Railroad Radio Frequencies

Although less common today, many radios in locomotives once had telephone-type handsets. The transmitter button was located between the earpiece and the mouthpiece. Shown is Conrail locomotive engineer Russell Smith inside an Amtrak F40PH at Indianapolis Union Station. Smith was the engineer of the last westbound National Limited, which departed Indianapolis on October 1, 1979. (Photograph by Craig Sanders)

Although less common today, many radios in locomotives once had telephone-type handsets. The transmitter button was located between the earpiece and the mouthpiece. Shown is Conrail locomotive engineer Russell Smith inside an Amtrak F40PH at Indianapolis Union Station. Smith was the engineer of the last westbound National Limited, which departed Indianapolis on October 1, 1979. (Photograph by Craig Sanders)

Whether you are trackside waiting to observe or photograph trains, riding aboard a train or in the comfort of your own home, if you want to know what is going on with the railroad it helps to have a radio scanner. Many railfans would not think of leaving home without their scanner.

Although radios capable of receiving railroad radio signals are available from a number of manufacturers, the most common models used by railfans are sold under the Radio Shack and Uniden names. You will find older models sold under such names as Realistic, Bearcat and Regency.

For the most part, scanners are handy in giving you a heads up as to when a train is coming. On CSX and Norfolk Southern, the two Class I railroads with the most track in Ohio, this is most often done by hearing the crew of an approaching train call a lineside signal indication. Typically, this broadcast includes the train symbol, the location of the signal, the indication of the signal, e.g. clear, approach, stop, diverging clear, etc., the direction of travel and, if applicable, the track on which the train is traveling. On CSX, the transmission also usually includes the number and owner of the lead locomotive.

Many railroads have talking defect detectors and if you happen to be close to one of those you can know that a train is nearby when the detector broadcasts information about the train that just passed over it.

Yet another method of determining the location of trains is to intercept a conversation between a dispatcher and a train. This can yield valuable information because more often than not it involves an operating plan, e.g. the dispatcher is going to hold train A at a particular point so that it can meet train B there.

Railroads that operate in “dark” territory, meaning the line has no block signals, will often use radio transmissions to give crews track warrants, which are permissions to occupy a certain segment of track. Be advised, though, that track warrants are also given to maintenance of way and signal department trucks and equipment capable of operating over the rails.

On some railroads when two trains pass each other, they will give each other a visual inspection and report the results to the other train over the radio. But this is not required on all railroads and indeed many trains pass each other without comment.

Finally, another way to be alerted to a nearby train is to monitor the frequency used by end of train (EOT) telemetry devices. These are mounted on the rear of the train and send data to the locomotive on such things as brake pipe pressure. This data is sent by radio transmission. It is not voice-based, but rather sounds like an intermittent chirp. EOT transmissions have a limited range and the chirp you hear may be that of a train that just passed you and which you did not pick up before it arrived. EOTs broadcast on 457.9375.

Of course you can have a great radio and antenna and still have a train sneak up on you unannounced. This is particularly a problem on “dark” railroads where trains do not call signal indications. However, some “dark” railroad divide their track into blocks and crews are required to call on the radio when they are about to enter a block.

As a general principle, trains use different frequencies on the road than they use when working in a yard. But that is not always true. A train making a pickup or setout en route, particularly in a small yard or at a siding, may conduct all its radio conversations on the road channel.

Some railroads, CSX being a notable example, have one channel for road use and another for conversations with the dispatcher. That doesn’t mean, though, that the dispatcher transmits only on the dispatcher channel. If a dispatcher needs to talk with a crew on the road, he or she will contact the train on the road channel and instruct them to go over to the dispatcher channel.

On many roads, crews desiring to contact a dispatcher by radio will transmit a series of tones that are designed to send a signal to a computer screen on the dispatcher’s desk. This informs the dispatcher which base station to answer. Typically, the base station will send a tone burst transmission in response to indicate that it has received the request to alert the dispatcher that someone wants to talk with him or her on the radio.

Although many of the conversations between dispatchers and crew members occur over the radio, in some instances, the conversation is done by cell phone. Indeed, sometimes the dispatcher will ask the crew to contact him or her by phone to discuss a matter that the dispatcher does not want other employees, let alone railfans, listening in on.

How far away you will pick up railroad radio transmissions depends on a number of variables including the quality of your radio and antenna, the geographic terrain in which you are located and the atmospheric conditions. Most fans when in the field rely on hand-held scanners with rubber antennas that have a range of a few miles. But if you are on a hill or other elevated location, you might be able to extend your range for a dozen miles or more.

The range of railroad radio transmissions also hinges on how powerful the radios are that are mounted in the locomotives. Some locomotive radios can be heard from many miles away while others seem to transmit clearly only for a mile or so. Because dispatcher base stations must cover many miles of territory, they tend to have the strongest signals. Yet, you can find yourself in a dead spot where you will not pick up the dispatcher’s radio.

With the exception of end of train telemetry devices, railroad radio transmissions are made on a narrow portion of the public service band, ranging between 159.810 and 161.565 megahertz. Any scanner capable of picking up police and fire transmissions on the traditional public service band is also capable of intercepting railroad radio broadcasts.

The Association of American Railroads has established a 97-channel frequency allocation system. In the early days of railroad radio, most locomotives and cabooses were equipped with radios capable of receiving only a few channels. But today most engines have radios capable of receiving and transmitting on all of the AAR channels.

You won’t find the AAR channel numbers on any scanner frequency readout and chances are the railroad personnel won’t know the megahertz frequency that they use is because their radios display the AAR channel numbers. In some instances, railroad personnel will refer to channel 1 or 2 or 3. Unless you know what, say, NS channel 1 is, you may be lost as to what frequency or AAR channel the crew is using.

If you are new to listening to railroad radio chatter, it may seem as though the crews, dispatchers, yardmasters and others are talking in code. Actually, railroad radio talk is pretty much the same across railroads. That said, every company has its own culture, its own favored jargon and its own way of doing things.

Even then there is no guarantee that all employees will follow the rules all of the time. The crew of an approaching train may forget, be distracted or simply refuse to call that signal that is in front of them. Some crew members do not speak very distinctly when calling signals and what results may sound like a garbled mess of mumbo jumbo.

Finally, there is one more thing you need to know about listening in on railroad radio transmissions. Although these radio broadcasts occur over public airwaves, there is a federal law that makes it illegal to divulge what you hear to anyone who was not a party to the conversation, make use of the broadcast information for your own personal gain, or use the information from a broadcast to commit a crime.

In theory, this means that if you hear a dispatcher talking with a train and you share this information with a fellow railfan who did not hear the transmission then you have violated the law. But this is one of those laws that seldom is enforced. You won’t find federal agents in the field watching to determine if you’ve violated this federal law.

You also need to be aware that some states have made it illegal to carry a radio scanner in an automobile and/or to have a scanner in your possession outside your home. Ohio is not one of those states, but Indiana is. These laws t are not always enforced, but they could be, particularly if you get pulled over for a traffic violation and a police officer spots a scanner in your vehicle. So, it is a good idea to be aware of the laws pertaining to radio scanners in whatever state you happen to be in while railfanning.

4 Responses to “Railroad Radio Frequencies”

  1. Devorah Says:

    I enjoyed your article about scanners.I’m thinking of purchasing one. Do you know which states make possession of a scanner illegal- (sounds like a conflict with the US constitution)
    As I’m new to this I’d like to know if there is a 10 code like the truckers (remember that song Convoy)

  2. Richard Says:

    I love the rails systems and the good ole american way of moving freight and getting it on video! I need a scanner so I can catch a few trains to get these pics of. I know the City of New Orleans Amtrak passes behind my house at 11:20 am on one day and 5pm the next day headed back north. There are several tracks and places for me to set up in Jackson Ms. I’m Missing out and I have to follow a freight train until I see which way it will go and jump out and snap some shots! The Radio Shack I have been to locally doesnt have a clue on what I need and neither do I. Does anyone know where I can pick up a scanner in Mississippi? Any help would be great. Thanks

  3. billy Says:

    scanners in a mobile (car or other) arn’t illegal if u have a ham radio license…

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