Eavesdrop on Amtrak Train Crew Conversations … But Do It Discreetly.

radio_scannerSomeone once told me that the most frequently asked question on an Amtrak train is, “Why are we stopped?”

That may or may not be true, but it does point out an aggravating problem that also happens to be my pet peeve: conductors who don’t use the train’s PA system to keep passengers informed about problems or delays.

And that’s why, years ago, I started carrying a scanner whenever I travel by train. It’s a small radio receiver that allows me to listen in on the frequencies used by Amtrak operating crews … the conductors and engineers.

Most of the conversations are routine, but while the rest of the passengers are wondering why we’ve stopped, I’ll know that the Union Pacific dispatcher has put us on a siding so one of their freight trains coming from the other direction can get by.

And I’ll know that a man in one of the coaches has fallen ill and paramedics are going to meet us up ahead where the tracks cross a state highway to check him out.

Or perhaps there are a couple of troublemakers in the lounge car who’ve had several too many beers. I can hear the conductor asking the engineer to radio the state police for a squad car to meet us at the next station. (And I’ll be there to watch when the two rowdies are booted off the train and into the arms of the law.)

Finally, here’s an actual conversation I picked up a couple of years ago on the westbound Empire Builder:

Engineer: “Whoa!”

Conductor: “What’s up, Number 7?”

Engineer: “Kid on a bicycle crossed right in front of us. Never even looked up.”

Conductor: “Another candidate for the Darwin Award.”

Engineer: “Definitely.” (Then mutters) “Damn fool.”

I could tell from his voice he was shaken.  And once again, I was glad I had my scanner.

For me, a basic scanner is essential equipment for any long distance train journey.  They aren’t expensive … around $100 at any electronics store. And, while they’re perfectly legal, I don’t take my scanner beyond the privacy of my sleeping car roomette. When train crews become aware that one of the passengers has a scanner, they tend to be more circumspect about what they say. And where’s the fun in that?