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LOS ANGELES (AP) — They stand within feet of speeding locomotives, climb signal poles to photograph passing trains and try to befriend conductors and engineers.
Passionate train buffs call themselves railfans, but they are derisively known as "foamers" by critics who say the hobbyists foam at the mouth at the sight of a train while reveling in the minutiae of engine types, timetables and whistle sounds.
Most rail companies have long regarded them as nuisances and now railfans fear their access may be further limited with news that a Metrolink engineer was exchanging text messages with young rail buffs before running a red light and plowing into a freight, killing 25.
"After this there'll be questions as to what the relationship should be between railfans and employees," said Jim Wrinn, editor of Trains magazine, who estimates there are several hundred thousand train fans across the country.
Fascination with trains is a worldwide phenomenon that dates back to the original iron horses that helped create the Industrial Revolution. In the U.S., the railroad has captivated the public imagination long before the first steam engines stampeded across the Great Plains, bringing settlers to the West.
Train fans today have clubs, Web sites and magazines. They listen to railroad frequencies on scanners, take train watching picnics and organize trips by rail. They memorize schedules, film trains in motion and even don rail-related garb.
"Trains are massive, huge, loud, powerful," said Todd Clark of Canyon Country, who streams rail video on his Web site trainorders.com. "It's kind of neat to watch these beasts in operation."
John Almeida, of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, is a typical railfan. He sets up five video cameras at different angles along a stretch of railroad near his house and posts online movies of trains zooming by at 110 mph.
Their pastime, however, has come under increasing scrutiny in the wake of 9/11 security concerns. Buffs are now often questioned about why they're taking photos and watching trains.
"It's been a lot tougher," said Russ Johnson, a Stockton railfan who's studying to be a brakeman — not for a job, just for his hobby. "People get hassled even if they're on public property, not even railroad property."
Rail companies say they vigorously prosecute trespassers, railfans or not.
"We feel fortunate that people have such passion and enthusiasm for our industry," said Gary Fease, spokesman for Jacksonville, Fla.-based railroad CSX. "But anyone trespassing on our property is putting themselves in great physical danger."
Some companies have embraced fans in limited ways, using their photos in corporate calendars, taking reports on derailments or cars on the tracks and even enlisting them as unofficial security patrols.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe launched a Citizens for Rail Security program two years ago, a sort of neighborhood watch in which railfans, who know the tracks as well as employees, report anomalies such as damaged equipment or suspicious persons.
"They would write to us unsolicited with their concerns," said BNSF spokeswoman Lena Kent. "So we reached out to them."
About 8,000 people have joined the program, which does not provide special access, but recognizes their contributions. So far, the company has termed it a success, Kent said, although she could not provide any specific results.
With the Metrolink disaster, which apparently followed a string of text messages engineer Robert Sanchez exchanged with teen train buffs, railfans now wonder if friendships they've struck up with railroad employees could also be in jeopardy.
"Railroad employees may not be as friendly to railfans," said Mike Huggins, a Phoenix railfan. "Crews may report more suspicious activity about us."
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