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Hospital Assn. Regional Meetings Hazmat Training. But as he sat making notes about passing freight trains, two police cruisers approached. Over the next five hours, Whitenight -- who works for the police department in nearby Arlington, Tex. Then he identified himself to the officers' supervisor, then a detective from a terrorism task force, then the FBI. They seized his trainspotter's notebook and grilled him about every mark and note in it. They searched his car and took photos of it, inside and out. Finally, he had to a form agreeing never to return to the location known as Tower Whitenight is one of thousands, perhaps millions, of people around the world who spend much of their time observing and photographing railroad operations out of a love for trains.
In general, railro have encouraged these "railfans" as long as they do not trespass or interfere with operations.
Railro even hold contests to use railfan photographs in calendars, and the Association of American Railro has started a Web site to encourage the hobby. But after the FBI announced last month it had credible reports that al Qaeda might be targeting railro, a growing minority of railfans have been questioned and sometimes searched. A handful have even been threatened with arrest, for pursuing a hobby they have embraced for years. Law enforcement officers and train crews have been told to be on the lookout for suspicious characters asking detailed questions about railroad operations, taking notes and taking pictures of trains.
It appears the descriptions of "terrorist" and "railfan" are the same. But he said railro may be a terrorist target, and "we want them to know we're not a soft target. People have to recognize they will be approached, they will be questioned, they will be asked to move on.
Others come from all walks of life.
Some become minutely specialized, such as one group that follows the movements of a single type of diesel locomotive. But most are like Whitenight, 54, a Vietnam-era Navy veteran who simply loves to watch trains. In fact, until the FBI warning, dozens of railfans would regularly gather at Tower 55, an old switching and al tower where main lines of the Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe converge near downtown Fort Worth. A lot of the train crews came to know the group and often waved and smiled.
But now they've been told to report us.
That includes people taking pictures of trains, even if they are doing so legally and are not trespassing on railroad property. Railroad police or local police departments are then dispatched to check out the situation. Reports of suspicious activity are "up ificantly" in the last few weeks, Bromley said.
Norfolk Southern has taken similar steps, although Robert Fort, communications vice president, said railfans won't be subject to arrest unless they are trespassing. Even then police will generally just escort railfans off railroad property, he said. Spokesmen for Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Amtrak and CSX Transportation say they are not specifically targeting photographers but have asked crews to report suspicious activity.
Normally, police who encounter railfans simply check identities and record names and other basic information. But a few encounters go beyond that. Internet chat groups have been filled with stories of conflicts with police and railroad employees, including one Union Pacific conductor who ran up a bank to a public street to shout at a railfan to stop taking pictures of his train.
Jim Satterwhite of Greenville, Tex. It seems a Kansas City Southern Railway locomotive crew had reported his tag. Shortly after the police visit, his wife received a call from a railroad official.
Satterwhite said in an interview that as a year Air Force veteran who now works in the railroad industry, he understands the need for safety and security. But "when do we become prisoners in our own homes? Even before the FBI announcement, railfans said they had noticed an increasing police presence. Joseph Suarez, 17, of Carson, Calif. After his friend showed the deputy a business card advertising train photographs for sale, "that seemed to satisfy him a little bit.
Railfans aren't the only suspicious-looking characters who are merely hobbyists. Planespotters scour the world's airports to record and photograph airplanes. Greek authorities recently arrested several British and Dutch planespotters and charged them with espionage. They were released last week by a judge, who said it was clear they were merely following a hobby. One big difference between planespotters and trainspotters is that it is much easier to get close to the hundreds of thousands of miles of railro, while most airports are fenced off and guarded.
Even as police and the railro view railfans with suspicion, Federal Railroad Administrator Alan Rutter says the railfan network could be "a real value" in spotting truly suspicious activity. Rutter said the government is already taking advantage of the intelligence-gathering abilities of railfans.
In addition to perusing Web sites, an FRA spokesman said, the agency's field staff has begun asking people it knows to be legitimate railfans to report suspicious activity. The railfan intelligence-gathering capability is formidable.
There are numerous Internet chat groups that keep up with almost everything unusual that moves on the railroad, from the Ringling Bros. Those chat sites have been filled for weeks with advice on what to do about the growing police attention. That advice includes a caution that the railro also stress: Don't trespass on railroad property. Many of the postings take a patriotic tone; many others express anger.
But the advice also includes ways to look unthreatening, by wearing a shirt with a locomotive on it, for instance, or carrying railfan magazines to show police officers who never heard of the hobby. Clark said in an interview that, for the most part, railroad police are familiar with the hobby but local police "think it's bizarre that grown men would be out there taking pictures of trains.
He said Whitenight was a good example of how to act: Cooperate, keep cool and understand that "everything passes in time. Most railfans take notes of some kind, often in a language all their own. Whitenight said the police in his case "didn't even recognize our terminology. That person turned out to be a legitimate Swiss railfan.
The FRA also asked Clark to issue a caution on the Web site about being too specific about the location of bridges and tunnels. Most of his subscribers complied immediately, he said. Some railfans are advising their brothers to remain undercover as much as possible, not looking like railfans, keeping the car out of sight, taking one photo and moving to another location. This is becoming known as "guerrilla railfanning. In Eastern Europe years ago, he dodged the secret police to take forbidden railroad pictures.
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