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Railfan Radio FAQ

From The RadioReference Wiki

Courtesy of Rich Carlson at CARMA. Used with permission.


Can I listen to trains on a scanner? Yes! Most rail communications in the USA and Canada are on 160 thru 162 MHz. Check various websites for the actual frequencies used in your area, some are listed here:


Is it legal to listen to railroad communications?

  • For the most part, yes. Some states have restrictions on mobile or portable scanner use but for the rest of the USA and Canada you are usually fine. Check out http://www.afn.org/~afn09444/scanlaws/ for your area.


Can I talk to the trains on a radio?

  • No! It is strictly illegal to transmit on channels you are not authorized on, this includes railroad channels. Even though you can buy radios on eBay etc. that might be capable of transmitting on railroad channels, it is illegal. In these days of increased security concerns around transportation facilities a radio capable of

transmitting on rail channels is just going to invite increased scrutiny.


What if it is an emergency?

  • Use a cell phone or other legal means of contacting someone. Call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest grade crossing and find the phone number stenciled on the controller box.


I have a friend who works for the railroad and he said it was OK. Doesn’t that count?

  • No. Unless you have written permission from the license holder you are not authorized to communicate on railroad channels. Individual employees are not authorized to grant these permissions.


Can’t I just get a license for these channels since I am a railfan/photographer, etc.?

  • No. Licenses to use railroad channels are granted only to railroad companies for official business of the railroad. Licenses on rail channels are not issued to railfans or photographers.


What radios can I use to coordinate my railfanning with others?

  • You could use a variety of radios. CB, FRS or MURS radios do not require a license and are usually good for a half mile or so, more in open areas. If you are a licensed ham operator there are a wide variety of radio channels you could use to talk to other hams. If you are in the railfan business, such as a professional photographer, you could get a license in the Business radio service. Cell phones and the various PTT services (like Nextel) might work well too.


I want to be able to tell the engineer to whistle for my video, can’t I just tell him on the radio?

  • No. Unless you are officially sanctioned by and make prior arrangements with the railroad company officials, trying to get an engineer to activate his whistle or horn could be considered as interference with operations. There are noise laws, operational rules and other considerations, so if you really need a train horn on your

video work it out with the railroad in advance or add in the sound effect later.