For most Washingtonians, watching a train pass usually translates to missing the Metro by a few seconds. But for an obsessed -- er, dedicated -- subset of the local population, train watching is a pastime of choice, invoking a heated passion that other people might save for their local sports team (or a Trekkie convention). For railfans, there's no greater thrill than feeling the breeze from a 10,000-ton freight train whipping by at 60 miles per hour.
Some railfans focus on photography, taking pictures of trains winding through dramatic scenery. Others take meticulous notes of each train that passes by, jotting down minutiae such as the locomotive number, type of train or number of cars. The hobby also draws history buffs -- the trains serve as a romantic reminder of a bygone era when the rails opened highways of commerce up, down and across America.
What to Expect: The D.C. area is home to a relatively high proportion of passenger trains, with regular appearances by the Virginia Railway Express (VRE), Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) and Amtrak. The primary freight companies passing through are CSX and Norfolk Southern. "The best time to go is in the morning, or midafternoon to evening, Tuesday through Saturday," says Tony Hill of the trainspotting site www.frograil.com, which offers instructions for self-guided tours across the country, including the D.C. area. "For some reason, there seems a universal absence of train activity between about 11 a.m. to 2 p.m." Even if you can't go at the ideal time, Hill knows plenty of people who visit the rails whenever they have a few minutes or hours to spend track-side.
What to Bring: A camera, a notebook, sunscreen and a detailed map of the area. A good guidebook is "The Basic Railfan Book" by Ernest H. Robl, available at www.robl.w1.com/brfb.
Cost: Free -- as long as you stay on public land. "While there are some idiots who trespass blatantly, most of us are respectful of private property and keep safety at the forefront," Hill says. In other words, don't risk life and limb (or a big fat fine) in pursuit of that perfect view.
Here's where you can legally -- and safely -- watch the wheels go by.
Alexandria's Union Station. 110 Callahan Dr. (at King Street). This spot is notable for its sheer quantity and variety of trains. From a nice shady bench to the south of the station, you'll spot engines from VRE, Amtrak, CSX and Norfolk Southern.
East Potomac Park. 1090 Ohio Dr. SW (third parking lot on the left after you enter). Nestled between two railroad bridges spanning the Potomac, this is one of the most scenic places to see trains inside the Beltway.
Manassas Regional Airport. Wakeman Drive and Observation Road. This grassy patch just outside the airport is ideal for seeing Norfolk Southern freight trains. If time lags between locomotives, you can also turn around and see small propeller planes taking off and landing.
MARC Station, Garrett Park. Kenilworth and Rokeby avenues. This tiny town revolves around the station -- residents still come to the post office at the tracks to pick up mail. When Penn Place, which houses the post office and town center, reopens this summer after a long renovation, visitors will be able to enjoy a meal at the new restaurant, Black Market, while watching the trains.
MARC Station, Riverdale. Queensbury Road and Cleveland Avenue. Not only does this station have a large free parking lot, excellent visibility, a nearby coffee shop and an active railfan community -- you'll also find an enclosed waiting area with a display on the history of the B&O railroad inside.