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What is Railfanning?

Updated on April 8, 2015

What is a Railfan?

Thanks to another hubber I'm rewriting this hub to answer her question. To put it simply a railfan is a person who enjoys taking pictures of trains. We are labeled, as rail-fans, train-buffs, rail enthusiasts (UK), train nuts, and a not so nice one, foamer, indicating that we foam at the mouth every time we see something cool.

The United States owes it's existence to the railroads, and so a railfan is also interested in history. We mostly concentrate on the power, or locomotives, since they are the most colorful. I also keep an eye out for oddball railroad cars that might show up on a train. We get excited about a railcar that exhibits a railroad no longer in existence, and the longer the railroad has been gone, the more interesting the car is.

We might also carry some standard equipment such as a camera, and scanner so we know when a train is coming, this way we aren't surprised by the oncoming train. More professional photographers might also have a tripod. We might also record the locomotive numbers as well as the train ID so we have accurate records.

Now you might say "You saw this train yesterday, why on earth would you come here again today." Well the answer to that is because this train is different, different day, and could have different cars and locomotives. That same question could be posed to a sports fan, "Why do you watch the same game every day or week, or for that matter year? Because they say "The outcome is always different."

A railfan is someone who enjoys a hobby and this hub will explain a bit of the aspects of such a hobby.

In a British video one of the volunteers from the Yorkshire Moore Railway put it like this: "You can stand by a river with a pole in the water, or you can go hit a little white ball all day in a field, and that is socially acceptable, but stand on the platform of York (England) Station and your labeled as a nutcase."

This comment makes me wonder if fishing and golf are socially acceptable, why not taking pictures or riding trains? There are folks who go to NASCAR (or Formula 1) and watch a car go round and around and its the most popular sport in the US? But yet sitting on a platform or trackside, and we are looked at strangely, it is a conundrum.

Who is a Railfan?

Everyone is a Railfan to some degree Railfans come in all ages, shapes sizes and nationalities. Every country has their own railfan, one may like Steam, the next diesel, or electric. They bring expertise to the hobby, stories, but most of all the camaraderie. You will rarely see just one rail fan at a time, there will more than likely be a small group.

Becoming a railfan normally starts at a very young age nourished by a friend or family member. In my case, my uncle would take me out weekly to go railfanning, we would either eat at the fast food restaurant next to the tracks or tailgate at a location where we could also take pictures of trains.

The largest gathering of railfans and budding railfans in one of the many model trainshows across the country. It is here that people can learn about the modeling aspect of the hobby. Mind you there are some modelers that are not rail photagraphers and vice versa however they are both railfans, but the modelers will say they aren't railfans, just modelers.

If there is a special steam train coming by there might be a gathering at the tracks a bit larger than the normal group of railfans.It is at these events along with the model train shows that you see the grandparents and parents ooooing and ahhhing right along with the little kids just as if they were 4 yrs old. Just by mentioning to one of the venders or groups at a show that you are interested, be prepared to learn as they will tell you everything they know. Just like Uncle Eddie at Thanksgiving. One of the best Shows is the Great American Train Show or GATS, that travels around the nation, now there are other local shows that are often held in Large cities, Chicago for example has a monthly GATS show at the Dupage County Fairgrounds.


Immediately following 9/11 railfans were immediately eyed with suspicion by the railroads. Railroad and local police forces began questioning railfans hanging out around railroads, even on public property such as sidewalks and station platforms. Many railfans had been stopped, but law enforcement couldn't do much as the railfans were on public property.

After a while the railroads started to realize that the railfan could be an extra set of eyes and ears, and thus relaxed some of their restrictions. No longer are we offered cab rides on a whim, but we aren't bothered by law enforcement while on public property either.

A friend of mine who is down at the tracks quite a bit, reports any suspicious activity he sees. After being around railroads for a long time, railfans know how the railroad operates, who is a railroad employee and who is not. Each railroad has a hotline that anyone can call in emergencies, and this is the line that railfans use as any unknown can turn into emergencies.

Most of us follow the rules as much as possible like staying far enough from the track so as not to alarm the engineer that he may hit us. We smile and wave, a friendly wave, they may not respond in kind, but if they do see,they know we are harmless.

Safe Distance

Railfanning on Indiana Harbor Belt in La Grange Park IL.  A safe Distance from the train.
Railfanning on Indiana Harbor Belt in La Grange Park IL. A safe Distance from the train. | Source

The Right Way

The right way to do Railfanning safely is fairly easy. Onlyin a public place where it is safe: station platform, the sidewalk, a balcony, off to the side of the road if you're taking a picture from the car. If you chose

After 9/11 the transportation industry tightened its rules as we all know. We see in the airports where we have to go through extra screening for contraband and other unsafe items. But what most people don't realize, is that the railroads are also taking an extra precaution and that is affecting the Railfan. Up until September 11, 2001 Railfanning was a very benign activity. Train crews welcomed having somebody taking pictures of their train as they come down the track.

They would wave to kids, blow their horn, and maybe if they were in a siding would allow the local railfan who was standing there up into the cab for a chat while they were waiting for the signal or to be relieved. Now it's completely different, they look at us with trepidation that we may be planning something sinister. Which as far as I know is not the case, there have been no cases where the railfan had any unlawful intentions. There been a few railroads, on the east coast that have had their police stop and question railfans that they believe are suspicious. But these railfans were on public property overlooking a yard on a bridge. The cops shooed them off citing was private property, which it was not.

In recent years, railroads have once again welcomed railfans near the property, they realize the railfan is an asset and not a liability. The police have talked to the railfan's and have just mentioned that if they see anything that they should call the local authorities, so in reality the railfan is a pair of eyes that are undercover no one would suspect that they would report suspicious activity near the railroad.

Between Chicago and Englewood the 20th Century Limited and the Broadway Limited, raced as they both left their respective stations at 3pm.  They raced each other on a daily basis. Many photographers trespassed to get this shot.
Between Chicago and Englewood the 20th Century Limited and the Broadway Limited, raced as they both left their respective stations at 3pm. They raced each other on a daily basis. Many photographers trespassed to get this shot. | Source

The Wrong Way

Railfanning the wrong way means that there is no common sense being used. Being too close to the tracks, not watching where you are, and not paying attention to what's around are all things that will keep rail fans from being where they want to be.
If you decide to go Railfanning you must use common sense stay far enough away from the tracks where crews won't think you are going to hurt yourself, or anything that may come off the train will hit you.
There've been many stories where photographers have been where they should not be. One famous photograph is of the New York Central 20th Century Limited in the Broadway Limited of the Pennsylvania Railroad pacing each other side-by-side near Englewood Illinois. Photographers between the two tracks and just moments after clicking on that picture he had to lie flat on his stomach to protect himself and the camera is the trains raced past him. This created a very beautiful picture however this was not a safe Railfanning activity.

Common sense in the phrase Look Listen and Live to not just apply to railroad crossings but also to Rail Fans and Rail Photographers.

Railfanning Equipment

There are a few key pieces of equipment that should be in a Railfan's bag of Tricks. The first is a camera. The camera should have a decent Zoom so you can take pictures from a safe distance. The mega-pixels should be fairly high to generate a decent picture and the higher the megapixel, the better the resolution, the better the pic will be on the computer.

The second piece of equipment is the scanner, it would be a wise idea to have one of these so you wouldn't be waiting all day for the train. When you are in the middle of nowhere then having one will save the element of surprise, If you railfan in an Urban area, then a scanner is not needed as there are trains every few minutes.

The third piece of equipment is a set of binoculars, this is not a must, but is nice to have if you think you hear something then you can check it out before getting all excited and ready for the Ghost train...

Safety tips

Some safety tips so you don't get hurt or harassed by the local authorities:

1. Stay 50 feet away from the nearest track, except in populated areas.

2. On the platform at a station.

3. If you're in a blind spot such as on a curve, have a scanner with you know ahead of time of an oncoming train.

4. Wave to the train crews, this shows that you are paying attention and they don't have to worry that you're not aware of what's going on around you, also if you are always at the same spot, the crews "get to know you" and can trust that you know what you are doing.

5. If you are heading to the rail yards and want to "snoop" around, check with the office to get permission. If you on the edges of the property you should be ok, Railroad police may come and question you, and there are things you can show and say to make them trust you,

A. Show them your camera

B. Tell them you won't be long

C. Tell them why you are there and tell them that you respect why they stopped you.

6.When crossing tracks Always step over the rails not on. This way, there is little chance of slipping and falling.

Safe Places to Railfan

The safest places for rail fanning, are parks near the tracks, passenger stations, green space next to the tracks (like the photo I have above) and overpasses. Immediately after 9/11 rail fans were reporting that they were being harassed by police even though there a public property however in the years since the stories have faded and railroads are also starting to realize that rail fans are an extra set of eyes and ears for security. But on the tracks in your town, there's a park nearby without a fence between or even the low fence you in the tracks it is the perfect spot.

Railfan Parks

Some towns across the Country have realized that having a safe place to rail fans to watch trains has reduced the incidence is along the tracks, as well as bring tourism dollars in the form of food and gas, as well as putting gift shop within the area of the railfan location itself. Rochelle Illinois is the location of the crossing of two Class I railroads the BNSF and the Union Pacific. The location hosts on average 50 trains per day, over the two lines. Rochelle realized the potential for inviting photographers and rail fans to safe place. With the agreement of the two railroads, Rochelle built a Railroad Park right the crossing complete with, historical displays, a gift shop,the picnic shelter with picnic benches,and areas for photographers and rail fence set up the cameras for unrestricted views of passing trains. The Union Pacific line from Chicago to Council Bluffs, former Chicago & Northwestern and Burlington Northern Santa Fe former Chicago Burlington and Quincy line from Aurora to Savanna and Minneapolis provide the action.fences provide the protection but are low enough for unrestricted views. This was the first recognized place for rail fans, more towns such as Park Forest Illinois and Macon Georgia have both created rail-fan friendly parks near busy railroad lines. For more information check out CN Rail – Fan Park. This park is currently under construction and the progress can be followed at their website. I was unable to find more information about the railfan Park created and Macon Georgia, if you're in the area please drop me a line and let me know details so I can post it here please.


if you're an "armchair railfan" there are many webcams you can see the rail activity. Rochelle Railroad Park is one of the locations has a webcam that is running continuously updating every second.Web-cam is sponsored by Trains Magazine. the Galesburg railway Museum sponsors a web camera showing the BNSF mainline near the Depot. Finally here's a link to many different web cameras to railfan from your computer, this is from rail all of this may be the safest way to railfan it's still not the most exciting, however I don't live near a busy man line of host 60, 70,80 trains a day.this is the best I can do to get real action besides GP38's, but at least you don't have to worry about driving home at the end of the day.


The Union Pacific Railroad has issued a regulation that states that Railfans must stay off their property after a photographer placed his camera between the rails before their steamer 844 came running over it. The Current issue of Trains Magizine had this update. 5-19-12

Railroads Heritage

The Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific have painted a number of locomotives to represent the railroads that they took over or they merged over their histories. The Union Pacific has six locomotives painted in predecessor and the Norfolk Southern twenty. There were two different reasons for this, and they both involved the railfan. The Union Pacific said that they wanted royalties from any model with their livery or predecessor livery. A court ruled that the UP could only collect, if they were using a scheme from those roads, so they painted the six modern diesels into the predecessor schemes. The Norfolk Southern took another approach and at the idea put to them by a railfan, who also helped research the old paint schemes, painted up twenty modern locomotives in various paint schemes,

Interesting Find

Illinois Central Gulf Hopper Car
Illinois Central Gulf Hopper Car | Source
Original Stenciling
Original Stenciling | Source

Why is this an Interesting Find=====>

I was driving through town this morning and my jaw dropped! Why this car you ask? And not one of the other cars in the yard. Because of a few factors, the first being that it is from a railroad that no longer exists, the second is that even though railroad cars travel all over the country, that the ICG was only in existence for 10 years and a relative few cars were painted in the ICG Orange.

The Illinois Central Railroad merged with the Gulf Mobile and Ohio, thus becoming the Illinois Central Gulf. After ten years, the Gulf was dropped and the orange and white paint scheme was replaced with IC black, again. The IC is no longer as the Canadian National Railway took it over in 2000.

This ICG hopper is truly an orphan as it is no longer even has home rails.

Also a note of interest is that the car is not "patched", it has its original stenciling.

The Thrill of the Hunt

The Montana Rail Link's business train went up to Canada for refurbishment and it has been kept under wraps...until now. A friend who works for the MRL called me to say the the railroad sent a locomotive to bring them home. That is where the hunt comes in, the hunt for more information and the hunt for the best photo since this is a once in a lifetime opportunity as we don't know when or if it will be back in this area. It is scheduled to depart Vancouver BC on Monday July 29th, but we aren't sure if it might be earlier, and even if it is on that day, when it will depart....

The thrill of the hunt.


After getting info from various sources we found the crew that was going to bring it to Seattle went on duty at 1345 (1:45 pm) but on duty doesn't mean that the train heads out. A post on a yahoo group indicted that the train was moving at 1624 (4:24 pm) The authors group of rail fan buddies literally spanned two counties and cell phones at the ready, the rail fan closest to the border calling the others after the Special passes him, and he is racing south to try to get another shot. The train heads past the author and as it rolls out of sight I'm on the phone giving a couple minute warning of the Special's arrival at their location,

Here are some photos.

Montana Rail Link Special

MRL Special Crossing over Lagoon
MRL Special Crossing over Lagoon
MRL Special Crossing over Lagoon
MRL Special Crossing over Lagoon
MRL Special Crossing over Lagoon
MRL Special Crossing over Lagoon
MRL Special Crossing over Lagoon
MRL Special Crossing over Lagoon
MRL Special Crossing over Lagoon
MRL Special Crossing over Lagoon
The business train in its new home in Missoula MT at MRL Headquarters
The business train in its new home in Missoula MT at MRL Headquarters | Source

Lynden Local

The Lynden Local operates between Sumas Washington and Lynden a couple times a week. It is operated by the BNSF Railway on an as needed basis, so it it very hard to catch as they have no set schedule. I was running some errands in Lynden last week and as I crossed the tracks I saw a headlight. After 16 years and only catching it once about nine years ago, it was a slam on brakes spin around and wait, (yes my errands waited too, to my wife's chagrin) I called my uncle who h as been in the area for 12 years and has yet to catch it, he dropped everything and caught up with us, then chased it all the the way back to Sumas, Where I chased it part way.

When you find something rare, you make a big fuss about it, It may not be the train it self, Yes, you can the train in Sumas WA but on a branch line,operated by a class one road, is pretty rare in the 21st century.

Lynden local

Lynden Local arriving in Lynden
Lynden Local arriving in Lynden | Source
Switching the cold storage plant in town.
Switching the cold storage plant in town. | Source

Railroad Safety

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© 2010 Clayton Hartford


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    • bn9900 profile imageAUTHOR

      Clayton Hartford 

      5 years ago from Alger WA

      Thanks Homeplace, it's a fun hobby. Thanks for stopping by

    • Homeplace Series profile image

      William Leverne Smith 

      5 years ago from Hollister, MO

      I think I'm a railfan and didn't even know it. Thanks for a fun and interesting hub. Keep them coming! ;-)

    • bn9900 profile imageAUTHOR

      Clayton Hartford 

      6 years ago from Alger WA

      Marlene-Thank you for stopping by, and no it is not a silly question. A railfan is by definition a fan of the rails, just like a baseball fan is a fan of baseball. Please read the updated hub, as you're question got me thinking about redoing the hub to explain what a railfan is.

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 

      6 years ago from USA

      I was intrigued by the title, so I just had to find out what a railfan is. I'm trying to get a picture in my head, but I'm not sure so I have to ask if a railfan is simply a person who is a fan of railroads? Or, is a railfan something a person does? Thank you for your help with what might turn out to be a silly question.


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