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:

  • HandheldHandheld 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.

 

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.