1) Be safe. This should go without saying, but it is amazing how many of us forget this when we are trackside with all of our attention focused on getting the perfect photo. Modern locomotives can and will sneak up on you. NEVER stand on the tracks or near enough to passing equipment that you could easily be injured by flying objects. Loose metal straps, kicked-up rocks, shifting loads and derailments are all common occurrences. Always be alert to what is approaching you from behind as well as what has already passed you. And heed the words of Operation Lifesaver: Expect a train on any track at any time, traveling in any direction.
2) Be patient. Predicting the arrival of a train at your location is an inexact science at best. Even those of us with a scanner are often caught waiting cluelessly for a train we THOUGHT was going to be upon us in a couple of minutes. Assuredly, the moment you pack up the camera and head back to the car to call it a day is the precise moment at which your quarry will roll around the bend.
3) Know your territory. A sure way to improve your chances of seeing trains is to research the area you intend to visit ahead of time. Pick up maps of the area and mark down track locations with easy highway access. Ask other railfans or those with knowledge of the railroad about traffic patterns. Many lines contain a certain degree of predictability in that scheduled freight and passenger trains tend to run the same direction at roughly the same time of day. For instance, on the BNSF Stockton Subdivision near Milepost 1147.2, there are eight Amtraks per day along with through freights between Richmond and Barstow, a UP local that runs between Stockton and Pittsburg, and others. Eastbound traffic runs mainly at night, while westbounds come through mostly in the morning to late-afternoon. Learn all you can about the area and you will enjoy the visit more.
4) Don't foam with a non-foamer. This isn't meant to be divisive. By all means, if you want to be accompanied trackside by a spouse, child or buddy who doesn't like trains in an attempt to enlighten them as to the mystique of the rails, then by all means do so. But be forewarned, you do so at your own peril. Unless you only plan to spend a half hour or so, remember that not everyone shares your fascination for trains and will quickly tire of anything more than a brief wait for some action. By its nature, railfanning often involves long waits in uncomfortable locations. If you do bring a guest, be sure to respect their needs and feelings. They may be more amenable to accommodating your next long excursion. Even if they aren't, remember that personal relationships are harder to salvage than a lost photo opportunity.
5) Always keep a camera handy. The best way to see trains regardless of where you are is to leave your camera at home. Rest assured, that will be the time when some rare piece of equipment rolls merrily past you and you will curse yourself the rest of the day for the missed moment. You don't have to lug your expensive camera outfit with you at all times; simply keep an inexpensive box camera handy (loaded with film is a good idea) for those unexpected occasions.
6) Don't interfere. That is, remember that your hobby is another person's livelihood. Railroads tolerate railfans at best. At worst, we are viewed as unwanted trespassers who threaten the safety and efficiency of rail employees and operations. If you are ever asked to leave by a railroad employee or security official, do so without argument. Act responsibly and you will help preserve what little access railfans still enjoy to good train-viewing locations.
7) Don't be a rail weenie. Rail weenies (also known as rail nerds, rail morons, and stupid idiots) are the type of fan everyone hates. They have no respect for rail property, their own safety or that of others, or common courtesy. If there is a crowd waiting patiently behind a barricade for a photo of a steam runby, the rail weenie will be the one who jumps over the barricade for the perfect shot while spoiling everyone else's. The rail weenie will be the one who runs five drivers off the road in order to get a video while pacing a train on the open highway. He will also be the one to provoke an argument with a rail cop about his "constitutional rights" to be standing in the middle of a busy rail yard. By now you can identify a rail weenie. Don't act like one.
8) Have fun. Remember that railfanning is a hobby and not a full-time job, unless you happen to be one of the fortunate few who makes a living off of chasing trains. (Anybody who does this and isn't a photographer, please send e-mail and share your secret with the webmaster!) You will have more fun if you balance your foaming tendencies with life's other demands. If you find yourself getting uptight about missed photo opportunities, skipping work to hang out at the yard and spending less time with friends and family, it is time to think seriously about taking a break from the tracks and paying attention to other aspects of your life.
We welcome your comments and suggestions. Please send e-mail to Glenn or Roni Gehlke.
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Proceed to Milepost 1147.2 on main track. Hold main track at last named point. Over.
This page was last updated Tuesday, June 8, 1999.