Railway Preservation News

Railroad Radios
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Author:  Rick Rowlands [ Wed Jul 26, 2017 12:33 pm ]
Post subject:  Railroad Radios

Even after making only the first movement of equipment at the MVRHA's Marter Yard we have realized the necessity of having radios to direct the movements. The logical and easiest solution would be to buy a couple of "Walkie-Talkies" at Walmart to solve the problem. However, I am curious if we could instead use a locomotive radio such a Motorola Astra Spectra and Motorola HT-1000 for a handheld. This equipment is readily available, inexpensive and is built tough for railroad use. Are there non AAR frequencies that these radios could be programmed for and that we could become licensed to use?

Sorry to sound so ignorant on the topic of railroad radios but I really am! I don't know anything about broadband, narrow band, frequencies etc. Appreciate any insight.

Author:  PaulWWoodring [ Wed Jul 26, 2017 1:23 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Railroad Radios

The AAR designated railroad radio frequency band is in the 159-161 Mhz range (pretty much the entire 160 Mhz band, spaced in .15 Mhz increments, split into 95 channels (2-97 I believe) that I think spills over to the very top of 159.xxx and the very bottom of 161.xxx. For instance, off the top of my head, AAR channel 8 is 160.230, and channel 14 is 160.320 (traditionally B&O road and dispatch freqs. respectively).

The commercial grade radios used by businesses like fast food drive-throughs use the 153 Mhz band, or at least did at one time. The home "family band" radios you can buy at Target, etc., are in the 800 Mhz range, but only good for (they say) up to two miles - which would be on a perfectly clear day, line-of-sight on a beach. My practical experience with them is more like an effective range of a 1/2 mile.

Having used a couple of different brands of commercial walkie-talkies, I found the classic Motorola "bricks" to be about the best, most reliable and most effective range radios I used. I had a model P110 eight channel on CSX that was good for about 2 miles talking to another one with a full-charge. I've dealt with iCom brand radios that can't carry more than about 4,000 ft.

It depends on your operation, and what your needs are. If you need to talk over more than 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile, spend the money for good commercial radios. You may not have to have AAR band radios, but you won't feel like throwing it against a wall at the end of a day either because it's virtually useless for your needs.

Author:  Evan [ Wed Jul 26, 2017 2:07 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Railroad Radios

The museum I was with used UHF radios, Motorola model CP200 and BPR40 handy talkies. Track is just over a mile from end to end, so usually the simplex range is sufficient. There is an option to use a repeater, but if we used the dealer's repeater there is a monthly fee per radio. If this is your first time using a commercial frequency, you'll need to get an FCC license, but your radio dealer can step you through the process.

Author:  M Secco [ Wed Jul 26, 2017 2:21 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Railroad Radios

Look up Kenwood Nexedge Radio for a superior clear sound handheld. More popular than Motorola on the UP railroad cause it's cheaper but still has all the "bells and whistles".

Author:  Alan Walker [ Wed Jul 26, 2017 2:25 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Railroad Radios

When I was with TVRM, we used older style AAR type radios. Each locomotive, station, the shop office and commissary car had a base radio that had a range of approximately fifteen miles. The hand held radios had a range of about two or three miles. Our railroad was three miles long, but had a tunnel through a ridge. That usually blocked the hand held radios, unless the person transmitting was standing close to one of the station radios-the stations had tall antennae that would boost the signal enough to signal of the hand held unit-essentially acting as a repeater. At that time, we were phasing out the Motorola brick radios and transitioning to new radios.

When you get into licensing, the license will establish the maximum numbers of radios permitted to be used on that license. In our case, the license limited us to a certain number of base radios and an unlimited number of handheld units. We permitted volunteers and employees to operate privately owned radio units under our license provided that they complied with all applicable regulations.

Author:  David H. Hamley [ Wed Jul 26, 2017 2:31 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Railroad Radios

Do be careful about FCC licenses. Some bands and services require them, some don't but generally have less flexibility. We have a license at Pa. Trolley Museum but in only applies to the entire operation, not to each individual hand-held. We have a repeater because we are a fixed facility. Fines for unlicensed operation in the popular bands BEGIN at $7500, hence my caution.

Dave Hamley, K3PRR

Author:  robertmacdowell [ Wed Jul 26, 2017 3:27 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Railroad Radios

Yes, the key to it is asking FCC for a frequency and getting a license. They aren't necessarily particularly good at making sure there is no overlap (or some may be using frequencies "gypsy".) One operation I'm connected with regularly gets our licensed frequency stepped on by a Class I's MoW department.

Author:  PaulWWoodring [ Wed Jul 26, 2017 4:10 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Railroad Radios

robertmacdowell wrote:
Yes, the key to it is asking FCC for a frequency and getting a license. They aren't necessarily particularly good at making sure there is no overlap (or some may be using frequencies "gypsy".) One operation I'm connected with regularly gets our licensed frequency stepped on by a Class I's MoW department.

It was a somewhat common, but not sanctioned practice by some crews on CSX to either "go up one (channel)" if a crew wanted to have a private conversation away from other employees or supervision, or use a frequency licensed to the railroad, but not used in that location because the assigned frequency of that yard had multiple crews already working on it. For instance, if there were more than two crews working at once at Curtis Bay yard in Baltimore, the crew working the automobile ramp on the Sea Wall branch would use the channel for Jessup, MD yard, which is over 15 miles away.

Author:  Alan Walker [ Wed Jul 26, 2017 4:55 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Railroad Radios

On TVRM (at the time I was there), the sanctioned practice on trains that operated over foreign lines was that once leaving home rails, the locomotive radio was switched over to the frequency of the other operator and all trainmen switched over as well. The locomotive would have a handheld radio on the home road frequency, as would the base radio in the commissary car. If the train crew needed to discuss something that was not related to the safe movement of the train, they would switch over briefly to the home road frequency. The conductor usually set up office in the commissary car when not performing other duties, negating the need for a second radio. This arrangement worked fine as once we got on the Chattooga and Chickamauga Railway, we were far enough away that the signal from the handheld radios would not be detectable on home rails.

Occasionally, we'd get enough trains operating on the home road simultaneously that folks would start stepping on each other's transmissions. In that case, usually one of the conductors would instruct his crew to go to hand signals to eliminate unnecessary chatter. Some of the old heads, myself included, eschewed use of the radio except where absolutely necessary. We preferred to use hand signals-much to the annoyance of some railfans with scanners. Due to the short length of most of our trains, I rarely used the radio for communicating with the engineman for brake inspections-I'd usually walk up alongside the locomotive and talk with him directly.

Author:  as12 [ Wed Jul 26, 2017 7:19 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Railroad Radios

Just remember, if you aren't using an encoded frequency, it is very easy for anyone to tune in and listen to your every move. Have a plan in place on how to use the radio appropriately, and what should/should not be said over the air.

Author:  crij [ Wed Jul 26, 2017 7:37 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Railroad Radios

While our operation is relatively small, ~1.25 mile end to end, we have had good luck with Hytera TC-610P walkies. The effective range of the walkies are about 3/4-7/8 mile, but that is around a curve where an embankment may be interfering with the transmission. Even at the far end of the track, near our entrance about 80-90% of the conversation is still understandable, (enough that only 1 repeat request is needed to get full message) when the other person is transmitting from the roundhouse area.

Luckily one of our members owns a communication business and set-up us with these radios and took care of the FCC requirements. Not sure if we are transmitting on the 2W UHF/VHF, 4W UHF or the 5W VHF mode. They were set-up with 2 channels (of 16 available), one is used by the Docents and the other is for the train crew. One radio is set-up with a scan mode so it flips back and forth between the 2 channels, the supervisor of the day is issued that one during events. The radios are relatively light weight and rugged (IP66 environmental rating [sealed enough to be hosed down for cleaning] and are designed for use by Fire and EMS services)

We did experiment with Cobra brand GMRS radios in 2010 (the consumer grade walkies with 20 channels and digital squelch, found at Walmart & Best-Buy). They worked very good, but wouldn't survive a couple drops on the ballast, in a test we were transmitting 1.5 miles without interruptions (far corner of property to local coffee shop), probably could have gone further. Digital squelch, for those that are unfamiliar with it, is how radios are able to hold multiple conversations on the same frequency. With digital squelch, when you press the button it first transmits a digital tone that the other radio(s) recognizes, and if set to receive on that tone, it will receive the conversation, otherwise it will ignore it. The digital squelch function is why now a days you have to pause for 1-2 seconds, after you press the transmit button, before the microphone will start transmitting your conversation, whereas previously the transmission was immediate. Back in 2013 when we were deciding on what radios to get (old ones were not holding a good charge), channels 8-14 on the GMRS radios didn't need FCC licenses for usage (museums probably are in the grey area on that, for regular use), not sure if that has changed.

Rich C.

Author:  Rick Rowlands [ Wed Jul 26, 2017 10:34 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Railroad Radios


According to this the Astro Spectra radios can be programmed to non AAR channels. That is basically the info. that I was looking for. I appreciate the information and advice.

Author:  Pegasuspinto [ Thu Jul 27, 2017 12:57 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Railroad Radios

Keep in mind your radio MUST be narrowband. The website you liked is talking about obsolete and now outlawed radios.

Yes, most all radios like you want would do business band as well as RR band.

Author:  Bobulltech [ Thu Jul 27, 2017 10:37 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Railroad Radios

I have spent ten years in the railroad industry communications department, and 5 years in public safety radio, I am now an RF engineer.
First off is design...
Do you currently or will you in the future operate on or with another(AAR) railroad.
Secondly - site design
How large is your site, how many users, what type of coverage, do you need simultaneous separate conversations, phone connectivity, private calling?
Third - Licensing
a rough ball park to license a repeater pair and 4 VHF simplex channels ~$1200
Fourth - Construction
You will need to shortly after license, build out your system.


You operate in an area of less than 2 miles, desire handheld coverage and plan to operate with CSXT and NS.
VHF Operations
Kenwood NX200 handheld radios
Kenwood NX700 Mobile radios
Kenwood NXR710 Repeater

Mode of operations: NXDN Digital
1 repeater pair
4 simplex(talk around channels)

Costs new: $700 x radio, $2000 repeater, $1000 for antenna and feedline, $2200 duplexer, $1200 license for ten years(renewals are much cheaper), $500 batteries $200 Powersupply, $1000 engineering costs

It seems expensive but there are used options, and even cheaper options if you do not desire interoperability with other railroads. Though an option like this will comply with AAR digital operations in the future, as Railroad Astro Spectras and HT1000's will not comply with, and would necessitate a future purchase. This also can at no further cost be fully encrypted, something I highly recommend.

Railroad interoperability will allow use on all AAR 005 -099 NB FM channels today and the NXDN splinter channels that are seeing limited usage. Also providing Weather radio frequencies for situational awareness.

I do this for a living, PM me and I'll give you my phone number to discuss, I hope to see more preservation and museum operations going the right way with radio design, to limit future costs and at the same time enhance the safety of operations.

Author:  robertmacdowell [ Fri Jul 28, 2017 7:05 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Railroad Radios

as12 wrote:
Just remember, if you aren't using an encoded frequency, it is very easy for anyone to tune in and listen to your every move. Have a plan in place on how to use the radio appropriately, and what should/should not be said over the air.

You should see aviation. Every frequency is recorded and posted to the Internet 24x7. And there are hobbyists who listen and pull out interesting stuff.

Like Obama's final ride on the VC-25, which had some issues getting into Palm Springs, and was ghosted by another jet. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZDTV4UCVwc

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