Listen to the Chatter on Your Next Train Trip.

I take a scanner with me on most of my rail journeys. It’s a hand-held device that lets me listen in on the radio communication between the conductors and the engineers and between the engineers and the dispatchers for the various host railroads.
Ninety-eight percent of the conversations you overhear are strictly routine—the engineer noting that the train has just passed a certain signal, for instance; or the automated report that’s broadcast from the electronic detectors your train passes over every 20-25 miles. But once in while you will hear some interesting things…perhaps there’s a freight up ahead that’s broken down. Or maybe a passenger has become ill and the engineer is calling ahead for medical people to meet the train at the next station. You just never know.
Let me emphasize here that using a scanner is perfectly legal, but there are some very important unofficial rules that are always observed by everyone I know who carries a scanner when traveling by train.
First, be very discreet. Keep the scanner out of sight and don’t let on to other passengers that you’re using one. I never take my scanner out of my sleeping car compartment and I tuck it away and zip it up in my carry-on bag whenever I leave to go to the dining car or the lounge car. Truthfully, this is in your own self-interest. Going through their normal routines, the crew doesn’t even think about scanners. But if they become aware that one of the passengers is using one, they naturally become guarded in what they say. That’s just human nature.
Second, always use head phones or ear buds. First of all, Amtrak requires them for all electronic equipment in deference to the other passengers. Secondly, see Rule Number One.
Third, don’t repeat what you hear to other passengers. Again, you don’t want it known that you’re using one of these devices, but I have also heard an informal legal opinion that by repeating something you got from the scanner, you could conceivably be creating a privacy issue.
Some scanners are very sophisticated and can cost many hundreds of dollars. But they’re complicated and, if just used for listening to railroad communications, it’s overkill. You can get a basic model that will do everything you want for less than $150.
There are several web sites that list the radio frequencies used by train crews on a route-by-route basis. Here’s a very handy one.
Yes, a scanner is just one more thing to carry—and I do my best to travel light—but it can help pass the time on a long train trip and will add to your understanding and appreciation of railroad operations. Worth considering.