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Railroad Radio System 

System Overview
Normal railroad communications take place on 97 VHF frequencies allocated by the Railway Association of Canada (it used to be governed by the Association of American Railroads), between 159.810 MHz to 161.565 MHz,  with 15 KHz increments. You can also find some communications taking place in the UHF 400 MHz band.

For specific frequencies, see the Frequency section, accessible with the menu on the left. 

All Operational channels in the Toronto area are simplex - only one party may communicate at one time. There are various base stations (see the "Towers" section) that are located about 20-30 kilometers apart on a specific subdivision. These base stations have are connected to the RTC either via landline or by microwave. 


Radio communications and the RTC

RTC (Rail Traffic Control) does not normally monitor the frequencies - trains and crew must "key the tower" to communicate with the dispatcher. The user must send three steady tones to the base station in order to open a link to the dispatcher. The radio in the RTC's office 'rings' to let the dispatcher know a train is contacting them. The dispatcher's radio can select specific towers along the subdivision, normally selecting whichever tower is closest to the party calling. 

The base stations also house repeaters for the various MoW (Maintenance of Way) channels used on the subdivision. These frequencies also have patches to allow crews to call RTC, as well as telephone patches so users can access the railway PBX or the regular telephone system. Often you can hear users phoning people on the outside- sometimes the office, often times making calls of a personal nature (naughty!).  MoW bases are also able to be "linked" together so MoW crews can communicate over the whole length of a subdivision - unlike the operational channels where the idea is for the RTC to only use the closest tower so a conversation doesn't tie up the channel all over the place. 

Additional information on towers can be found in the "Towers" section of this section.

Keying the Tower - differences 
CN and CP's radio system are similar, but not identical. One major difference is the method in which to contact the RTC.

In both systems, RTC does not always monitor their frequencies. If trains or crew want to contact the dispatcher, they must 'key the tower', or alert the dispatcher that someone wants to talk to them. In both cases, a series of tones transmitted on a certain channel makes the dispatcher's radio 'ring' - prompting them to come onto the air and answer the call.

In CN's radio system, the person calling RTC must switch over to their subdivision's road channel to send tones and speak to the dispatcher. The person keys the tower and talks on the same channel

CP's system is a bit different. They still must still switch to their RTC call-in channel to contact RTC, but after getting an answerback tone they must immediately switch back to the Train Standby channel to talk to the dispatcher. No verbal communication takes place on the call-in channel. Every subdivision has a specific call-in channel. As well, the CP call-in channels are duplex, where the output frequency is the same as the subdivision's Train Standby channel.


Trains and the system

All trains must monitor a Standby channel. CN trains monitor channel one (161.415 MHz), and CP Trains monitor a designated Train Standby channel that changes from subdivision to subdivision. General communications and line-side automation systems (Detectors, automatic derailers, etc) use this frequency to relay information to the crew. RTC also communicates with the trains on this frequency. 

On CN lines, there are specific road frequencies reserved for use on designated subdivisions. If trains want to communicate with RTC, they must do so on this channel. On CP, as stated above, all communications take place on the Train Standby channels.

When RTC wants to communicate with a train, the dispatcher contacts the train by number. If it is a lengthy conversation, the dispatcher will ask the train to switch over to the road frequency (depending on where the train is). 


Non-Train users of the system
Other crew members not attached to trains (Construction foremen, maintenance crews, etc.) communicate with RTC via walkie-talkies and mobile (truck-based) radios. 

On CN, construction foremen usually stick to channel one. Trains, on approach to a construction zone (indicated by red flags), communicate with the foreman via radio, as designated in the DOB (Daily Operating Bulletin - a printed list of all of the unusual conditions happening on the particular subdivision, such as slow orders, construction (with mileage and foreman's name), unusual track conditions, etc.). The train informs the conductor that train number xxxx, led by engine number xxxx was approaching the work area, and what action to take. The conductor then informs the train of the action to be taken (usually bell and whistle around men and machinery). The train crew repeats and confirms the instructions. This information is invaluable to the train hunter, as they tell the railfan what the approaching train's number is and what kind of locomotive is at the head - as well as give you advance warning of an approaching train. 

Construction crews also have MoW channels that they can use to communicate. CP crews also have Utility channels they can use to contact RTC and other crews.


Other Information
As well, a train's EOT (End of Train) devices operate on two specifically designated frequencies: 452.9375MHz and 457.9375 MHz. As stated on the previous page, activity on these frequencies consist of short data bursts (sometimes called "squawks"), as the box at the end of the train communicates with computers in the locomotive, relaying everything from rear-end brake pressure, the speed of the rear of the train, etc. These are very handy for the train watcher, because they give you some advance warning of an oncoming train (usually 1 kilometer). 

On certain subdivisions, the dispatcher will announce the day's roster of trains. Not all dispatchers do it on all lines, but when they do - it will give you a clear picture of the day's activities, and how busy (or bored) you are going to be that day. This usually occurs either early in the morning or around lunch time.

There also exists an automated system that maintenance crews can call (using the phone-patch feature with their radios) that gives them the day's line-up. If you are able to decode the tones, maybe you could try giving it a call (grin). Doing this is *not* legal or endorsed by this site, but I'm told that people indeed do it. :) I think you're best to wait and see what comes down the line.

If you are looking for timetables or rosters, I highly suggest picking up a copy of the Canadian Trackside Guide, available in most hobby shops or on the Internet.