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Old 02-12-2014, 8:31 PM
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Default Antennas? and...Am I doing this right? (Noob)

Hello good people.

Rookie here, just got hired on to a freight railroad out in western Maryland where I live. My step dad had an old scanner (Radio Shack PRO 2045) which seems to be fairly nice, but he was in no need for it so I brought it out to my home and today I am attempting to tune in to the local railroad banter.

I learned about wavelengths in school, that sums up my entire experience with radio. So I have a few questions. First I'll give a little more info, because so far I think I've done fairly well. I used this site (CSX Dispatcher Desk Codes) to find the frequencies I want to listen too. Some I know don't work and some I know are used heavily. I dialed in 9 frequencies to the scanner and WALLA! Chatter. Cool. Now, Question-

I can hear the main dispatcher 161.16 loud and clear, but I'm not hearing the road crews 160.23 and 160.32 very well, and since they are static I think the squelch is too high for them to come in. Does this have to do with the strength of the signal? I would imagine the dispatcher would have a stronger signal than the locomotive radio would have. Do I need a better antenna to pick up the broadcasts on the 160.23 band, if all I hear now is occasional static? I have a normal telescoping antenna now. I'm about 10 miles from the railroad tracks, in mountainous territory, that's also why I'm thinking my antenna is weak sauce.

Thanks for reading, sorry I don't really know what I'm talking about!

Last edited by bicyclexc; 02-12-2014 at 8:36 PM..
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Old 02-12-2014, 9:21 PM
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I live about one mile from the Norfolk Southern Mainline and 25 miles from their dispatch. I pick up their dispatch easily but the trains I can only pick up when they are near my house. I had to add a mobile antenna attached to my file cabinet to pick up the trains, I hope to be able to put up an outside antenna in the next few months. Where I live is on a downward slope from the train tracks and on a rainy night, it sounds like they going to pass through my property.
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Old 02-12-2014, 9:42 PM
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Yes, you need an antenna. Outside as high as you can get will work best. If you want to use an indoor antenna, adjust your telescoping whip to approx 17.3 inches for the 160Mhz range ((462/freq)/2)*12= length of the 1/4 wave whip antenna.
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Old 02-12-2014, 10:09 PM
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Wirelessly posted (Mozilla/5.0 (iPhone; CPU iPhone OS 7_0_4 like Mac OS X) AppleWebKit/537.51.1 (KHTML, like Gecko) Version/7.0 Mobile/11B554a Safari/9537.53)

It's the same as picking up distant broadcast TV stations... You need a good outdoor antenna. There are many... Antennacraft ST-2 is very popular.
If you want to try something simple and quick indoors that will beat your telescoping scanner antenna, check this out (wire version-scroll down. 2nd one shown):
http://wiki.radioreference.com/index.php/Homebrewed_Off-Center_Fed_Dipole
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Old 02-12-2014, 11:42 PM
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The mountain terrain makes that a tricky thing too, because signal propagation gets all messy when there's stuff in the way. I'm not a railfan myself so I have no idea what kind of radios they're using, but mountains will screw with 20 watt mobile radios pretty badly, and will absolutely squish reception for a 5 watt portable anywhere past line of sight regardless of what antenna you have.
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Old 02-13-2014, 7:55 AM
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Thanks folks for your help! I'll look for an antenna then. What do you think of these?

Outdoor VHF-Hi/UHF Scanner Antenna : Scanner Antennas | RadioShack.com
Portable outdoor antenna, cheep(er) I'd set it up inside at first

Magnet-mount mobile scanner antenna : Mobile Scanner Antennas | RadioShack.com
Mobile antenna, id set it up on top of my bookcase to see if it helps, it not I can always use it on my car. lol

I have hope an antenna will solve my problem because even though there are copious mountains out here, the dispatcher manages to receive the signal from miles and miles away (as far as 60 at least). I imagine he has quite the antenna though, I won't want what he has. From where I am though, I am about 1000ft higher in elevation than the dispatcher, and most of the line, so I hope that will be to my advantage. I'm not sure it that helps with radio signals.

From what I'm hearing there is considerable struggling with the falling snow this morning, we have received about 8" so far and its still coming down, in addition to the almost 12" we had beforehand. Good day to stay inside!
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Old 02-20-2014, 8:03 PM
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The outdoor Radioshack antenna is a great performer for the price. My first "Scanner" antenna 25 years ago. I believe it is 21" long so you could even tune it a bit closer to 17.3" with a good pair of cutters (and some safety glasses!)

Get that up in an attic or outside a house using some RG6 or 8 cable should provide a noticeable improvement.

Another decent way to gauge performance in that frequency band is by comparing the signal strength of weather stations between 162.4 and 162.550. They make for a decent reference.

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Old 02-20-2014, 9:16 PM
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Suggestion. Since you appear to want to concentrate your reception on the railroad frequencies, don't make the mistake of getting an antenna that is designed for something other than the VHF-Hi frequency range (like the wide-band scanner antennas that go from DC to daylight like a discone or the popular ST2 or are specific to another band like the 800 MHz antennas that work so well there, but not so well where you want to listen). It's OK to have a dual band antenna that is really two antennas in one (like the various dual-band ham antennas that cover the 2 meter (VHF-Hi) and 440 MHz band (UHF) but not a single antenna that "covers" many bands without being specific to any of them.

A good guide for you is to find an antenna with good gain on the 2 meter or nearby two-way frequencies that make up the VHF-Hi band (ignore those for other bands since those aren't important to you). More gain generally would translate into better signal strength. The typical discone will have 0 gain (may be reported as 2.15 dBi gain) and the typical ground plane antenna won't be much more. Going with a typical ham 2 meter antennas will generally have 3 dB (or 5.15 dBi) gain or more (Texas Towers, Vertical Antennas Page). Many of the popular dual-band (VHF-Hi and UHF) often have even more gain, perhaps 2 to 3 times that, and may pull in signals from much further away (Texas Towers, Vertical Antennas Page).

Remember that there are two factors that are important in addition to the antenna. Height (more is nearly always better) and coax loss (less is better). Height helps since it moves your antenna into the clear (think leaves and above any hills) so it can "see" those road crews that are basically standing on the ground (vs. the dispatch centers and their tall towers). Low coax loss is important since the loss is what eats up your nice signal strength. To help with coax loss, find a good coax loss calculator (like this one Coax Calculator) and plug in your values like frequency (use the upper frequency you'll have e.g. 163.000 MHz), length (estimate a bit longer, but not too much), and type of coax (pick several that you find advertised and are available to you at a cost point you like). The one with the lowest loss is generally what you should go with, all other factors being equal.
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