Safety While Railfanning

Unless you are railfanning from a public platform, like the Horseshoe Curve in Altoona, you must take safety very seriously. Even there, don’t be stupid and jump over the fence!


A single locomotive can weigh 300 tons, with the rest of the train reaching 5000-30000 (yes, thirty thousand) tons! Trains can also travel very fast, upwards of 60 MPH in the northeast. The extreme weight and speed plus a train’s low friction wheels means that a train is almost impossible to stop. When trains do stop, they must plan miles in advance and begin slowing down well before their red signal. If a train sees you on the tracks, they can’t stop.

Silent Killers

Locomotives radiate sound out of their sides, not front and back, which makes them very quiet and hard to hear. New train cars are also quieter than they used to be, only being noticeable when they are going past you. Never wear headphones or earbuds near tracks. Trust me, you can’t hear them with earbuds in. Trust me, you can’t hear their horn with earbuds in. Even being zoned out while walking can be loud enough to overpower a train horn.

Safety List

Public Railfanning Areas

  • Never walk on the tracks.
  • Stay in designated railfanning areas.
  • Always look and listen both ways before crossing the tracks.
  • Obey all signs, property/railroad employees, and volunteers.


  • Never disrespect the gate. Don’t try to outrun it, and NEVER go around the arms.
  • If the gate stays down after the train, stay there. The train may be reversing or another may be coming.
  • Don’t get too close to the tracks if you are railfanning next to a crossing.
  • Crossing arms are designed to break away. If you car becomes trapped in a crossing, floor it.

Railroad Property

If you must trespass and railfan from railroad property (e.g: service roads), at least do it safely.

  • NEVER walk on the tracks. They are even more dangerous when train crews won’t expect to see people. At the very least, stay on the service road. If there is no service road, you’re out of luck. Go home.
  • Stay at least 3 feet (1 meter) away from the outermost rail at all times.
  • If you must cross the tracks, look both ways, then cross quickly and move to a safe location.
  • Never listen to music or use headphones/earbuds.
  • Look behind you frequently.
  • Know how to read railroad signals.
  • Don’t step on the rails when they are wet (I learned that the hard way).
  • Never enter a tunnel unless you have immediate permission from a railroad employee to do so.
  • Never be impaired.
  • (Recommended) Get a scanner and know how to use it.
  • Always listen for whistling rails.
  • Don’t climb on equipment.
  • Don’t vandalize anything.
  • Don’t be a jackass.
  • Do not interfere with MoW operations.
  • Obey all railroad employees at all times.

Scanner Safety

I highly recommend you get a scanner capable of picking up railroad frequencies (~160 MHz, ~452 MHz). Find out what frequency the railroad you want to railfan uses, and program it in to your scanner. Spend a few days listening to get used to their dispatching style and learn how to translate what they say into train movements.

Additionally, you should program in the frequencies 452.93750 MHz and 457.93750 MHz, and scan those. They are the frequencies for the Head of Train Device, and the End of Train Device, respectively. Most (but not all!) trains will broadcast a beep on these frequencies. It’s useful to monitor these to know when a train is coming regardless of radio chatter.