Drew Halverson’s top 10 hot spots

When it comes to train-watching, scenery is key for this Trains graphic designer
BNSF Railway intermodal train in California
A westbound BNSF intermodal train leans into the famous elevated curves at Siberia, Calif., in April 2014.
Four photos, Drew Halverson
I witnessed an endless array of trains while growing up in the Midwest. Despite the diversity of railroads, the surrounding landscape was lacking. I needed mountains and deserts to go with the ubiquitous cityscapes and farm fields. While satisfying my affinity for travel, I learned that our continent offers amazing, awe-inspiring scenery, bustling city scenes, and quiet country hideaways, and often a railroad runs through it. Here are my favorite 10 places to watch trains.

SIBERIA, CALIF. The name sums the sheer emptiness experienced at this desert hot spot. If not for one of BNSF Railway’s busiest corridors, you might only find pure desert oblivion, pierced by the occasional highway and dotted with decrepit ghost towns. The former Santa Fe Transcon route is loaded with intermodal trains running between Chicago and Los Angeles. The famous elevated curves, however, put Siberia on the railfan map. So, instead of driving Interstate 40 between Kingman, Ariz., and Barstow, Calif., take old U.S. Route 66, and follow the action.

St. AUGUSTINE, FLA. The nation’s oldest city is also one of Florida’s premier railfan destinations. Florida East Coast’s trains are powered by crisp General Electric ES44C4s painted in the road’s classic red-and-yellow scheme and run on a schedule you can set your watch to. The city is just one hour south of Jacksonville and features picturesque locations along the railroad’s well-manicured main line. Start by visiting the sweeping curve alongside U.S. Route 1 near the beautiful San Sebastian River.
Norfolk Southern Yadkin Local
Leading the “Yadkin Local,” Norfolk Southern GP38-3 No. 5806 tiptoes toward Albemarle, N.C., on June 2, 2014.
ALBEMARLE, N.C. Just one small town among many along Norfolk Southern’s N Line, Albemarle provides a plethora of photo opportunities. Tree tunnels, S-curves, steep grades, and jointed rail unite with black Geeps to create a perfect piece of the South. Train P92, the weekday-only “Yadkin Local,” departs Salisbury and serves industries to the east along this scenic branch making for a relaxed chase along U.S. Route 52.

BIRMINGHAM, ALA. A railroad hub for 150 years, Birmingham is still the South’s steel-making industrial powerhouse. BNSF, CSX Transportation, NS, and Watco’s Birmingham Terminal Railway all call the city home. Top it off with Amtrak’s Crescent and run-through Kansas City Southern power on intermodal trains, and you will have no problem staying busy by the tracks. Park yourself on the 22nd Street overpass near the Amtrak station and the parade will come to you.

CINCINNATI Hemmed in by Kentucky and Indiana, Ohio’s “Queen City” is host to large-scale operations for both CSX and NS and is home base for Genesee & Wyoming’s Indiana & Ohio Railway network as well. Amtrak’s nocturnal Cardinal also appears triweekly. Impressive bridges carry trains high above the Ohio River, while neighboring bluffs provide further elevation for dramatic views of the action. Mix in the historic Cincinnati Union Terminal and riverboat traffic for continuous photo opportunities.
Canadian Pacific Kicking Horse Pass
Westbound sulfur loads twist through Glenogle, B.C., on CP’s Kicking Horse Pass route on Sept. 23, 2013. Two new GE ES44ACs power the train amid emerging fall color.
GLENOGLE, BRITISH COLUMBIA This forgotten gem lies just a few miles west of railfan-favorite Golden on Canadian Pacific’s Mountain Subdivision. Visitors to this location are soon consumed by the roar of the Kicking Horse River. Photos now require a hike, due to recent Trans-Canada Highway projects, and vegetation overgrowth also leaves fewer openings. However, because the route is CP’s primary artery to the West Coast, rail traffic is plentiful. Couple that with the region’s ruggedly beautiful surroundings and Glenogle will easily make your own list of favorites.

THOMPSON RIVER CANYON While visiting British Columbia, make sure to take in the Thompson River Canyon, home to river rafters, rock slides, and continuous rail action. An arid climate provides for a drier landscape than the nearby Fraser River Canyon, but the train count remains the same. CP and Canadian National share main lines. Westbounds run on CN’s Ashcroft Subdivision and eastbounds run on CP’s Thompson Subdivision. The Trans-Canada Highway parallels all the action from Lytton to Ashcroft. One favorite location is Skihist Provincial Park. There, trains, including the Rocky Mountaineer, can be seen twisting through gorgeous “Painted Canyon.”

SULLY SPRINGS, N.D. In North America there are few places more wide-open and beautiful than the Badlands of North Dakota. Halfway between Medora and Belfield, just south of Interstate 94, BNSF’s Dickinson Subdivision twists through tall sedimentary rock formations dating back millions of years. The landscape is littered with petrified tree stumps and sprinkled with oil wells. Lace up your hiking boots and bring a four-wheel-drive vehicle for an all-access pass to these expansive surroundings, but watch out for rattlesnakes!

NOXON, MONT. The small town of Noxon sits alongside the Clark Fork River in western Montana. The line sees about 15 trains a day on Montana Rail Link’s Fourth Subdivision. Most trains are powered by BNSF locomotives and carry a variety of products, ranging from coal to Boeing aircraft parts. Be sure to travel on Bartholomew Road along the western banks of the river. There you will gain elevation on soaring cliffs as the railroad’s right-of-way slices through tall pines and crosses pristine waterways.
INDIANAPOLIS The Indiana capital city offers distinctive urban train-watching opportunities, supported by the city’s distinctive railroads. CSX and the Indiana Rail Road call the area home, and Amtrak serves the city with its Cardinal and Hoosier State trains. Not far from Indianapolis Union Station is IU Tower, located downtown near Lucas Oil Stadium. Watch CSX trains snake past IU from high above the tracks using a parking structure accessible from Virginia Avenue. CSX’s Avon Yard, west of the city, is easily viewed from the Ronald Reagan Parkway overpass at its east end. Operational highlights include CSX trains Q106 and Q107, which often feature Kansas City Southern motive power, and visiting Louisville & Indiana Railroad trains.
CSX train Lucas Oil Stadium
An eastbound CSX freight swings through downtown Indianapolis in May 2014.
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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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