Railroad Frequencies & Rail Scanning Ultimate Guide

Looking to listen to railroad communication, but not sure where to start? You've come to the right place, my friend.

Rail scanning and all the technical terms surrounding it can be a bit overwhelming, so we gathered all of the information you need to choose the best rail scanner.

Still have questions once you’ve read through this article?

Chat with a rail scanner expert right now!

The Railroad Scanning Guide Covers:

 

Chapter 1:

How to Listen to Railroad Communication


 

There are a few online streams and police scanner apps that can pick up rail communication, but what they broadcast is limited and depending on where you live, may not cover your area at all.

The best way to listen to all railroad communication in your area is with an analog scanner.

A railroad scanner is like an AM/FM radio in that it can receive radio signals, but not transmit them. 

However, a railroad scanner is special because it can pick up unique radio signals that an average AM/FM cannot.

There are several names for railroad scanners that all mean the same thing:

  • Analog Scanner
  • Railroad Scanner
  • Police Scanner
  • Train Scanner
  • Railroad Radio
  • Train Radio
    Chapter 2:

    What to Listen To


     

    Train Crews - Internal Communication

    Listen to train staff communicate with one another. 

    You can hear conductors, trainmen, engineers, firefighters, passenger train crew members, Chief of On-Board Services, stewards, dining car attendants, kitchen staff, attendants and more.

    This is popular with passenger train listeners.

    Train to Train

    Hear passing trains’ communication with one another, as the name would suggest.

    Railroad Dispatcher

    Railroad dispatchers are popular because you can listen to communication with all trains incoming and outgoing.

    Railroad Maintenance Crews

    Listen to maintenance crews discuss things such as snow removal, general maintenance, line closures, and other issues.

    Railroad Police

    Railroads have their own police, which handle things like rail yard security and crime prevention. Yes, even the graffiti that reveals your childlike wonder at railroad crossings.

    It can be interesting to monitor unruly train passengers and rail yard trespassers, but that kind of action is hard to come by.

    Chapter 3:

    Who Uses Railroad Scanners?


     

    • Rail fans
    • Amateur Radio Hobbyists
    • Emergency personnel (firefighters, police, EMS, etc.)
    • Railroad staff

    Anyone can use a railroad scanner to hear what’s going on in their area. Public airwaves in the US are free to listen to. 

    A handful of states have restrictions regarding using a scanner in your vehicle, so here is a detailed explanation of scanner laws in the US.

    Chapter 4:

    How to Buy a Railroad Scanner


     

    SR30C

     

    There are a lot of railroad scanners on the market and, like most electronics, you get what you pay for. There are 4 main things to consider when buying a railroad scanner:

    Frequency Bands

    Over 99% of all railroad communication can be picked up with an analog scanner. 

    We discuss different frequency bands in greater detail later in Chapter 7 of this article, Railroad Scanner Frequencies.

    Every scanner we sell can pick up analog signals. That means that all digital scanners can also pick up analog, but you’re a smart cookie, you knew that.

    Number of Channels

    Railroad scanners are like an AM/FM radio in that they have a certain number of preset “channels” you can program. 

    We recommend buying a railroad scanner with at least 200 channels available for programming, which every rail scanner we offer has:

    • BC125AT = 500 Alpha-Tagged channels
    • SR30C = 500 channels

    There are 97 channels that the American Association of Railroads (AAR) has assigned for rail communication. 

    As most rail-fans will have these 97 channels programmed permanently, the remaining channel space available in your scanner will be reserved for local and regional rail channels.

    Railroad Scanner Manufacturers

    There are two companies that manufacture railroad scanners:

    Both are quality manufacturers that offer a 1-year warranty & comparable scanner models, but the two best railroad scanners are the:

    • Uniden SR30C
    • Uniden BC125AT

    Where Will You be Listening

    There are 2 types of railroad scanners:

    • Handheld - Handheld scanners are portable and can be carried around like a walkie-talkie.
    • Home & Vehicle - Vehicle police scanners can be installed in the dashboard of a vehicle like a car radio. Home or "base" scanners are typically used in one location.

    While the type of scanner you buy is based solely on your own personal preference, we recommend buying a handheld scanner.

    Handheld scanners account for 90% of all scanner sales.

    This will allow you to listen from home, and closer to the tracks.

    Chapter 5:

    What to Buy with your Railroad Scanner


     

    Railroad Scanner Antenna

    Home Antenna

     If you plan on scanning from your home or vehicle, you may want a mounted antenna to increase range.

    30-35 miles is the ballpark range on all scanners using the stock on-set antenna, but the following factors affect reception:

    • Topography (hills, trees, etc.) 
    • Transmission locations
    • Signals work on line-of-sight, not satellites
    • Weather

    The type of antenna you need varies greatly based on where you live, what you want to listen to, what types of structures are nearby (buildings, trees, hills) that may block signals, and several other considerations. 

    Contact us and we can help you find the best scanner antenna or view our Antenna Buyer's Guide.

    Pro tip: The scanner is the priority; add antenna later to increase signal.

    Headset

    Racing Headset for NASCAR | Racing Radio Headset

    If you plan on listening to rail traffic while on a passenger train, earphones are a must (that is, unless you wanna be That Guy).

    If you listen outside, near the rail yard, it can get very loud, so over-ear headphones are highly recommended.

    Splitter

    Railroad Frequencies & Rail Scanning Ultimate Guide Splitter

    We’ve found that a good portion of rail fans are young “PBS Kids.”

    Though they may be Thomas the Train and Edward the Blue Engine fans first and foremost, your grand(son/daughter) might be interested in picking up the hobby.

    In that case, they’re probably interested in listening to the same railroad scanner as you. This is where headphones and a two-way splitter come into play.

    Batteries

    Loopacell Batteries

    Handheld railroad scanners typically last 4-6 hours per charge, but it’s best to have an extra set of batteries if you’re riding on an Amtrak train, or you do not have access to a power outlet.

    All handheld railroad scanners use AA batteries.

    AC (wall) and DC (car) Charger

     

    AC Adapter
    DC Adapter

     

    All handheld scanners come with a USB cord, but no AC or DC adapter as they manufacture one model worldwide.

    You will need to purchase an AC (wall) adapter to charge at home and a DC (car) adapter to charge in your vehicle.

     

    Chapter 6:

    Railroad Scanner Programming


     

     While programming each rail scanner is unique, in our experience, analog programming isn’t as difficult as digital programming

    The BC125AT_SS and SR30C_SS programming software is more plug-and-play copy-paste than other scanner software, but ultimately, there’s still a learning curve.

    In other words, we program!

    See “Railroad Scanner Frequencies” below for how to find rail scanner frequencies. 

    Rail frequencies have essentially remained the same since they were established. They aren’t written in stone, but there’s no reason to change them now.

    You will be able to add channels as you listen and find them, but programming is not a big part of rail scanning. You can have your rail scanner professionally programmed as well.

     

    Chapter 7:

    Railroad Scanner Frequencies


    Railroad scanning in the US and Canada is fairly straight forward thanks to the American Association of Railroads (AAR).

    The AAR assigned channel numbers to all 96 frequencies in the 160-161 MHz band.

    Channel Number Frequency Channel Number Frequency
    2 159.810 52 160.890
    3 159.930 53 160.905
    4 160.050 54 160.920
    5 160.185 55 160.935
    6 160.200 56 160.950
    7 160.215 57 160.965
    8 160.230 58 160.980
    9 160.245 59 160.995
    10 160.260 60 161.010
    11 160.275 61 161.025
    12 160.290 62 161.040
    13 160.305 63 161.055
    14 160.320 64 161.070
    15 160.335 65 161.085
    16 160.350 66 161.100
    17 160.365 67 161.115
    18 160.380 68 161.130
    19 160.395 69 161.145
    20 160.410 70 161.160
    21 160.425 71 161.175
    22 160.440 72 161.190
    23 160.455 73 161.205
    24 160.470 74 161.220
    25 160.485 75 161.235
    26 160.500 76 161.250
    27 160.515 77 161.265
    28 160.530 78 161.280
    29 160.545 79 161.295
    30 160.560 80 161.310
    31 160.575 81 161.325
    32 160.590 82 161.340
    33 160.605 83 161.355
    34 160.620 84 161.370
    35 160.635 85 161.385
    36 160.650 86 161.400
    37 160.665 87 161.415
    38 160.680 88 161.430
    39 160.695 89 161.445
    40 160.710 90 161.460
    41 160.725 91 161.475
    42 160.740 92 161.490
    43 160.755 93 161.505
    44 160.770 94 161.520
    45 160.785 95 161.535
    46 160.800 96 161.550
    47 160.815 97 161.565
    48 160.830
    49 160.845
    50 160.860
    51 160.875

     

    There are a few exceptions and oddities around the US and for a detailed breakdown visit RadioReference.

    Chapter 8:

    Railroad Scanning FAQ


     

    How far away will my railroad scanner work?

    • About 30-35 miles.
    • Potentially up to 60 miles with a home/vehicle antenna.

    How do I program my railroad scanner?

    • We can program your scanner with all US rail frequencies. 
    • We can still program if you did not purchase from us or already have your scanner. 
    • Programming each scanner is unique and we discuss how to program each scanner on its product page.

    What is the best railroad scanner?

    • We recommend the Uniden SR30C. It is the latest and greatest analog scanner.
    • The BC125AT is older, but generally just as capable.

    Are railroad scanners legal?

    Yes. Here is an article that goes into great detail regarding scanning laws in the US.


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