Updated June 17, 2008
2008 marks 21 years of photographing railroad crossing signals.
How do I get railroad crossing signals in action? Here's how to do it.
Note: Text in yellow is newer information added.
Step 1: Find a crossing with signals...
Obviously the more signals and lights the better. Most crossings just have 8 lights combined. Popular crossings will have up to 4-8 pairs lights while more complex crossings may have up to 16-18 pairs of lights.
Step 2: Study your crossing area...
Observe the trackage, and your signals you're taking. Some newer crossings now have L.E.D's for lighting. You can read more about L.E.D. lights on the 102 page. Also note if your crossing doesn't have gates. When your train is done, the lights will quit flashing without any warning, especially on older crossing signals such as 8" lights.
Step 3: Get your train(s)...
Depending on how much traffic actually uses that particular line, you may have to wait hours for your train. For instance, in Flagstaff, AZ sometimes you may have to wait 2 minutes, or up to 30 minutes. In the Skull Valley/Wickenburg, AZ area, you may have to wait up to 4 hours. I wish there was a way to know when a train would cross.
Step 4: Recording your train...
Before the train approaches, it's best to do some practicing with your camera or camcorder. I wouldn't take any pictures or use up any film (unless you have a digital camera). Just make some "mock" pictures. Sometimes you can hear when a train approaches either by whistles, or other signals ringing nearby. If you're fortunate to hear them, get into position IMMEDIATELY! The train is only seconds away from activitating the signals.
You could photograph up close, but the lights won't be very bright, ( I haven't had much experience with L.E.Ds yet.) but the bells will be loud enough for your camcorder video, or a good close-up shot.
WARNING: PHOTOGRAPHING UP CLOSE PUTS YOU NEAR THE TRACKS, AND MUCH CLOSER TO THE TRAIN'S WHISTLE. BE PREPARED FOR DECIBEL LEVELS TO REACH EXTREMEMLY HIGH LEVELS!!!
You could photograph further back, the lights in general will be brighter (depending how they're installed), but the bells won't be very loud, however you'll get a much broader view of your crossing.
During the crossing, I follow the lead engine through the crossing for a few seconds before going back to the crossing. I do close-ups of the signals and lights. Cantilever lights are difficult to get flashing, especially up close. Stand back further if you plan to get cantilever lights in your shot. On my last few trips, I have been following the lead engine to the crossing and I stop at the crossing. I switch between the two methods Today.
If two trains approach the crossing at almost the same time, if you can, keep your camera/camcorder on the second train. If both trains intersect, back up and get the signals with the trains going in opposite directions.
When your train ends, you have some options. If the crossing has no gates, stay with the signals until they stop flashing. If they're gated, stay with the signals until the gates go up fully and the lights stop flashing. Keep recording in the slightest case another train comes up right after the first one. (CAMCORDER ONLY)
If your train stops in the intersection, you have a number of options. I haven't had that happen to me often, so I'm just listing choices off my head. You can keep filming the crossing with the lights flashing and bells ringing (some signals go silent after a short while). You can also go up near the crossing and take pictures left and right. Or if the crossing starts getting boring after a long time, just leave and go to another crossing.
If you have a scanner, you can tune to certain frequencies to find End Of Train Devices (EOTs) Most railroads have these located at 452.9375 and 457.9375 MHZ. (If your scanner will only allow 3 decimal places, use 45x.937, that's what I use.) Split second tones are what you hear on these two frequencies. However, these tones won't sound just anywhere, but when you are within 3 miles of a train! They mostly sound between every 30-60 seconds apart, but if you hear one, you are very close, and if there's a crossing nearby, get there immediately!
These won't work all the time. The EOTs will also sound if there is a train stopped. Think of what would happen if lots of them were stopped at one place? So railroad yards are not that good for EOT tracking.
Scanners are illegal in some places, so make sure you know if you can use them without being arrested for a little hobby such as this one, or other railroad hobbies.
I usually photograph the fronts and backs of the crossing signals. A few times, I've rarely taken pictures from underneath one signal (Bells get very loud), and get other signals in view.
(Camcorders only:) Pick a day with no or light winds. Winds in excess of 20 MPH make the video sound very poor, and there's no way to stop it. If you're just taking pictures with a camera, any day is okay for pictures.
Waiting for a train can be very tiring. In a location with little visibility for the tracks, you have to be ready at a moments notice. Try not to be in a wrong place in case the signals start up without you. Remember trains go at about 55-80 MPH, so if you see one coming down the track, and if you're shot is very far away, you'll have to run as fast as you can to get back to your spot.
A tripod is best for taking video of crossing signals, but use caution in heavy pedestrian areas (to prevent theft). Tripods take a heavy load off your shoulders, especially on the low-visibility crossings.
Always bring LOTS of batteries. Your digital camera uses up battery power while saving to memory. Bring at least 3 batteries if you're using a camcorder, especially if you haven't charged them for a long time. The last thing you want when taking crossing signal pictures is to have your one and only battery go dead on you especially if you don't have a spare or two.
If there's something in your way, like a building or vegetation that blocks a track view in the direction the train is coming, instead just keep the camera focused on the signals.
Try to make complete videos (from signal activations to deactivations) if possible. Don't get them in parts, and don't stop filming if the train is still moving. It's okay to stop filming if the train has stopped on the tracks for a long period of time (about 3 to 5 minutes is enough). If you don't think the train will move, then you can safely stop recording and move on. It isn't worth taking video of an inactive train blocking a street for 1 hour or more.
Also, don't do anything illegal, like activating the crossings with no trains around, even on "out of service" lines. Even though no trains are not running, it's still the property of the railroad, and can get you in huge trouble.
Remember that taking crossing pictures is up to you, but my way is to face in front of the signals, not on the side.
This page will be updated as needed.