Transit Glossary: Rail Fanning How-To Continued

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 more ways rail enthusiasts enjoy the hobby:

Taking photos, shooting video, sharing on YouTube, Facebook, and other social media websites.

Pictures are worth a thousand words.  A picture of a train is worth a thousand stories, including how the shot was taken, whose train it is or was, and how fast can it run.

Some of the greatest in transportation photography are usually published in magazine publications such as Railway Age and Railpace or on websites such as and  Other photographers, more of the amateur type versus the professional published in the aforementioned publications, post their photos on Facebook, Instagram, or photo sharing sites such as Photobucket and Flickr.  Videos of trains are usually found on YouTube, although has a special spinoff called

So what makes for a great train picture?  Depends on who you ask.  If you ask me, some of the best train pictures feature the following:

  • Good lighting, mainly on the main subject of the picture
  • A good three-quarter wedge view, basically showing the front and one side of the train
  • Good background, something that can help tell the story that is being told, a place-setter for the picture, or somewhere the train normally cannot be found
  • Good composition, sometimes showing all or most of the train or trains
  • Two or more of the same train side-by-side or one behind the other
  • Two or more different types of trains side-by-side
  • Interesting sight lines, perspective lines or curves

Here are some examples from my collection.  Note that this is a synopsis and not a full-blown critique, which may be discussed in later posts.

The picture of the SEPTA PCC car was shot in perfect sunlight with the car about to negotiate a tight curve.  For a railfan, this invokes memories of PCC cars squealing around curves with a sound that no other streetcar can duplicate.  The photo with the Los Angeles light rail car shows great perspective, a three-dimensional effect with sight lines that lead diagonally away from the left side of the picture.  I love the HBLR picture in Bayonne because it shows the transition between daytime and nighttime.  The #7 train picture shows a train coming right at you with a view of the New York City skyline, with an added bonus of a near-empty Queens Boulevard which contrasts with a normally bustling Manhattan street.  The HBLR car at the West Side Avenue station plays with the dramatic evening sky, made even more so by the light cloud cover.  And the photo of Clapham Junction in the U.K. is just tracks and tracks with a few of the dozens of trains that pass through the junction at rush hour, with a mean-looking sky adding to the drama of the scene.

As far as videos are concerned, there are so many videos on YouTube, though my favorite ones are those that have the photographer standing still on the platform or walkway and filming the train panning slowly to the right or left to achieve a slow blur effect.  For a few examples, check out my YouTube channel and some of my subscriptions.

Collecting models, constructing layouts, showing slides

Who didn’t have a model trainset when they were kids?  I know I sure did.  Not the greatest set, but a cute little one.  Not exactly Lionel or even some like MTH or Athearn, but it was a trainset and it ran.  Had a figure-eight, which turned into an oval, which turned into a circle.  Not enough funds and a few other reasons.  Regardless, most railfans have had at least one trainset in their lifetime.  There are those that collect them, sell them, buy them, run them, and surely brag about them.

Depending on what region of the country you are from, the more popular trainsets are usually freight railroads and some older passenger railroads; in the New York area, subway car trainsets from nearly every era are more commonplace among fans.  Lionel and Athearn are more famous for making model trains representing current companies such as Amtrak, BNSF Railway, and Union Pacific; MTH does railroads but is more widely known in the New York area for its NYC subway models.  From the cars that ran the first subway in 1904 to the newest subway trains and everything in between, MTH has a wide range of cars for everyone’s tastes.  There are several companies that produce layout materials and structures including fake grass, railroad crossing gates, signal masts, fake gravel or “ballast” and even elevated structures for subway trains that mimic those found in New York or Chicago.  The idea is to make a replica of railroads to either relive the times or invoke the imagination.  Some layouts are very realistic, while others are simplistic.  The most detailed layouts include railroad crossing gates, trestle bridges, lighting, working signal systems, and massive yards for train storage, just like the real thing.

One of the biggest gatherings of model train enthusiasts is hosted by the Amherst Railway Society in Springfield, Mass.  The Springfield Model Train Show is held during the last weekend in January at the Eastern States Exhibition Center, with 4 buildings filled with model train layouts, vendors, fans, families, and sound effects or, what else, trains.  There is also the NYC Model Transit Association’s Mass Transit and Trolley Modelers Convention held at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, usually in the middle of October, and the Great Model Train Show held in Timonium, MD usually around the end of October.  These are also large events with thousands of models and hundreds of vendors, with thousands of fans that attend every year from all over the East Coast.  The hottest commodities are usually brass metal trains, die-cast metal trainsets, and hard-to-find models of any scale or any material.  There are many different trains in many different scales, of which N, O, HO, and G scale are the most common.  The cheapest sets or models go for about $30-50 and the most expensive can top $1,000.  Bring patience, some enthusiasm, and your wallet; you will be tempted to spend and learn at these events.

Most older railfan photographers get their pictures developed and printed out the old-fashioned way, but they also have slides made so that they can use overhead or tabletop projectors to show their work at club gatherings or meeting places.  Slides are a great way to show off work to a large crowd without having multiple people at a table putting their hands on prints.  Many groups such as the Electric Railroaders’ Association the U.S. and the Toronto Transportation Society in Canada use this method to encourage photographers to make presentations based on their recent travels, a particular city or state, or a particular system or era of transportation.  What might have been snapped in the 1960s may or may not exist anymore 20 years after, or some cities have more of the lion’s share of trains than others or have kept their systems longer than others.  Some rail fans like to show highlights of their trips to update their fellow fans of a railroad or city which they wouldn’t otherwise have time to visit or follow on the Internet.

I hope this sheds some light into the world of railfanning, and I hope you enjoyed reading this as much if not more than I enjoyed writing this.  We are rail fans, but we are regular people, with a love of trains…and we all enjoy it and show it differently.  There are many ways to enjoy the hobby, but as long as we enjoy ourselves.  It is an interest just like cars, sports, or stamp-collecting, and a rather unique one in that trains carry people and goods almost anywhere in the world.


Stay tuned for a quick synopsis of avation “fanning.”

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