The following locations can be found within two hours or less of the beltway. Generally there is a lot of rail activity at these locations:
- Long Bridge Park - Amtrak, CSX, VRE - many trains a day. To reach Long Bridge Park, follow US1 north to Crystal City (just north of Potomac Yard), take the 15th Street exit, immediately turn left onto the service road, then drive straight ahead to Old Jefferson Davis Highway-which currently is quite rough but should be resurfaced soon. Follow Old Jefferson Davis Hwy to the park entrance.
The park has substantial railroad history, not the least of which is its name, a reference to the railroad bridge over the Potomac connecting Washington with Northern Virginia. The property was once called "South Washington," a railroad location that included industries such as Solite. Just to the north is a 4-acre plot where the Twin Bridges Marriott (1957-1990) once stood (the Marriott company's first hotel), which the county also owns and will develop in a Phase II expansion of the park. The location marks the northern extreme of the RF&P at RO tower (CFP110), where the Rosslyn Branch of the PRR once turned west on a routing that passed the Pentagon and terminated in a small yard in old Rosslyn.
On the east side of the park they designed a walkway with waist-high railing about 15 feet above track level and running several hundred yards along the railroad, affording largely-unobstructed views that are particularly photogenic in afternoon light. From this high walkway one can also watch water birds taking off and landing at the pond across the tracks, as well as aircraft doing the same thing at National Airport.
Gaithersburg, MD Historic Train Depot & MARC Station
(Amtrak, CSX, MARC) - In the heart of Old Town Gaithersburg there is a lot to see and do; a unique attraction and a great place to watch trains is the Train Depot
- St. Denis MARC Station (North Elkridge, MD near intersections of U.S. Rt. 1 and I-195) - really a sparse location (some fast food service about a south on Rt. 1), but more traffic than Dorsey. New signal bridge and interlocking in place right at this location. Freight traffic includes Baltimore-Washington main line and the Old Main Line (and the original B&O main line west through Ellicott City to Sykesville and Point of Rocks) (Old Main line Sub-division) - the tracks split about 1/2 mile west of St. Denis (at Relay). Thomas Viaduct is located nearby in Patapsco State Park (admission fee is a couple of bucks for the park though unless you bike in).
- Thomas Viaduct - Just "west" of Relay and the St. Denis MARC Station is Thomas Viaduct, a historic 1800s bridge carrying the B&O (now CSX) over the Patapsco River. Made of stone and only supposed to last a few years, it is an engineering marvel that you must see, even if it's not easy to get photos. A blog on the Viaduct is here.
- BWI Amtrak Station - Has food and restrooms, but is more crowded and some attendants may get fussy about photographers. You will see the same trains as at Halethorpe and Odenton. Parking isn't free like most the other spots listed here, but it is convenient and not too expensive.
- Martin F. O' Rourke Memorial Railroad library, Bowie Railroad Station, and Huntington Museum - Bowie Tower - Former Pennsylvania Railroad station, freight house, tower, and Norfolk & Western caboose on display. Museum is open 10 - 4 every day except Monday. Cool thing here is you can go up in the tower to take shots (there is a fence along the tracks that otherwise makes photography a little tricky). Located in old town Bowie along the east side of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor and just north of the Wye to the Pope's Creek Branch to Morganton. Tower was taken out of service by Amtrak in the very late 1980s and move to its present location from just across the tracks. A lawn chair is a good idea here. There are a couple cafes within walking distance. For more information visit http://www.railroadlibrary.org .
- Alexandria Union Station - Located at 101 Callahan Drive, across from the George Washington Masonic Memorial (up on Shooter's Hill) and adjacent to the King Street Metro Station, this is a very busy location with CSX, NS, Amtrak, and during the weekdays VRE. One of the best places to watch trains in Northern Virginia. The station is open from early morning til roughly 9 PM daily (there are bathrooms inside) and air conditioning). The platform adjacent the station is covered, well lit, and has benches. Freight trains do move through here quickly, so be advised to stand back a bit.
- Magnolia Cut-off (on the CSX Cumberland Line between Martinsburg, WV and Cumberland, MD just west of Hancock). This location may be more than two hours if you live in Northern Virginia or Southern Maryland, but its a fascinating place. The B&O from 1912-1914 built a new grade, four tunnels, an 1800 foot fill, and two bridges to "straighten" 14 miles of original right of way and cut the mileage down to a 7 miles with mild curves. Both the original line and the new line were used until 1960, when the original alignment, which follows the meandering Potomac River, was abandoned. You can drive the old right-of-way from Hancock to the Paw Paw, WV and get to most of the truly scenic spots. The Western Maryland also meandered across the original B&O right of way, twice (you can see a couple of the old bridges). To get there, Take I-70 West to US 522 South at Hancock, MD. Just as you cross the Potomac bridge there is a road off to your left. If you take that you will drop down to the tracks level near an airport. Bear to the west and follow the railroad. Magnolia cutoff actually starts at Orleans Road which is about 10 miles in, but you will be along the tracks and there are some interesting sights, like an old brick factory. Driving time from Hancock to Paw Paw is about 2 - 2.5 hours. It's all gravel road rough at times so don't take your low riding sports car. There are no services once you leave Hancock, so take food, first-aid, toilet paper, drinks, and have a full tank of gas. This is rural West Virginia. There are snakes; don't climb rock outcroppings or go traipsing through weeds and grass. Your cell phone probably WILL NOT work out there either. There are usually about 5 - 10 trains during the day and as many as two trains an hour average between about 9PM and 6AM. If you have a scanner the signals going east to west leaving Orleans are Doe Gully, Hansrote, Magnolia, and Paw Paw.
- Dorsey MARC Station - A great place to watch MARC in the evening. The station is only accessible from MD 100 (between US Rt. 1 and the Baltimore Washington Parkway). There are also lots of freights of course. Parking is plentiful, but be leery staying there too late alone. The platform has benches and the station has bathrooms, but that is only open for a couple hours in the morning and again in the afternoon and early evening. There is fast food and gas both North and South on U.S. Route 1 nearby.
- Halethorpe MARC Station - on Alternate US 1 Just north of MD I-195 (take route one exit North). MARC Trains frequent the place from about six in the morning til 10 at night Monday through Friday. There is an abundance of speeding Amtrak trains (don't stand too close to the tracks) too pretty much seven days a week. Parking is free and there are benches and shelters on the platform, but there no bathrooms.
- L'enfant Plaza VRE Station - During the week there are lots of VRE trains and there are CSX Freights headed for the Virginia Avenue Tunnel as well and Amtrak trains.
- MARC Stations on Penn Line: Odenton. (Amtrak, MARC, and occasionally at night NS) - Some services in the area (gas, food, etc).
- MARC Stations on Brunswick Line: Brunswick, Martinsburg (Amtrak, MARC, CSX)
Point of Rocks MD
Junction and Historic Station (Amtrak, CSX, MARC) – Enjoy train watching at
a busy junction adjacent to the C&O Canal Park and Potomac River and admire
one of the most photographed Victorian-era stations in the country.
Weaverton Junction, MD (West of Brunswick) along the C&O Canal (Amtrak, MARC, CSX)
- Harpers Ferry, WV Amtrak Station (Amtrak, MARC, CSX) - Take pics at the Amtrak station or walk across the Potomac and take pictures of trains (not many a day) coming on and off CSX's Winchester Branch.
Harpers Ferry provides a beautiful backdrop for train watching where two rivers come together and three states border each other. There are two dramatic railroad bridges, a Victorian-era depot, and a charming historic town.
- Fredericksburg, VA Amtrak Station (Amtrak, VRE, CSX) - Post 9/11 security makes standing here and taking pictures tough. There is a park a little farther North where the railroad crosses the river and you can get some good "landscape" shots.
- Ashland, Virginia, including the Amtrak Station (Amtrak, CSX) - CSX has a very busy double track main right through the heart of town with a 35 mph speed restriction (street running). This is the old RF&P railroad. Lots of places to eat, sleep, and stay nearby and the town is very picturesque. This is about two hours from DC. Photography is EASY!
- Manassas, VA (Amtrak, MARC, NS) - The Amtrak downtown station sees quite a few VRE and Amtrak trains during the week and has some historic cars nearby. A little further south the WYE carries NS traffic toward the Front Royal Line and sees heavy freight traffic. Be careful as to where you park so as not to trespass on NS property.
- Shenandoah Junction, West Virginia (Amtrak, NS, CSX, MARC) - Here the former B&O main (now CSX) crosses under the former N&W Valley line (now Norfolk Southern). Both lines are heavily used freight lines. Be careful not to trespass in this location, but it is a great and popular location for local railfans. Services are sparse, and no immediately available restroom facilities.
- Doswell, VA - on Doswell Road off of Route 1 near Kings Dominion - (Amtrak, CSX, Buckingham Branch) CSX's doubletrack former RF&P main (north south) is crossed by the single track east west former C&O mountain division, now the Buckingham Branch railroad. A road crossing is a great place to take photos. You will see lots of Amtrak and CSX freights on CSX and mostly westbound empty coal and grain trains on the Buckingham branch. Fairly easy and nice place to take pictures, with the former C&O station still in use (as an office) and a former interlocking tower protecting the diamond. No services are readily available however and no restroom facilities. There is also a very unique Antique store here.
Other interesting spots, though not necessarily "Railfan HotSpots." Best time for these spots is weekends:
- Martin Airport - Trains on the Northeast Corridor) and A-10s and C-130s.
- B&O Station in Ellicott City - Next to CSX's "Old Main Line" which sees several slow lumbering freights a day. Neat shops and restaurants in downtown Ellicott City. The station, the oldest railroad station in the United States, is operated as a museum by the B&O Museum from Baltimore.
- Baldwin Station in Sykesville - Next to CSX's "Old Main Line" also, but has a very nice restaurant in the former B&O station. Also a restored B&P switch tower, a 1910 C&O Parlor car with a model railroad layout in it (open first Sunday of month), and a caboose. Several slow lumbering freights a day.
Photographer's Rights: In the last few years people photographing trains have often been the subject of heightened police attention. We are not an authority on the subject, but generally speaking, photography of a train from a public place is Constitutional, but the rules often vary by railroad and jurisdiction. However, we caution you to use common sense and to be cooperative with police and other authorities and do not trespass. There are several good web resources for more information:
NOTE: Be responsible and safe when railfanning in these areas. Security concerns remain high in this area. Please stay off the tracks and do not tresspass.