Alex Mayes’ top 10 railfan spots

Train-watching sites that are safe, easily accessible, and bountiful with rail traffic
CSX Railroad Foley Overlook
Westbound CSX train Q261 climbs the Sand Patch grade at Foley Overlook, near Fairhope, Pa., on Oct. 9, 2011.
Three photos, Alex Mayes
Trying to come up with just 10 favorite train-watching spots posed a challenge for me, as I have a lot of favorite spots, all of which have their particular characteristics. For this project, I picked 10 safe, easily accessible spots that are on public property, with sufficient traffic.

FOLEY OVERLOOK Located on CSX’s Keystone Subdivision on Sand Patch Grade, west of Fairhope, Pa., this spot provides a view of the former Baltimore & Ohio main as it crosses Wills Creek. Once the sun reaches the tracks, about two hours after sunrise, the lighting is superb for photographing trains in both directions until early afternoon. To get there, turn south onto the paved road 100 yards east of the Fairhope post office, on the opposite side of Fairhope Road, and stay on this road for about 2 miles. The overlook will be on the right. The road is steep and has rough spots, but be patient and you will get there.

LEESYLVANIA STATE PARK This spot features a picturesque bridge across Powells Creek on CSX’s RF&P Subdivision, near Dale City, Va. A trail leads from the parking lot and provides an ideal vantage point for watching and photographing a steady stream of northbound CSX and Amtrak trains in the morning. Weekdays also see a half dozen Virginia Railway Express commuter trains bound for Washington Union Station. The $4 admission fee to the park is a small price to pay for the train-watching and photography.

MAGNOLIA CUTOFF The Magnolia Cutoff, a bypass route built by the Baltimore & Ohio, has some of the most scenic train-watching spots in eastern West Virginia, with four tunnels, two open-deck bridges across the Potomac River, and numerous cuts and fills. Located in the Potomac River Valley east of Paw Paw, a gravel road that runs parallel to the tracks provides easy access to the scenic train-watching spots. The cutoff is one of my favorite spots because of its remoteness, serenity, and abundant wildlife.

MARC STATION AT SEABROOK, MD. The platforms on both sides of this station provide ideal viewing of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor for Amtrak and MARC commuter trains, and are great for watching America’s fastest trains up close, from a safe, public vantage point. For photography, lighting is ideal for northbound trains from the east-side platform in the morning; in late afternoon, the opposite platform is best. Weekdays are usually the busiest, with one or two Amtrak trains and one or two MARC commuter trains per hour. CSX also runs an occasional loaded coal train or empty hopper train en route to or returning from the Popes Creek Secondary, which is just to the north in Bowie, Md., also worth visiting.
Amtrak train Harpers Ferry West Virginia
The tunnel at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., viewed from the Amtrak station platforms
HARPERS FERRY, W.VA. The most popular train-watching spots at Harpers Ferry are the platforms at the Amtrak station, which provide clear views of the west portal of CSX’s tunnel and the bridges over the Potomac River. The double track line that passes the station is the Cumberland Subdivision, which sees approximately 25 CSX trains daily, plus Amtrak’s daily Capitol Limited, and four MARC commuter trains on weekdays. Lighting for westbounds emerging from the tunnel is best mid- to late-afternoon, and you’ll need a 200 mm lens to bring the tunnel in close.

GALLITZIN TUNNEL PARK, PA. Overhead walkways provide outstanding views of Norfolk Southern freights and Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian on the former Pennsylvania Railroad main line. The prominent feature here is the west portal of Gallitzin Tunnel, which the PRR completed in 1854.
BNSF Railway coal train in Horsethief Lake State Park
A westbound loaded BNSF coal train crosses the causeway through Washington’s Horsethief Lake State Park, across the Columbia River from The Dalles, Ore.
COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE There are countless scenic spots to watch and photograph trains along BNSF Railway’s Fallbridge Subdivision, which runs along the northern shore of the Columbia River, on the border between Oregon and Washington. One of my favorite spots is Horsethief Lake State Park, across the river from The Dalles, Ore., where BNSF crosses the lake on a causeway. Viewing is from an overlook near the parking lot; admission to the park is free.

OLEAN, N.Y. This area joined my list of top 10 train-watching spots when the Western New York & Pennsylvania Railroad started operations with a large fleet of Alco-designed diesels a few years ago. The WNY&P’s center of operations is Olean, N.Y., where many of its trains originate and terminate. My favorite WNY&P train is the Driftwood Turn, which originates in Olean, proceeds east 2 miles on the ex-Erie main to CP Olean, where the train turns south onto the former Pennsylvania Railroad Buffalo Line and continues to Driftwood, Pa. There, it interchanges with Norfolk Southern. Power for this train usually consists of four or six six-axle Alco diesels, a rare sight in 2012.

POINT OF ROCKS, MD. The main attraction of this popular spot is the picturesque vintage former Baltimore & Ohio station, which is situated at the junction of two busy CSX lines. The platforms on the west side of the station provide excellent vantage points to watch and photograph trains. The lighting is best in the afternoon. Both lines see many CSX freights, and the line on the south side, CSX’s Metropolitan Subdivision, also hosts Amtrak’s daily Capitol Limited and a dozen MARC commuter trains on weekdays.

CSX’s FORMER HUNTINGTON DIVISION In addition to the spectacular mountainous West Virginia scenery along this former Chesapeake & Ohio main line, many trackside structures left over from the steam era line the right-of-way. You’ll see coaling towers at places like Thurmond and Hinton and the 1950s station at Prince. Several signal bridges, which are easily accessible from public property, are located in the White Sulfur Springs, W.Va., area. CSX is rapidly upgrading its signals and will replace these relics with modern trackside signals soon. The westbound grade at Moss Run, Va., provides the chance to make pictures at a classic location.

Alex Mayes, a retired federal program manager, resides with his wife, Teresa, in Virginia and has been hunting trains for 30 years.
If you’re looking for a memorable railfan experience, Hot Spots is your go-to guide for train-watching throughout the U.S. and Canada. This special issue from Trains magazine tells you everything you need to know to be a great train-watcher – railfan basics, travel tips, and dozens of must-see locations from coast to coast. Order your copy today!
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