sycamore Street crossing, facing Oakland, at the end of the Niles subdivision.
Photo two - the signal box for the crossing, and the signals for the crossovers between tracks 1 and 2 (to the right of the photo, at "CP Cherry" (NI035).)
Photo three - To my left, CP CO030, and the wye between the Coast and Niles Subs.
The photos all show the video camera on the tripod, to catch things as I'm trying to take pictures, but the last two photos also show some of the radio gear and antennas!
Photo four - this shows the dual-band glass-mount antenna behind the driver's seat, a UHF ICOM 'puck' antenna in the center of the roof, and a dual-band mobile antenna over the passenger's seat.
Photo five - A closer view of the Regency scanner on the left (with the MFJ Tele-Flex antenna), and an ICOM ham dual-band HT with a UHF whip. (Plus a closer view of the mobile antennas.)


I also have a prototype antenna from Larsen, for UHF. This is a "puck-style" antenna, abot 7" wide (round), and just over 1" tall, with an NMO-mount. At the time I got this, I had asked about a dual-band (150/450) version, and I was told that they were looking into it, buut there were no timelines. To date, I have never seen these antennas out commercially.

Other Accessories

Then there's the Paperwork...

I'm working on making some of my own maps of the Newark and Fremont area, to enhance my listening pleasure, but I also use the other resources shown below;

Daily Railroad news and Railfan Timetables - -
(Yahoo Groups also has a number of good rail-specific discussion groups, including headsupcoastfan (UP Coast Subdivision info), Calrailfans (any California rail info), and RailScan (rail-related scanner info).)

Web sites (other than railroad info)

When I park near the tracks, to watch the local switching crew (UP1227), I'll tune one receiver to the Coast Subdivision dispatcher (ch. 1414, 160.320), while I let the second receiver scan the rest of the channels. (I actually lock ch. 1414 out of the second receiver when I'm watching from the truck, to increase my chance of hearing the other traffic in the area, such as the PBX and switch crew. Meanwhile, the first receiver is listening to the dispatcher, parked on the channel, so I don't lose any of that traffic to the delay of "checking the Priority Channel". I use the extra speakers, so I can pass them through the back window of the truck cab, so I can stand outside near the truck and hear the radio traffic. On rare occassions, I'll bring along the Canon PowerShot-Pro A70 digital camera (See the pictures below.)

On the rare occassions that I might wander alongside the right-of-way, I have a photographers vest with plenty of pockets. I'll carry;

Of course, I always let friends know where I'll be walking, and when to expect me back. I may even arrange for a ride back to the truck...and I look all around the area often, to make sure nothing is sneaking up on me while I'm wandering. Remember, moving cars in a hump yard are quieter and bigger than an electric car in the supermarket parking lot...stay alert, and look around you constantly if you are near switching trains! It's the ones that you don't hear that will kill you!

Pictures around home

The 2467 set out at Warm Springs Yard, near the tower, waiting for an assist home

This is a "Board Special" train, passing over Alameda Creek (North from Niles Junction)

This hopper derailed during an afternoon setout at the south end of Newark Yard

The first pass of the Amtrak "American Orient Espress", passing through the Warm Springs Yard 11/6/01.

The Olyimpic Torch Relay Train (UP2002) passing CP CO030 on 1/17/2002.
(When I set up, I wasn't sure if the train would continue to Oakland on the Coast Sub (the "Mulford" line), or route through Hayward on the Niles Sub. The train went to Mulford, but a southbound freight on the Niles Sub pulled well into the wye, ecliping my last shot. The digital camera doesn't have much zoom...)

Other related railfanning pages of mine

Clues about Defect Detectors I have found.

RELM MS-200 scanner clues.

Updated: November 2002

Copyright 2001-2002, David K. Z. Harris, N6UOW
Questions? Comments? Additions? Email railfan at
Don't harvest my email address, I don't want SPAM!

Developed on an Apple iMac!
Web Page Creation: CLARIS Home Page 2.0
(But page updates made using vi ;-)
Photo Scanning: STORM Technologies EasyPhoto
Photos from Canon PowerShot-Pro A70 digital camera
Photo Thumbnails: Adobe ImageReady 1.0