The Roundhouse Podcast

5 Railfan Dating Tips and Ideas

Me at the New York Transit Museum. Learning the ways of the rails.

Here I am visiting the New York Transit Museum and learning about the Manhattan Elevated Railway.

5 Railfan Dating Tips

Dating a railfan is a fun and rewarding experience. In five years of dating ‘The Roundhouse’ host Nick Ozorak I have learned the ways of a railfan. Now I want to share my experience and thoughts to help my fellow significant others through the cross ties (see what I did there?).

1. There is gossip in the railfan community.

Say the words "Open Door Policy" to your significant other and see if it gets a reaction.

Say the words “Open Door Policy” to your railfan and see if it gets a reaction.

You might not be aware of this (or your railfan stays away from it) but it exists. Due to the historic nature of trains, a lot of discussion is dedicated to the movements and preservation efforts of locomotives. This can result in gossip and possible drama in the community. There are usually disagreements about how something should be preserved, what should be preserved, and when an item is scrapped (this is a terrible and frightening word).

What you can do is be a good listener. Try to understand their perspective. After listening to a lot of railfan talk, you will even start to form your own opinions. You will know when this happens because you will get upset over something not just because of your railfan’s feelings, but because of your own.

2. Your significant other will disappear.

Crowds mingle around the steam locomotives at Train Festival 2011.

Crowds mingle around the steam locomotives at Train Festival 2011.

Don’t worry, as this isn’t as bad as it sounds. A special locomotive and/or train is coming to town, and your railfan wants to see it. Expect to get a phone call telling you just that. You have to be ready for anything, since spontaneity is part of the railfan culture. Some railfans have radios that follow railroad crew conversations while others go online to check the status of the train, but timing on the railroad isn’t fully precise.

Train chasing is like a sport: railfans map out good locations on the line to get photographs and see the train pass. They will race the train to get to these spots before their opponents do. It can be either exhilarating or excruciatingly slow, depending on the train’s speed. It can be an all-day affair. Your railfan might not care if you come with them, but I highly recommend you do at least once.

3. You have to give construction permits

The beginnings of Nick's layout. It's now in our living room.

The beginnings of Nick’s layout. It’s now in our living room.

Not all railfan’s are model railroaders, though many are. Model railroad gauges include: G (Garden), O (Gauge Zero, smaller than gauge 1), S (half of ‘1 Gauge’, not as popular at O or HO), HO (half O), N (small), Z (very small). Your railfan might want to build a layout somewhere in your house or apartment. They may already have track plans drawn on napkins or computer programs.

Your railfan should be asking you for construction permits. If they do not ask you first, make sure you have a discussion. Building a layout is a big deal because it takes up a lot of time and space. Talk about what room it will be in and what gauge. Have them show you pictures of the gauge and what they are planning. Take interest and participate in the construction, but let them work alone if needed. You might have to put your foot down and say, “Maybe not in the living room, the basement will work better for O scale.” “Yes, you can build a garden railroad, but in the back of the house.” Compromise and adjust. Building together can be a lot of fun!

4. Gifts are tricky.

Nick took this photo at a Kiski Junction Railroad photo charter.

Nick took this photo at a Kiski Junction Railroad photo charter.

Unless your railfan tells you exactly what they want, finding the right gift can be a difficult and slightly frustrating task. Understanding how he or she enjoys the hobby is crucial. Do they like model railroading? Photography, historical reading, train/locomotive tracking, excursions? After you narrow this down, find out what warms their firebox. Is your railfan a steam locomotive enthusiast? If so, what is his/her favorite locomotive and where does it run? Does he/she care most about a specific railroad company? For example, the Fonda Johnstown and Gloversville Railroad is my railfan’s favorite railroad. It is extremely difficult for me to get my hands on anything from this railroad that he does not already own, especially for the time period he focuses on.

Here are some gift ideas:

  1. Ask questions, and a lot of them. Discover what they already have and what they wish they had. If you go to a train show with them, they will show you what they have and what they want.
  2. Give an experience. If your railfan has always wanted to visited a railroad, but has never gotten the chance, plan it. If they really like photography, book a photo charter. Many tourist railroads have these as special events. Additionally, talk with your local shortline or tourist railroad about providing your railfan with a cab ride.
  3. Visit a railfan hotspot. This should be fun both for your railfan and for you…and also not too expensive! An example of this is the town of Altoona, PA. With plenty of rail traffic, Horseshoe Curve, and railroad-themed hotels right by the tracks, you can enjoy this area for a whole weekend. Take a train trip, whether it be a day trip on a tourist railroad or a whole train vacation (I took my railfan to ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad).

Remember that whatever you do end up giving your railfan, it will be appreciated because it shows your love for him/her and acceptance of his/her hobby.

5. You might become a railfan.

Bethany operates a Boston & Maine switcher. Photo by Nick Ozorak.

Here I am operating an S-Gauge Boston & Maine SW9.

It will happen slowly. One day you are an observer, and the next you are found in the bushes with a camera trying to get the perfect shot of a train to upload to You will start listening to The Roundhouse Podcast and checking while wearing a Canadian Pacific #2317 t-shirt. How did this happen? When did this happen!? All I can say is, embrace it.

Talk about what it means to be a railfan to your significant other. Ask if they are comfortable with you discussing their hobby with other people. Some are perfectly fine with it, and others are not. Some railfans feel embarrassed about their hobby, so they prefer not to talk about it outside of the railfan community and hide their passion. There are many reasons behind why, and understanding them is key. Again, creating open communication between you and your railfan is important.

Are there any tips I left out?  Let me know in the comments below. Maybe I will compile another list based off of them! Meanwhile, it is a rainy day here in Pennsylvania, so you know what that means: laying track for the layout!

See you all next time, and remember the roundhouse is our house!


15 thoughts on “5 Railfan Dating Tips and Ideas

  1. Therese Collins

    What an awesome article. You give a railfan mother hope that her son will find the perfect soulmate one day (do you have a 9 year-old sister??) So many of your tips apply to parents of a railfan who are not railfans themselves at first. While we occasionally plan non-train trips (thanks to Nick we were able to enjoy a Disney cruise with his much needed support!), the vast majority of our trips are planned around train activities. All of your gift ideas work for parents of railfans as well. This year was looking bleak as our son initially only wanted 2 things from Santa: $5.2 Billion dollars (to build a railroad of his own, of course) and a time machine to go back as see the height of Steam Rail. Thankfully, I was able to get him to point out some simulation routes he still needed, and Christmas was saved.

  2. Steven

    As for what gifts give to give, I would also recommend a gift card to the local hobby store if they have them. My mom got me one for Christmas and it was the perfect gift. I was able to get what I needed for a small diorama and she didn’t have to worry about grabbing the wrong items.

    Great article!

  3. Greg Robinson

    Very well written.

    The level of thought you put into the article demonstrates the level of thought you’ve put into you experience.

    Great job.

  4. David Patch

    The main thing I would add is that if the relationship progresses to the point at which you’re vacationing together, or even co-habitating, it’s good to make plans but try to build some flexibility into them. For example, during a trip, some railfans may be happy to set aside certain blocks of time in advance for pursuing the hobby and committing to other (touristy) things the rest of the time, but the more serious photography types may want to devote the best-weather periods to chasing trains while being willing to go to the amusement park or the museum or what-have-you on the cloudy days. (The more serious the person is about lighting conditions, the more teeth-gnashing you’ll hear about inconsistent weather forecasting.)

    Similarly, you may want to avoid planning extensive non-railfan activities during the late summer and early fall, which in much of North America typically offers very pleasant photography weather and, later on, fall-foliage opportunities in many areas. Special events like the National Railway Historical Society convention or various excursions may also come into play, but those are potentially things you can do together even if you don’t share the hobby, given that there are often alternative activities available for non-railfan SOs. If your railfan is more interested in model trains and likes to go to swap meets or modeling clinics, be alert to scheduling conflicts with major train shows, such as the National Model Railroad Association’s annual summertime convention and regional meets, when planning events or travel.

  5. Greg

    This is one of the best articles I’ve seen in a long time. It makes me proud to be a railfan! More please! 😀

  6. Kay Dew Shostak

    My husband is a rail fan and so is the husband of my fiction series protagonist. They even buy a house and open a Railfan B&B beside the tracks in north Georgia. Love your article!
    FYI- first book in the series is “Next Stop, Chancey” available in print or ebook on Amazon.
    *our first date was to watch the Circus train unload in Knoxville, TN!

  7. Debra Umlauft

    I met my husband at a railfan slide show party, mutual friends paired us up. I am not a railfan, thought “how long can people really watch a slide show about trains”? 18 years later – who would have thought???

    Gifts? He designs model trains for a living so I give photography/video equipment/supplies or something not related to the choo choos to balance out his brain. My son (16) has been “trainwashed” since birth by the way.

  8. Bethany Cocchi Post author

    Therese, I am so glad you enjoyed the blog. I have an 11 year old little brother who is a railfan himself, and Nick has been fostering his passion. I am sure they would have great rail talks, as he is also interested in the steamies. I hope your son gets to build his train empire one day, even if it is only in model form!

  9. John W Losh II

    Thanks for this! My wife has been adjusting to being married to a railfan ever since Genealogy research made the train bug bite me in 2008. She even somewhat enjoys planning some of our trips around railfan activities, riding excursion trains, etc. She and our daughter (who is big into photography) even snap a rail pic here and there when I’m not with them. And gifts are harder to find as opposed to when I collected die cast cars and car models, classic TV & movie stuff, sports items, but she does good.

    She is now even allowing me the freedom to attend a yearly family reunion that is not really “her thing” alone that allows me even more railfan time on the trips to and from it. It is always over the 4th of July weekend.

    One of my railfan spots on the trip is literally just down the street from where the reunion is held in Willow Springs, Missouri. Last year I got pics and video there, as well as in Cabool, Diggins, and Springfield, Missouri. Details can be found on my blog, and videos on YouTube under John Losh.

  10. Christine Dennis

    Therese Collins, so true. Our son is 18 now and for as long as I can remember we have been working something train related into our summer vacations. He has two sisters so sometimes things get pretty creative. Raft & Rail excursions have been a family favorite. Love the article.

  11. Nick Chillianis

    Back when I was married I had a t-shirt custom printed with the phrase “Him and his damned trains” on the front.

    With all the interest expressed by wives and girlfriends at railfan events I probably could have made a tidy profit had I had extras printed up in different sizes and colors and carried them around in my trunk.

    It never failed to get a laugh.

  12. Michael Fair

    You hit this on the head. I an dating a lady now that doesn’t get the hobby nor the passion. She got mad at me for chasing NS 8098 for my dad after 6 years of tracking and near misses. It’s so therapudic for me to be trackside. I can forget the world and just be myself and trains, well with God, but hey that’s me. I am hoping she can do something cool. Maybe let me see NKP 765 again.

    I am however going to assist the next door neighbors with their layout. His on is a friend of my son, so between dad and son, they know a railfan and modeler. Once that time comes, I will be able to help them.

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