Saturday, December 18, 2010

THANK YOU to the Guys Behind the Scenes

Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that "any sufficiently advance technology is indistinguishable from magic". It's unlikely that he had railfanning in mind, but if we use that quote to categorize the tools that we use to track and photograph trains, it's hard to argue that our cameras, radios, and computers wouldn't be defined as magical.

I want to take this chance to share some of what goes on "behind the scenes" in order to make this magic function. Railfans in Minnesota are not able to follow trains on more than 600 miles of track via ATCS, and monitor voice radios capturing communications in nearly half a dozen locations, just by accident. This capability is a result of equipment, money, cooperation, and most of all, dedication by a core group of people.

Extensive ATCS coverage of BNSF, CP, and UP lines in Minnesota require data radios and servers in more than 20 locations across the state. Remember, every one of those locations needs some sort of tower, an antenna, a feedline, radio programmed to the proper frequency, a server, power, and high speed internet access. In some cases radios capturing voice traffic are piggybacked onto the same tower as the ATCS server, but require separate antennas, radios, and servers. At least a portion of the locations are powered by uninterruptible power supplies. All the data is sent into a "magic cloud", where the 3 servers we end users rely on put everything together in a form useable to the ATCS application. I have no idea how this all works but rest assured the output is one of the most valuable tools available to the railfan for tracking trains.

Voice traffic is streamed to various servers, which allow railfans to log on and listen to multiple AAR channels and decipher the goings-on as trains make their way through the area.

The monitoring sites range from extremely simple-a 20' pole with a traintenna, 50' of feedline, a radio and a server in my basement, capturing the ATCS signal from Dower Lake and Wadena, to the complex. Here are some statistics on a complex site: a 150' tower, with a big antenna for ATCS installed near the top. Yes, someone from the railfan community actually climbs a 150' tower to install antennas and feedline so you can have an ATCS to your computer. This is attached to a data radio. A second antenna and radio serve to capture a difficult location. These feed a main server, connected to the "mother ship" via high speed internet. In addition this location also captures and streams voice, via a big omnidirectional antenna mounted at 140'. This antenna is 15' tall! And there are plans in place to replace it next spring with a heavy duty 22' tall omni. Of course this calls for another radio and server. The voice stream feeds to This radio stream regularly captures voice communications and detectors from almost 100 miles of the Staples Sub.

I haven't even mentioned the folks who wrote and support the ATCS program, or the people who decode the control points and write the layout files so all the beeps and squawks that the signal system emits can be converted into something we normal humans can understand. These are the guys who built the upload function into ATCS, which enables many of us to use BlackBerrys or other smart phones to access ATCS feeds from anywhere a cell signal is available.

It's also important to remember someone has to maintain and troubleshoot all this equipment. I'm going to include a bit of an email from Don Schoenberger to illustrate some of the problems these guys deal with:

"Due to the unique characteristics of ARES VHF, receiving packets from Little Falls E is a problem. Since LF East is line of sight from the higher antennas, we miss packets. To “fix” that problem, it is necessary to use a 2nd radio on a lower, less gain antenna to receive the Little Falls E. station. In late 2009 I installed a Motorola Spectra on a lower antenna. That antenna belongs to the tower owner, and he wanted it back, so early this year I installed a low gain antenna at the 60’ level, which belongs to us. Although you may not have noticed the difference, trains now progress through Little Falls without missing packets since this radio went on line."

While I don't understand all the technical jargon, I do know this-we are tremendously lucky to have people as dedicated as Don willing to invest time, money, and knowledge in these projects. Without that kind of effort and dedication we would all be much less blessed.

I want to take this opportunity to personally thank Don and everyone else who helps support these systems, whether through labor, knowledge, providing a location for a radio and server, or dollars. What a great service these people are providing! Thank you.

Does anybody use this stuff? They sure do-last I heard, on an average day 40+ users are signed on, with a high of 57 at one time and the numbers keep growing. While Don has made the comment that this is what makes all the work and investment worthwhile, it sure couldn't hurt to say thanks to him and the others that are involved.

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