Scanner tips and tricks for the railfan!

Welcome Scanner Tips and Tricks for Railfan! I hope to highlight some of the tricks I have learned over time to help in your railfan quest. As you might guess, I believe a scanner radio is one of the most important tools you can have as a railfan, second only to our trusty cameras. As a kid, I started with a continuous tuning VHF/Weather radio from Radio Shack. It was awkward to tune and not very accurate, but I learned what a neat tool it was to have while train-watching. I finally got my first scanner back in 1991 and have been hooked ever since! I have had as many as five radios at one time, although I am down to three now.

There is a wealth of scanner radio information on the net, so I don't need to repeat all of it here. I will put links to some of the sites I have found of interest at the bottom of the page. What I will put here are some of the tricks I have learned through the years. One of the best sources of information can be found in Amateur Radio publications and web pages. Much of what Ham radio operators do can be applied to our scanning practices, especially in the field of antennas, which is where I will spend most of the time on this page. As you can see, I am a bit of a scanner buff. I hope to get my Technician Amateur Radio License as soon as time and money allow. Any of you Hams or scanner buffs who see this page, feel free to E-mail me with any corrections or comments you may have!

Be sure to stop by the Live-Scanner Feed page to listen to live railroad scanner action from Decatur, AL!

Click here for the AAR railroad frequency assignments and channel numbers!

  J-Pole Antenna Project:

Special thanks to Frank Devries [] for this J-Pole antenna project and instructions!

The construction of the Jpole is fairly easy. Here is a link to a web site that has a calculator to find the proper lengths of the elements:

Parts List:
7 feet of 1/4" Copper pipe,
2 1/4" copper pipe caps,
1 1/4" Copper 90 degree elbow,
1 1/4" Copper T connector,
2 stainless steel clamps,
necessary length of coax cable of your choice

Tools required:
wire stripper,
screw driver,
hack saw, or pipe cutter,
blow torch

First cut the copper pipe to the appropriate lengths (see calculator for lengths). I set mine at 161.000 MHz. The difference between 160 and 162.000MHz is so marginal, your chances are the kerf of the saw will make the difference, so I put it roughly in the middle. Once the pipe is cut, clear the ends of the cut pieces of burrs. Test fit all the pieces to make sure they fit, and re-measure your lengths. Clean the ends of the pipe, and flux. Solder each piece together minding the alignment of the elements as you go. Don't forget to solder the caps on top of the elements too. Once the copper has cooled from soldering, add the stainless steel clamps to the upright elements. Again consult the calculator for location of the clamps. Mount the antenna in the location of your choice with the method of your choice. Next run the coax cable to the antenna. You will need to connect the braid of the cable to the shorter upright element, and the center conductor to the taller upright element using the stainless steel clamps.

  3 Element Yagi made with PVC:

This project is a three element Yagi based on 2 meter ham antenna plans in an ARRL antenna book I have. Basically I took the 2 meter plans and modified the values to optimize signals in the 160.000 to 162.000 MHz railroad radio range. Also, the PVC mast and boom were my idea, deviating from the plans' metal parts. So far this has been an outstanding antenna! Of course your results may vary as local terrain has much to do with your scanning, but I have logged trains "calling signals" from as far north (my installation is pointed north) as Ardmore, AL - a distance of 35 miles! This usually occurs when weather conditions are just right. Under normal circumstances, I can hear trains "calling signals" to North Athens, a distance of about 21 miles. I hope you have this much luck with this unit! The picture to the left shows the finished antenna mounted on our roof. Total height off the ground is about 16 feet.
Parts List:
PVC plumbing grade tubing - I used 2" for this project, but you may be able to use a smaller diameter depending on your mounting needs.
1 - PVC 90 degree elbow
3 - 36" long, 1/8" threaded rods
A. 33 Inches
B. 34.75 Inches
C. 36 Inches
D. 14 Inches
E. 10 Inches

This is certainly a project you can do in one afternoon! Cut your three 1/8" threaded rods to the dimensions A, B and C. You can use any metal you like for the antenna elements, but I like the threaded rod because it is fairly cheap and, using 1/8" nuts, I can easily adjust the mounting of the elements. Next cut the boom of your antenna (the part that will hold the metal elements). Make sure to allow for the amount of the boom that needs to go into the 90 degree elbow. I forgot this and drilled the reflector (rear element closest to the mast) too close to the end and had to start over on the boom. The boom should probably be at least 26 inches. You can even put a PVC cap on the end of the boom, but I didn't bother. The length of the mast will be entirely determined by the area you have to work with and how strong the PVC is you are using. I chose the 2" PVC for strength. You can feed you coaxial cable right up through the tube (another beauty of PVC). Cut a small notch out of the boom to bring your cable out right beside the center element. Separate at least 3 or 4 inches of the center conductor and the shield of the cable. Connect the center conductor of the cable to the center element about 2 inches above the boom. I used two more 1/8" nuts for this purpose. Then take the shield of your cable and connect it about 2 inches from the boom on the bottom side of the center element. While this may look like an electrical short circuit, it behaves very differently to the radio frequency signals we are trying to capture. With no way to really test the tuning of this cable connection, I basically had to use "trial and error" to find a distance that works well. Any of you amateur radio operators out there who might know a better way to optimize/test this installation, please email me!

  1/4 Wave Ground Plane Antenna:
Scanner Project 1

This project is a 1/4 wave ground plane antenna you can build tuned to approximately 161.000 MHz. The mounting for this antenna is intended to be a small loop at the top of the driven element (the part at dimension "A"). This loop can have a string or small piece of wire tied to it to attach the antenna to an eaves or overhang. I have had this antenna mounted to an overhang in our former apartment about 20 feet off the ground and have had excellent results with it.

Parts List:
Radio Shack® P/N 278-201 SO-239 Chassis-mount coaxial socket,
Suitable thickness piano wire

A. 17.5 Inches
B. 19 Inches

Cut four ground radials and bend the ends to fit in the holes on the SO-239 socket. You can either mount the ground radials with small screws (4-40, maybe) or solder them as I did, with the radials bent at about 45 degrees. Then cut the driven element and solder it into the center metal conductor on the socket. You can then attach the antenna and connect a piece of cable to the socket and fire up the scanner!

  Mobile Antenna Project:

News Flash on Mobile Antenna Project!
While this is a quick, simple project to perform, I have since found that getting a 2 meter magnetic mount ham radio antenna is a better fit for railroad scanning and usually a good bit cheaper than the Radio Shack® model (which lists for about $30). A search on any good search engine, such as, for "2 meter magnetic mount antenna" will return a list of companies than sell these dandy little gems. I got mine for only $12.95 at a local amateur radio shop! If you already have the Radio Shack® model, try the mod below and see if it doesn't help your railroad scanning!

Scanner Project 2

This project is a quick and simple one. I have owned two of these magnetic-mount mobile scanner antennas from Radio Shack® and have had excellent results, but I found a quick way to improve railroad scanning with this unit. A simple tuning change really makes a difference and, if you're like me, you're willing to lose a little sensitivity over a range of frequencies in favor of stronger response in the railroad radio range. Try this project and let me know what you think!

Parts List:
Radio Shack® P/N 200-032 Magnetic-mount mobile scanner antenna

This is a simple one. Use the factory supplied hex key and remove the whole driven element (sections A, B, and C) from the magnetic base unit. Then remove the top section (section A) with the supplied key and replace it in the magnetic base unit. That's it!! The top section is cut just about right to produce a 1/4 wave mobile antenna tuned to about 160.000 MHz. One note: the diameter of the top section (section A) is a fair amount smaller than the bottom (section C). Because of this, you will have to carefully tighten the hex screw until you get a tight fit.

  AAR railroad frequency assignments and channel numbers:
  • 159.810 -- [AAR channel 02]

  • 159.930 -- [AAR channel 03]

  • 160.050 -- [AAR channel 04]

  • 160.185 -- [AAR channel 05]

  • 160.200 -- [AAR channel 06]

  • 160.215 -- [AAR channel 07]

  • 160.230 -- [AAR channel 08]

  • 160.245 -- [AAR channel 09]

  • 160.260 -- [AAR channel 10]

  • 160.275 -- [AAR channel 11]

  • 160.290 -- [AAR channel 12]

  • 160.305 -- [AAR channel 13]

  • 160.320 -- [AAR channel 14]

  • 160.335 -- [AAR channel 15]

  • 160.350 -- [AAR channel 16]

  • 160.365 -- [AAR channel 17]

  • 160.380 -- [AAR channel 18]

  • 160.395 -- [AAR channel 19]

  • 160.410 -- [AAR channel 20]

  • 160.425 -- [AAR channel 21]

  • 160.440 -- [AAR channel 22]

  • 160.455 -- [AAR channel 23]

  • 160.470 -- [AAR channel 24]

  • 160.485 -- [AAR channel 25]

  • 160.500 -- [AAR channel 26]

  • 160.515 -- [AAR channel 27]

  • 160.530 -- [AAR channel 28]

  • 160.545 -- [AAR channel 29]

  • 160.560 -- [AAR channel 30]

  • 160.575 -- [AAR channel 31]

  • 160.590 -- [AAR channel 32]

  • 160.605 -- [AAR channel 33]

  • 160.620 -- [AAR channel 34]

  • 160.635 -- [AAR channel 35]

  • 160.650 -- [AAR channel 36]

  • 160.665 -- [AAR channel 37]

  • 160.680 -- [AAR channel 38]

  • 160.695 -- [AAR channel 39]

  • 160.710 -- [AAR channel 40]

  • 160.725 -- [AAR channel 41]

  • 160.740 -- [AAR channel 42]

  • 160.755 -- [AAR channel 43]

  • 160.770 -- [AAR channel 44]

  • 160.785 -- [AAR channel 45]

  • 160.800 -- [AAR channel 46]

  • 160.815 -- [AAR channel 47]

  • 160.830 -- [AAR channel 48]

  • 160.845 -- [AAR channel 49]

  • 160.860 -- [AAR channel 50]

  • 160.875 -- [AAR channel 51]

  • 160.890 -- [AAR channel 52]

  • 160.905 -- [AAR channel 53]

  • 160.920 -- [AAR channel 54]

  • 160.935 -- [AAR channel 55]

  • 160.950 -- [AAR channel 56]

  • 160.965 -- [AAR channel 57]

  • 160.980 -- [AAR channel 58]

  • 160.995 -- [AAR channel 59]

  • 161.010 -- [AAR channel 60]

  • 161.025 -- [AAR channel 61]

  • 161.040 -- [AAR channel 62]

  • 161.055 -- [AAR channel 63]

  • 161.070 -- [AAR channel 64]

  • 161.085 -- [AAR channel 65]

  • 161.100 -- [AAR channel 66]

  • 161.115 -- [AAR channel 67]

  • 161.130 -- [AAR channel 68]

  • 161.145 -- [AAR channel 69]

  • 161.160 -- [AAR channel 70]

  • 161.175 -- [AAR channel 71]

  • 161.190 -- [AAR channel 72]

  • 161.205 -- [AAR channel 73]

  • 161.220 -- [AAR channel 74]

  • 161.235 -- [AAR channel 75]

  • 161.250 -- [AAR channel 76]

  • 161.265 -- [AAR channel 77]

  • 161.280 -- [AAR channel 78]

  • 161.295 -- [AAR channel 79]

  • 161.310 -- [AAR channel 80]

  • 161.325 -- [AAR channel 81]

  • 161.340 -- [AAR channel 82]

  • 161.355 -- [AAR channel 83]

  • 161.370 -- [AAR channel 84]

  • 161.385 -- [AAR channel 85]

  • 161.400 -- [AAR channel 86]

  • 161.415 -- [AAR channel 87]

  • 161.430 -- [AAR channel 88]

  • 161.445 -- [AAR channel 89]

  • 161.460 -- [AAR channel 90]

  • 161.475 -- [AAR channel 91]

  • 161.490 -- [AAR channel 92]

  • 161.505 -- [AAR channel 93]

  • 161.520 -- [AAR channel 94]

  • 161.535 -- [AAR channel 95]

  • 161.550 -- [AAR channel 96]

  • 161.565 -- [AAR channel 97]

  Scanner Tips and Tricks Links on the 'Net: - Highlights scanning in the North Alabama area. - An excellent, FREE piece of software that functions like a voice activated tape recorder for your computer. I use it for recording scanner action. I highly recommend it! - An excellent listing of North American Railroad Radio Frequencies. - Gary L. Sturm's RR Radio Man Home Page - Information about railroad radio channels and frequencies is provided along with laws relating to using scanners as well as tips and suggestions for programing and using radio scanners.


All content ©1999-2023 John D. Peterson/ unless noted. These pages are in no way affiliated with any railroad or other company mentioned in these pages. This information is provided for entertainment purposes only.