Transit Glossary: Rail Fanning How-To

There are many ways to watch the rails, and the trains that run along them, from freight to passenger, from light rail to commuter rail.

Rail fanning is slightly different from bus fanning.  There are many ways to enjoy the rails, but some are more dangerous than bus fanning.  Trains are faster, heavier, and have more blind spots than buses, since most don’t have mirrors and just stay on the tracks.  They can only detour if there are more tracks and switches to divert to those other tracks.  Signals protect nearly every piece of track anywhere in the world, but buses require steering and knowledge of the roads.

Nevertheless, here’s a few ways rail enthusiasts enjoy the hobby:

Visiting major train stations, terminals, transit centers, etc.

Train buffs understand that the best way to get an experience of watching trains is to watch trains where there are plenty of trains going by.  At terminal stations, trains are going by at relatively slow speeds, but can be quite entertaining dependent upon the complexity of the system.  Metro-North Railroad’s Grand Central Terminal has two levels of tracks (11-42 Upper Level and 101-117 Lower Level), both of which are used at all times of the day.  Metro-North service runs from about 6am to about 2am the next day, with its busiest times during the morning and evening rush hours.  For most people, standing at the middle or the end of any platform gives you a decent vantage point to see multiple trains on multiple tracks.  Due to the indoor nature of Grand Central Terminal, however, no one platform offers the best viewing area for more than 4-6 tracks.

NJ Transit’s Hoboken Terminal, an outdoor terminal, has great vantage points from either the terminal waiting area, the middle of any track, or from the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail station area.  You can see trains on all of Hoboken’s 18 tracks from any single point in the station.  Amtrak’s Penn Station New York is an underground station but has great vantage points from the western end of certain tracks depending on what railroad you are interested in.  Tracks 1-12 are Amtrak and NJ Transit, Tracks 13-21 are MTA Long Island Rail Road.  If you like Amtrak or NJ Transit, the best place to watch trains to and from New Jersey is from Tracks 9-12, while for Long Island Rail Road trains going to and from West Side Yard, tracks 16-19 are the best places to stand.  Understanding the layout of terminal stations and knowing where the railroads take you is key to knowing where to spot train action.

Rail fans don’t limit themselves to terminal stations when it comes to trains.  Sometimes, a “run-by” is enough to get fans riled up.  A run-by is basically when a train rolls or speeds by a fixed point where fans pitch themselves to watch trains.  In New York, a few good run-by locations include Metro-North’s Harlem-125th Street Station, LIRR’s Forest Hills and Woodside Stations, and PATH’s Harrison Station for PATH, Amtrak, and NJ Transit rail action.  A fan favorite for high-speed run-bys are NJ Transit’s New Brunswick Station, though Rahway Station is good for the fact that NJ Transit’s North Jersey Coast Line branches off from the Northeast Corridor and affords more train watching opportunities.  Run-bys aren’t limited to stations either.  Metro-North’s Mott Haven Junction in the Bronx is a great location for watching Metro-North trains at is a branch-off point for the Hudson Line and the Harlem and New Haven Lines.  Stand on the 149th Street overpass and you will have an excellent view of all four Harlem/New Haven Line tracks and all three Hudson Line tracks.  During the hours of 4pm-7pm, you will see Metro-North at its busiest, with trains coming from Manhattan speeding up to the suburbs, empty trains heading to Manhattan for the rush hour, trains going local, trains running express, trains reverse-running, and rescue trains on stand-by in case of a breakdown.

Understanding transit maps, rail schedules, and fleet rosters

Rail systems can be quite small or quite vast.  No one can really fully understand an entire system as big as Chicago’s METRA or MTA Long Island Rail Road overnight.  It takes time to really understand how the railroad runs and what trains can take you where.  Some lines run fairly predictably, such as MTA Maryland’s MARC system, but some lines have some regularity except for during the rush hours, like Metro-North’s New Haven Line.  Generally speaking, MARC runs weekdays only and all trains on their three lines make all stops, with some trains not going all the way to their farthest destination.  Metro-North runs half of its trains local to Stamford and the other half express to Stamford and local to New Haven.  Some trains go just to Union Station, while others go up to State Street.  Some stops north of Stamford see every other express train, such as East Norwalk and Green’s Farms.  During the rush hours, some trains run semi-express, making only important stops to Stamford (such as New Rochelle and Greenwich) and the major stops to New Haven (such as Bridgeport and South Norwalk), while some run express to Stamford or a point south of Stamford.  The New Canaan, Danbury, and Waterbury Branches of the New Haven Line have direct service from Grand Central Terminal or Stamford during the rush hours to make it easier for those living on the branches to get to New York more conveniently.  To understand all of this takes quite a bit of reading the New Haven Line schedules to understand exactly what goes on.

For most rail fans, it is good practice to grab a sufficient assortment of schedules or system maps to help familiarize themselves with the railroads and to understand where there might be opportunities to eat, drink, rest, commute, or watch trains.  A great spot to watch trains is just north or south of METRA’s Union Station, where many Amtrak and METRA trains start their journeys to the suburbs and points north, south, or west.  Most METRA trains run every hour, and there are at least 7 branches of the railroad to watch out of 12-13 total.  For a few other branches, a short walk to the Ogilvie Transportation Center will provide access to other rail lines.  A quick CTA train ride will take you to LaSalle Street for more METRA diesel lines, and a walk or bus ride to Michigan Avenue will get you to Millennium Park, where METRA’s Electric Division calls home.  METRA’s system is a tangled web of rail lines, operated by numerous freight companies and other operating entities (trivia, but noteworthy), but once you understand the maps and color codes, it becomes easier to know where to go.  A system like the rush-hour only, commuter-oriented Virginia Railway Express is easier to understand since there is only two lines, one to Manassas and one to Fredericksburg in Virginia.  Usually, in this day and age, searching for the websites of these transit properties is the first step in understanding the scope of the system.  Once we located schedules and maps, we try to figure out patterns with services mainly to compare to our home systems or see what we are in for that is different from what we are used to.

When it comes to rosters, most railfans use fleet rosters to guide them to where they might want to set up shop, per se.  Metrolink in Southern California has an all-diesel operation, mainly consisting of three types of locomotives:  the F59PH built by EMD; the F59PHI (insulated, streamlined cab) also built by EMD, and the MP36PH-3C, built by Motive Power Industries.  This is important because there were not many F59PH and F59PHI locomotives built; they are mainly on the West Coast (San Diego Coaster and Sound Transit come to mind).  The MP36PH-3C, part of the MPXpress line of locomotives, is a bit more common, though still fairly new.  They have replaced older diesel locomotives from the era of numerous famous railroads such as Illinois Central, Burlington Northern, and Conrail.  Often, locomotives change hands, are rebuilt, and are sold as additions to purchases from other systems in order to speed up delivery time and reduce contract costs.  New Jersey Transit GP40-series locomotives were built new for predecessor railroads such as Erie and Lackawanna and were grandfathered into NJ Transit.  Some of their locomotives were rebuilt after serving their first lives as freight power.  These are very important to know as they add sentimental value for railfans.  That is why we might run to catch a photograph of an NJ Transit GP40-series locomotive over the newer Alstom-built PL-42AC.


To be continued…

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