Train fans delight in new live-feed webcam in Detroit Lakes

Northern Transcom Railcoms, which manages the train webcams in Detroit Lakes, Perham, Wadena, St. Cloud, and elsewhere now has over 10,000 subscribers on its YouTube channel.

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A screenshot from the live webcam feed at the Washington Avenue crossing on Thursday.

DETROIT LAKES — Detroit Lakes has joined a half-dozen other area cities that have a 24-hour live-feed webcam focused on train traffic.

And it turns out you can learn a lot by paying attention to the train traffic that passes through town, according to Rich Luth of Perham, who operates the Northern Transcon Railcams - Otter Tail Channel.

For instance, he said that in Wadena, the webcam video shows that, over roughly the past year, some 260 vehicles have stopped on the railroad tracks for at least 10-15 seconds as they were crossing the tracks.

The city of Wadena is actively pursuing a whistle-free “quiet zone” for trains going through town. In spite of some preliminary signs put up by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Wadena has not yet officially achieved that quiet zone status, so BNSF locomotives continue to sound their horns as they go through Wadena.

But virtually no BNSF locomotives blow their horns going through Detroit Lakes, because that rail corridor does have “quiet zone” status going through town. And no cars have been seen stopping on the BNSF tracks in Detroit Lakes, at least in the three weeks since the webcam has been operational at the Washington Avenue crossing.


Sometimes you can see more than you bargained for on those webcams. Not too long ago, Luth was hearing reports of a train on fire as it went down the tracks. He got the webcam video and realized that it was not a fire so much as an equipment malfunction, and was able to let BNSF dispatchers know what was going on.

The webcam in Perham has helped solve several crimes, including stolen vehicles and a robbery, that resulted in Luth receiving an appreciation plaque from the Perham Police Department, he said.

The Detroit Lakes webcam is sponsored by Jeff Janke, co-owner of Janke’s Sew and Vac, and it is located on a three-story brick building at the corner of Main Street and Washington Avenue. The webcam is focused on the double-track Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway corridor at the Washington Avenue crossing.

“It’s working real good,” Janke said. “Some people are even using it to check the weather in town.”

Train fans love the webcams, both for watching trains and tracking locomotives and train cars by their identification numbers, he said. “There’s a lot more to this than what you may think,” he said. There are often multiple people viewing the Detroit Lakes webcam at the same time — the highest he’s noticed is 16 at once, Janke said.

Not convinced? Northern Transcom Railcoms — which manages the train webcams in Detroit Lakes, Perham, Wadena, Richville, Brainerd, Little Falls, and St. Cloud — now has over 10,000 subscribers on its YouTube channel, Luth said. He started with 78 subscribers on April 15, 2018.

In addition to a lot of local interest, Luth said train fans tune in from all over the country, and even the world, to watch the live feeds.

A lot of the foreign interest comes from Great Britain, where trainspotting is quite popular, but train fans are everywhere, and other viewers come from all over Europe, Africa, Brazil, the Middle East, even Russia and Ukraine, he said. “We go out to well over 35 countries,” he said.


The Northern Transcon Railcams - Otter Tail Channel has a team of about 20 expert volunteers who man the YouTube channel and log and keep an eye on the trains passing through Detroit Lakes, Luth said.

“They keep an updated log of every train that passes, including details such as the direction of the train, the road number, if visible, the cargo it is carrying, the number of cars, and even the number of axles it has,” Luth said.

Northern Transcon Railcams also has an extensive database of over 18,350 Nightbot commands built over the past five years on its YouTube channel. This collection has information on every BNSF, Amtrak, Otter Tail Valley Railroad and every other railway company engine number that passes their cam, he added.

In addition, the site offers current weather conditions in every single county in the United States, just by asking.

The site also features one of the best public railroad logbooks anywhere, he added, thanks to the constant work of those expert volunteers and chat monitors.

“The neat thing about the log, come about 6 a.m. every day, you can see three or four people working on the log at the same time, you can see their cursors moving, logging trains that went through from midnight to 6 a.m.,” he said.

“That log is very impressive, it is one of the most impressive logs you will find anywhere,” he said. “It takes a lot of dedication to fill that log in — I put in 18 hours a day logging and managing all this.”

The webcam system actually came about after the federal government unceremoniously locked train fans out of the previous system — the Advanced Train Control System — they had been using to track trains.


“I’m an old Ham radio operator,” Luth said. “I was convinced to put a radio in that picked up the signals from trains that went by. That was hooked up to a display that would show trains from Fargo to the Twin Cities.”

Some train enthusiasts put a lot of money into the system to pursue their hobby, until “the (feds) jumped in and changed frequencies, then encoded it so we can’t hear it at all,” he said “So we lost ATCS, we can’t tell where the trains are.

"But they can’t take away cameras from us,” he added. The new system is better in a lot of ways for hobbyists, he said, so it’s working out pretty well.

In the future, Luth would like to add another webcam in Detroit Lakes, to capture the area where the Burlington Northern tracks cross the Canadian Pacific tracks. Right now only Richville cameras are capturing Canadian Pacific trains in this area.

Bowe covers the Becker County Board and the court system for the Tribune, and handles the opinion pages for the Tribune and Focus. As news editor of both papers, he is the go-to contact person for readers and the general public: breaking or hard news tips, story ideas, questions and general feedback should be directed to him.
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