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Why Railroad Lovers Are Turning Their Eyes To Quincy

Bob Cox photographs a train while rail watching with his wife Amy above a bridge three miles northeast of La Plata Missouri.
Bob Cox
Bob Cox photographs a train while rail watching with his wife Amy above a bridge three miles northeast of La Plata, Missouri.

Bird-watching and airplane spotting are classic observation-based hobbies. And then there’s train watching. Instead of keeping an eye out for something in the sky, “railfans” anticipate the chugging of cargo, passenger and freight trains on railroad tracks — making note of the cart styles, whistles and bells.

As CNN’s Stephanie Chen explained, “The obsession over railfanning often stems from historical and technological intrigue. Trains not only represent a romanticized era, they have been central to American economic growth and commerce across the country, historians say.”

The hobby has found new life in the age of social media. Virtual Railfan is a dedicated community of train lovers that digitally connect to talk trains: how fast they’re going, what they’re carrying, train jokes — and maybe what’s for dinner. 

The site livestreams hundreds of trains each day, utilizing 77 cameras at 47 locations in 22 states and four countries. Anywhere from eight to 11 million viewers watch the cameras a month; sometimes they’ll catch a wedding proposal, or witness a crime. Some end up visiting favorite train stations in person.

As Quincy, Illinois, gets ready to be that state’s first Virtual Railfan location, St. Louis on the Air host Sarah Fenske interviewed two local train enthusiasts about their devotion to the activity. One of them, Bob Cox, is the Virtual Railfan station manager for La Plata, Missouri. The site is wildly popular with railfans, and Cox has become such a beloved figure, he even has a bobblehead made in his honor

Also joining the program was Richard Cain, a meteorologist at KHQA in Quincy, and a train enthusiast who helped bring Virtual Railfan to that city. When Cain found out about Virtual Railfan, he was enthralled with the La Plata stream. 

At first, he joined the live stream for professional reasons, using it as a weather cam to see if the radar matched what was happening on the ground. “And it started growing on me,” he said, referencing the tight-knit community of railfans engaging with each other. 

Late last year, he brought it to the attention of Holly Cain, executive director of See Quincy, who started the process of getting a camera installed at the Quincy Amtrak station. It will officially start streaming in the next couple of weeks. 

Wednesday’s program also included comments from Cain and Mike Cyr, who is the founder, president and CEO of Virtual Railfan.

Listen to the full discussion: 

Could St. Louis be the next Virtual Railfan site? Cox says it could be a good fit.

“It would be the same thing, just like putting apples and apples together,” he said, citing the success Virtual Railfan has had in La Plata and Kansas City, Missouri. 

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.