Scanners, Radio and Other such tech inquiries

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PVD

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Other things to consider:

Using scanners on railroads is not security critical - no big deal
However going through TSA security at airports may raise eyebrows
Use of scanners in flight is really an issue - use with extreme care here (ear piece headphones absolutely necessary)
Scanners are receivers and not transmitting devices - can't mess with transmissions - but then there are the uneducated - - -

On cruise ships some will not pass muster - especially Carnival Cruise Lines at San Juan PR - they were not very pleasant about it.

As with all scanners - privileged communications is open to monitoring by the public be careful of what you hear and passing it on

Transceivers and Satellite phones are another thing - check to see if the use if OK - verboten - void - don't even think about it !

Most of the police and government frequencies are on a trunking circuit where the signal is on multiple frequencies so you only receive part of
it before changing channels - really hard to follow all the juicy stuff in progress.

In some local areas using a scanner to monitor police activity is illegal - the bad guys out-witting the keystone cops !

But it really is fun to hear the chatter as to why the hell the damn train is late - other than no defects at mile post xxx
Amtrak is really deficient in dispensing information about delays - Ok 20 minutes no big deal but an hour come on give me a break !
YES some trains do pick up time and station stops are often brief - just enough time to keep the delays on the minus side.

And the usual Mission Impossible discloser:
The Secretary will disallow any use of communication devices by the parties
Some airlines expressly forbid scanners, and any PED is generally subject to the 10,000 foot rule even if allowed. While there is no transmission, there are fears (perhaps unfounded, but they make the rules) that reception can be an issue. Unless things have changed, Delta and Southwest were definitely no, not sure of the others.
 

Devil's Advocate

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Joined
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Some airlines expressly forbid scanners, and any PED is generally subject to the 10,000 foot rule even if allowed. While there is no transmission, there are fears (perhaps unfounded, but they make the rules) that reception can be an issue. Unless things have changed, Delta and Southwest were definitely no, not sure of the others.
I'm unaware of any US airline that allows operating radio scanners while in flight but I'm also unaware of anything dangerous happening as a result. Mobile phones in transmit mode are likely a bigger issue but they only seem to affect the smallest of regional aircraft. If you were caught in the act it would probably just get a warning to turn it off and put it away but ignoring these instructions could be cause for civil penalties. Always avoid taking a scanner on international flights without proper research as the rules and regulations vary widely from country to country and simple possession can be a major offense in some areas.
 

PVD

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I had heard Air Canada (not a US carrier, but do fly a fair number of flights here) was ok, of course that may not have been in US airspace, and certainly may have changed.
 

caravanman

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Just as a mater of interest, folk with scanners might like to know that radio amateurs (hams) can be heard on scanners, they operate FM between 144 Mhz and 148 Mhz in USA. There is another band between 420 and 450 Mhz. also. Some channels carry "repeaters" which boost the signals over larger distances, so one can sometimes hear folk using handheld walki talki type sets from over 50 miles away on your scanner.
 

Bob Dylan

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Just as a mater of interest, folk with scanners might like to know that radio amateurs (hams) can be heard on scanners, they operate FM between 144 Mhz and 148 Mhz in USA. There is another band between 420 and 450 Mhz. also. Some channels carry "repeaters" which boost the signals over larger distances, so one can sometimes hear folk using handheld walki talki type sets from over 50 miles away on your scanner.
As a kid I remember talking with a guy in Australia and Barry Goldwater in Arizonia on the Ham Radio of our neighbor.
 

caravanman

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As a kid I remember talking with a guy in Australia and Barry Goldwater in Arizonia on the Ham Radio of our neighbor.
Depending on the short wave frequency band, some hams do achieve world wide communication. Scanners tend to mostly be vhf / uhf coverage, which is much shorter range.
One can monitor ham traffic worldwide over the internet now, you can "control" a distant reciever free of charge with your computer!
 

CTANut

Service Attendant
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A Baofeng UV-5R, a programming cable and a decent antenna can all be had for $50 these days, and probably less if you crawl Facebook marketplace.

You can program that Baofeng to "Dual Watch" the Amtrak "home" frequency and scan only the channels used on your trip.
Is that not illegal because it can transmit on Amtrak frequencies.
 

CTANut

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Also, I am looking at getting a scanner like this one. Do you know of any one that would cost under $50?
 

Nick Farr

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Is that not illegal because it can transmit on Amtrak frequencies.
Owning the device is not illegal. You can program it to not transmit at all, which would make it a scanner.

Transmitting on frequencies you're not licensed to transmit on is illegal.
 

WWW

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Consider having the scanner pre-programmed with all the radio chatter that you will likely have an affinity to monitor.
OR investing in a software program to self install the frequencies.
Trying to program each individual frequency on a teeny tiny keyboard half the size of a flip cell phone is madness !
 

TinCan782

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Consider having the scanner pre-programmed with all the radio chatter that you will likely have an affinity to monitor.
OR investing in a software program to self install the frequencies.
Trying to program each individual frequency on a teeny tiny keyboard half the size of a flip cell phone is madness !
Radioreference.com is a good source of more technical information including frequencies. For Amtrak frequencies by route, on-track-online is great.
I use Freescan which, as the name implies, is free. It is no longer supported but the last version is stable and widely used. I use it often with my handheld scanner, especially getting ready for train trips! It will also work with many mobile scanners. Freescan does not support newer modes such as NXDN.
I also use Proscan which is free for 30 days, $50 for a lifetime license. Proscan also works with a wide variety of scanners. I use it for my home scanner and also allows me to remotely control my scanner from my computer. Besides control, it also displays a facsimile scanner on the screen which looks like that actual scanner including the scanners display screen.
 

Oreius

OBS Chief
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I brought along my scanner to “listen” in on freight traffic and crew reports should the Starlight get delayed. What are the frequencies for UP? I believe Amtrak must broadcast on the frequency of their host railroad(s).
 

zephyr17

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Amtrak is on the host railroad's road channels. Road channels change at various points.

Your best asset is On Track On Line. They collect radio frequencies on all Amtrak routes:

Note that their frequency lists are entirely dependent on field reporting. The railroads shift their channels for a given area with some frequency, so everything may not be up to date, they need someone to detect and report the change. It would be a good idea to have one bank programmed with all the AAR channels so if you lose the road channel you can scan all AAR channels until you pick something up in the event a channel change happened that OTOL hasn't had reported yet. Your best bet for finding an unknown channel is to scan just before, during, and just after station stops, the conductor and engineer are almost guaranteed to be conversing then ("Two more" "That'll do. Stop." "HIghball Salinas on signal indication")



If you intend to railfan with a scanner on Amtrak with some regularity, programming your scanner channels to correspond with AAR channel numbers is a good idea. So if you hear the crew say "rolling to 36", you can just punch up channel 36. Also, the crews generally have no idea of the actual frequencies, they do know the AAR channel, though. That's how their radios are set up.

You are likely only to be hearing your train, detectors, the dispatcher, and very nearby freights with a regular, short rubber ducky antenna. Sometimes you won't be able to hear the dispatcher well. That's okay, any orders must be repeated back by the engineer and you will hear him.

There is not a lot of chatter, so don't worry if there is silence for long periods. One of the nice things about the Starlight is a lot of the Coast Line is not CTC. CTC ends somewhere north of Santa Barbara (CTC installation keeps creeping northward, so not sure of exactly where currently) plus there is CTC over Cuesta between San Luis Obispo and San Miguel. So you will get the dispatcher and engineer issuing, repeating back, and releasing track warrants to authorize movement. Traffic is light enough on the coast line that the dispatcher will often issue a track warrant all the way from San Miguel to Salinas, though, so there is not a lot of back and forth all the time on track warrants.
 
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TinCan782

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Amtrak is on the host railroad's road channels. Road channels change at various points.

Your best asset is On Track On Line. They collect radio frequencies on all Amtrak routes:

Note that their frequency lists are entirely dependent on field reporting. The railroads shift their channels for a given area with some frequency, so everything may not be up to date, they need someone to detect and report the change. It would be a good idea to have one bank programmed with all the AAR channels so if you lose the road channel you can scan all AAR channels until you pick something up in the event a channel change happened that OTOL hasn't had reported yet. Your best bet for finding an unknown channel is to scan just before, during, and just after station stops, the conductor and engineer are almost guaranteed to be conversing then ("Two more" "That'll do. Stop." "HIghball Salinas on signal indication")



If you intend to railfan with a scanner on Amtrak with some regularity, programming your scanner channels to correspond with AAR channel numbers is a good idea. So if you hear the crew say "rolling to 36", you can just punch up channel 36. Also, the crews generally have no idea of the actual frequencies, they do know the AAR channel, though. That's how their radios are set up.

You are likely only to be hearing your train, detectors, the dispatcher, and very nearby freights with a regular, short rubber ducky antenna. Sometimes you won't be able to hear the dispatcher well. That's okay, any orders must be repeated back by the engineer and you will hear him.

There is not a lot of chatter, so don't worry if there is silence for long periods. One of the nice things about the Starlight is a lot of the Coast Line is not CTC. CTC ends somewhere north of Santa Barbara (CTC installation keeps creeping northward, so not sure of exactly where currently) plus there is CTC over Cuesta between San Luis Obispo and San Miguel. So you will get the dispatcher and engineer issuing, repeating back, and releasing track warrants to authorize movement. Traffic is light enough on the coast line that the dispatcher will often issue a track warrant all the way from San Miguel to Salinas, though, so there is not a lot of back and forth all the time on track warrants.
Some good pointers there. I also "tag" all the frequencies with the associated AAR Channel number. Having a group of just the entire range of frequencies in addition to each route as listed in On Track On Line is also a good idea.
I never get on a train without my scanner (and handheld GPS).
 

Kbyrdleroydogg

Train Attendant
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May 27, 2017
Messages
37
Location
Chicago, IL
Are scanner radios a good thing to get into? Does anyone use them in their sleeper car or try and use one in coach? Can you use them on Amtrak trains? Are they discouraged?
 

zephyr17

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Washington State
They are not discouraged, but remember to use earphones. Scanners can be particularly annoying to other passengers with static, squawks, beeps and tones.

I always carry mine. Plus, my sleeper attendants often ask me what is going on when something happens unexpectedly, such as a long unexplained stop. They know I can overhear the operating crew while they are not usually told anything more than the passengers.
 
Joined
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Fargo, ND
If travelling via sleeper I recommend getting a mobile scanner that plugs into the wall. That way you don't go through batteries and the reception on those is generally better than the handheld scanners.
 

zephyr17

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Washington State
I have a handheld with rechargeable batteries. I leave it plugged in in my room, but then take it with me on fresh air stops and waiting in the station, where i can listen to station services and maintenance frequencies as well as the road channels. I find that a handheld I can plug in to be optimal. I don't need great reception for what I am interested in onboard, as I can hear my own train's crew and if the dispatcher reception is bad, the engineer repeats things back and I can always her the engineer. Getting a tuned antenna would improve reception dramatically over the stock rubber ducky on a handheld (the electronics are basically the same in either), but the rubber ducky has proven sufficient for my limited purposes while onboard.

If I am out railfanning, I have a big magnetic mount antenna for my truck. That improves reception and range on my handheld no end. I want range when I am out railfanning, I find I do not particularly need it onboard for what I want.
 

Irelandvegas65

Train Attendant
Joined
Feb 23, 2021
Messages
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Location
Rockford
This has been so helpful! Thanks! I bought a hand held and the kit has two batteries, on radio sized one extended longer It also has the short and long antenna. I guess I’ll just bring both antennas (?) and both batteries and the charge base. Two days on empire, one on Coast and two on zephyr with two nights in Sea, San and Aspen. Lots of tech in my pack for this journey
 

Eric in East County

Lead Service Attendant
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East San Diego County
You didn't mention which hand held model you bought. My little Uniden SC230 hand held Racing Scanner can run off of AC power which helps to save on batteries. Check your scanner's manual to see if yours can run off of AC power.
 

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