Railroad Scanning: A Railfans Guide

Looking to listen rail communication but not sure where to start? You’re in the right place.

Rail scanning and all the technical terms around it can be a bit overwhelming, so we created this guide to give you all the information you need to choose the best rail scanner or chat with a scanner expert now.

The Railroad Scanning Guide Covers:

How to Listen to Railroad Communication
Railroad Scanning – What to Listen to
Who Uses Railroad Scanners
How to Buy a Railroad Scanner
What to Buy With your Railroad Scanner
Railroad Scanner Programming
Railroad Scanner Frequencies
Railroad Scanner FAQ

How to Listen to Railroad Communication

Railroad scanner 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 a railroad 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:

› Scanner
› Railroad Scanner
› Police Scanner
› Railroad Scanner
› Train Scanner
› Railroad Radio
› Train radio

What to Listen to

rail scanning - what to listen to

Train Crews – Internal Communication

Listen to train staff communicate with one another. Hear conductors, trainmen, engineer, fireman, passenger train crew members, chief of on-board services, steward, dining car attendants, kitchen staff, attendants and more. This is popular with those those that listen while riding on passenger trains.

Train to Train

Hear passing trains’ communication with one another.

Railroad Dispatcher

Railroad dispatchers are popular to listen to as you can hear 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 security and crime prevention. Passenger trains can be interesting as they deal with unruly passengers.

Who Uses Railroad Scanners?

rail fans scanning train

› Railfans
› 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 few states have restrictions about listening in your vehicle and here is a detailed explanation of scanner laws in the US.

How to Buy a Railroad Scanner

BC75XLT Uniden railroad scanner
BC75XLT by Uniden

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. Below, in Railroad Scanner Frequencies we discuss different frequency bands in greater detail. Every scanner we sell can pick up analog signals.

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. There are 96 channels that the American Association of Railroads (AAR) has assigned for rail communication. As most rail-fans will have these 96 channels programmed permanently, the remaining channels on your scanner will be available for you to use for other rail channels in your area.

Railroad Scanner Manufacturers

There are two companies that manufacture railroad scanners; Whistler & Uniden. Both are quality manufacturers that offer a 1 year warranty & comparable scanner models.

Where Will You be Listening

There are 3 ‘types’ of scanners:

Handheld – Handheld police scanners are portable and can be carried around like a walkie-talkie.

Mobile – Mobile police scanners are typically installed in a vehicle.

Desktop/Base – Desktop police scanners are stationary devices for your home or office.

While the type of scanner you buy is based solely on your own personal preference we recommend buying a handheld scanner. This will allow you to listen from home as well as on the go.

What to Buy with your Railroad Scanner

Railroad Scanner Antenna

police scanner antenna on roof

If you plan scanning from home or vehicle you may want an antenna to increase range. 30 miles is the ballpark range on all scanners but topography (hills, trees, etc.) as well as transmission location are major factors. The type of antenna you need varies greatly based on where you live, what you want to listen to, what type 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.


Uniden Racing Headset - NASCAR Headset

If you plan on listening on the train, earphones are required. If you listen outside near the rail yard it can get very loud so over-the-head headphones are recommended.



If you’re going to listen to the same railroad scanner as someone else via headphones, you’ll need a splitter.


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 a train or you do not have access to a power outlet. All handheld railroad scanners use AA batteries.

Rail Scanner Case

Nylon Scanner Case

A railroad scanner case will protect your handheld scanner from the elements and keep it looking new.

AC (wall) and DC (car) Charger

All handheld scanners come with a USB cord but no AC or DC adapter as they manufacturer 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.

Railroad Scanner Programming

While programming each rail scanner is unique, it’s been our experience that once users read their owner’s manual, programming is relatively intuitive. See ‘Railroad Scanner Frequencies’ below for how to find rail scanner frequencies. As rail frequencies rarely (if ever) change this only needs to be done once. 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.

Railroad Scanner Frequencies

Scanner streaming online

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.

Frequency Channel
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 97 161.565
49 160.845 97 161.565
50 160.860 96 161.550
51 160.875 97 161.565

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

Railroad Scanning FAQ

How far away will my railroad scanner work?

About 30 miles.

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 as well. 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.

Are railroad scanners legal?

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

What do you think?

Have any questions or think we should add something? Disagree with anything we wrote? Let us know in the comments below or chat with a scanner expert now.

Leave a Reply