Railroads & Locomotives Hot Spots Five tips for railfanning with kids

Five tips for railfanning with kids

By Steve Sweeney | February 28, 2024

Children love trains, but remember to cater to their needs

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Railfanning with kids can be the most rewarding and/or the most frustrating experience. Regardless of a child’s interests or capabilities, the amount of enjoyment adults and children get out of watching trains together depends primarily on the adults in charge.

If you don’t already have your own style and methods for taking kids to watch trains, here are five tips to make the most of an outing with children ages 2 to 12.


Black steam locomotive inching forward among railroad photographers.
Cass Scenic Railroad Shay No. 11 moves into position for photographers at the railroad’s annual railfan weekend in 2014. My son and I stayed on the train, mostly, because it was cold on top of the mountains in West Virginia in May, and he was overwhelmed with too many trains. Steve Sweeney

No. 1: Be flexible when you are watching trains with children

The big day is here. It’s time to go watch, chase, or look at trains. You’ve done everything you can to pump up yourself and the little people in your life. Then something goes wrong. Maybe the trains aren’t running like you thought or the weather is bad. You can drive 90 minutes to the next nearest busy diamond where the skies are clear, or you can play with wooden trains on the floor at home.

The same is true if you are already on the chase and watching trains. You might have had a full day planned of hitting your favorite hot spots or meeting up with your buddies and their kids on the road. You’ve got all the snacks you and the children might want, extra clothes, blankets, scanner — you know the drill.

But it happens: Only 2 hours into chasing trains in a car your child gets tired, doesn’t feel like it, throws a tantrum, and you are no longer chasing trains. You might stop at a restaurant to re-charge, but you will probably end the day of train watching. And that’s OK.

Be aware of multiple ways to keep trains part of your day, even if things don’t go as planned.

No. 2: Anytime is train watching time

My 4-year-old son has reminded me of this. We typically drive over one railroad crossing when running errands. I tell him to look for headlights in one direction, while I look in the other. The couple of times we’ve spotted a train, we cross the tracks and look for a nearby road or side street to pull over to wait and watch. By the time we see the end of the train it’s been no more than 15 minutes.

My little boy is happy, and I am too.

No. 3: Know your child’s limits

In 2014, I had the trip of a lifetime given to me by the late-Editor Jim Wrinn: Go to Cass Scenic Railroad.

No specific assignment, no vacation time spent, just to have fun. My one son was 8-years-old then and had shown interest in watching trains. So, with Jim’s blessing, I made the arrangements and packed us off, father-and-son, to go to West Virginia for a long weekend during the annual railfan event. I loved it. He didn’t.

Despite getting a cab ride in a Shay, going to the top of Bald Knob, seeing the locomotive “race,” getting up early, spending all day on a train … it was too much for him. And that helped quash any interest he may have had in trains. A better idea would have been to do more frequent, short-duration outings with him closer to home.

Note: ALWAYS know where the nearest restroom is and when it is available — and plan accordingly. Children need to go when they need to go — and it doesn’t adhere to any schedule.

No. 4: Watch trains in creative ways

Or, be flexible, times 10. A former co-worker suggested a nearby rail yard that regularly kicked cars would be a great place to watch trains. Why? Because it had a pizza place next to it.

So, on a warm summer evening, I drove my daughter to the pizza place, and swung around into the back parking lot that faced the yard. And for 2 hours or so, we ate pizza and watched switch crews kicking cars with a… wait for it… BOOOoooom!

My daughter is not a railfan and we haven’t watched trains at that location together since, but it is still a good memory.

No. 5: Don’t be pushy

I admit, this can be a hard one to follow. In between work, work around the house, commitments with your child’s school, and family expectations, there can be precious little time to enjoy going out and watching trains. If you don’t take your children with you, you might spend even less quality time with them.

But if you’ve been trackside or visited a large toy train display — and they’re not into it — no amount of cajoling or enthusiasm on your part will change their interest level.

Or, maybe your child is content watching trains for a half hour and going out for lunch — and that’s it. That’s more than enough to build good memories of the both of you and trains!

A long green passenger train stopped to let railroad photographers on board.
Railfanning with kids: The crowd of railfans re-assemble on the train at Cass Scenic Railroad in 2014. My son and I mostly stayed with the train during the all-day adventure. It was exciting, but too much for my 8-year-old at that time. Steve Sweeney

Originally published May 13, 2022.

One thought on “Five tips for railfanning with kids

  1. My daughter came with me when I volunteered on the train. Just riding became boring, so she asked to work with me. She was 11. By the time she was 18 she was a rules qualified Trainman and doing run-arounds on her own. She’s no longer into trains, but I love the memories of us doing that together.

    On a “train trip” we rode the Western Maryland Scenic, and she wore her railroad hat. I told the conductor to put her to work: he had her turn the locomotive on the table at Frostburg. A great thrill for her, and a vicarious one for me.

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