Welcome to Railfan Centralia!

Centralia, Illinois - One of the best railfanning hotspots
you never heard of


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Partial Update, 5/2/2020  NOTE: We are in the middle of changing servers. Some images may be missing.


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Centralia at a Glance
  • Railroads: CN, NS, BNSF, Amtrak
  • Trains per Day: 35-40
  • Amtrak Service: 6 trains
  • Busiest Day: Thursday
  • Busiest Time: Evenings
  • Scanner Freqs: 160.190, 160.830, 160.245, 161.340, 161.100

Railfanning In Centralia

Quick Overview

  • Recent PTC upgrades significantly changed signalling patterns (see below).
  • Radio frequencies changed in 2017 for BNSF and NS (see below).
  • Traffic averages 35-40 trains a day.
  • One-third of the daily trains are between midnight and 6 a.m.
  • NS is primarily automobile manufacturing support, and COFC.
  • BNSF is mostly coal.
  • CN is 5-to-1 northbounds due to Edgewood Cutoff.
  • Southbound Amtrak Illinois trains are usually an hour or more late.

Railroads in Centralia proper are CN, BNSF and NS ex-IC, CB&Q and SOU, respectively - with three daily Amtraks each way on the CN. 35-40 trains per day, weighted towards weekdays. A BNSF switch job runs M-F and influences traffic patterns midday. Saturdays can be good days, but traffic is variable on Sundays and often light.

There are three tracks through downtown, with an interlocked crossing controlling the action on the south end where the BNSF and NS cross both CN tracks, controlled by the CN dispatcher. Downtown, the westernmost track is the BNSF, shared by the NS. The other two tracks are CN, with the middle "#1" and the easternmost "#2", #2 being the mainline. #1 is actually an 11-mile-long siding, the nomenclature a vestige of a more prosperous time when the IC main really was double track. The Amtrak station has a convenient parking lot with unobstructed viewing.

The BNSF/NS track is restricted to 20 mph, as it is within yard limits through the entire downtown area. The CN #2 track is good for 45 mph for passenger trains and expediters. NS has a 10 mph curve as they diverge from the BNSF south of the CN diamonds, so NS trains will creep through town.

Centralia's Railroads

NS has 35% of the business passing through, usually around 12 trains a day. Their line is the ex-Southern Railway line between St. Louis and Princeton, IN (Louisville, KY area). NS trains run north-south on the BNSF through downtown. NS trains have to get permission (via radio) from both BNSF and CN dispatchers before coming into town. Trains are predominately containers and autos/auto parts, with some mixed-commodity haulage. NS has a local based here, a weekday-only operation going east Tuesday and Thursday, and then west the other three days.

CN's share of activity has dropped to under 30% of the daily total. Train makeup is varied grain, chemicals, lumber, TOFC/COFC, and the infrequent crude oil train. One issue affecting traffic is that Centralia is bypassed by the newer Edgewood Cutoff (about 20 miles east of town), so a lot of through traffic goes that way. Conversely, when there is maintenance work on the Cutoff, CN traffic through Centralia will double or more.

CN had a big car shop south of town, recently closed. It will appear on satellite views to be a sizable yard, which it was at one time. You may notice the turntable and roundhouse in the aerial view. No major locomotive servicing is done in Centralia, although CN has a paint shop here.

BNSF traffic through Centralia has increased recently, predominately coal. BNSF has a small yard northwest of downtown. They have a M-F switch job based out of the yard handling the business in the industrial park south of town, and during grain season CN runs an occasional interchange train over the crossover south of the Amtrak station. BNSF currently operates two daily coal trains over the crossover, one each way (the "Baldwin") which crosses over to/from the CN. Important to note: if you use a scanner, railroad west on the BNSF is southeast. This can be very confusing.

There are two crossovers to the south of the station, one from BNSF to the CN siding, and another from the CN siding to the main. Both of these crossovers are hand-thrown, are not signal controlled and play no role in signal indications at the interlocking. These are used for southbounds from BNSF to CN, and northbounds from CN to BNSF, which includes coal trains, the weekly transfer between locals, and seasonal grain transfer traffic. Use of the CN crossover for CN mainline trains would be very unusual.

Amtrak runs six trains north and south on the CN, the City of New Orleans, #58/59, and the state-sponsored Illini/Saluki service between Chicago and Carbondale, train #'s 390-393. The state trains currently consist of a new Siemens Charger and seven cars - four or five revenue cars and the others filler for grade crossing activation. These tend to be full between Chicago and Champaign on weekends, with ridership levels influenced by college calendars. The City of New Orleans schedule runs close to the Illinois Central's pre-Amtrak Panama Limited overnight timetable, and offers sleeper accommodations between Chicago and New Orleans.

NOTE: The state-sponsored southbound trains, #391 and #393, now tend to run 45 to 75 minutes late consistently. This is apparently due to recent speed restrictions imposed by CN on the lightweight equipment. #58/59 with regular long-distance equipment is not subject to these limits and tends to be more or less on time in Centralia, of course subject to Amtrak's usual schedule variability.

Other Area Railroads

On older maps or online maps with old data (such as Bing) you might notice a line going to the southwest. It is a former MP (ex-Missouri-Illinois RR) connection, and has been gone for 30 years. It used to connect with the C&EI (now UP) in Salem.

Seven miles north of Centralia is the CSX, an ex-B&O line. This major-appearing mainline was taken out of service indefinitely starting in 2015. This line crossed the BNSF in Shattuc, the CN in Odin and the UP in Salem, all at grade level. These diamonds were removed in 2016.

The UP (ex-MP, ex-C&EI) is about 12 miles east of Centralia. They have a small yard in Salem being upgraded for intermodal, and cross the CSX at grade just east of downtown. The traffic is moderate at 20-30 trains a day.

Roughly 14 miles south in Ashley, the Evansville Western has a branchline (truncated ex-L&N main to St. Louis) with a train that runs to the line's end at Okawville when the grain elevators there or in Addieville or Nashville have loads to ship. When in operation it runs three days a week, out Monday, in Tuesday, etc. When the train is large it usually draws CSX power.

Other Area Railfan Interest

National Railway Equipment (NRE) is located in Mt. Vernon, 20 miles southeast of Centralia. A distant descendant of American Locomotive Company ("ALCO"), they are most recently known as the manufacturer of the fuel-efficient "Genset" locomotive. Located southeast of downtown Mt. Vernon, they can be easily spotted from public streets by their acres and acres of retired locomotives and locomotive parts.

NRE also generates a little bit of interesting locomotive traffic through Centralia, mostly incoming deliveries of retired units, or locomotives beyond repair such as the export locomotive shown here. (It was dropped from a crane during delivery.) NRE's outgoing shipment of Gensets or other rebuilt locomotives is via UP's ex-C&EI line.

Aside from NRE's occasional odd locomotive delivery, CN ships the unusual from time to time, usually as non-operating trailing units in the consist. Recent eye-catchers have been F- and E-units in transit to or from a shortline, and even a very rare Bombardier (nee Montreal Locomotive Works, nee Alco) HR412W.

Interpreting the Signals

If you have not visited Centralia since 2016... well, things have changed. Significantly.

Signaling on all lines changed in 2017 due to PTC implementation. On CN, the interlocking signals south of Calumet St. remain approach-lit with a slight change: the signals now illuminate on the CN side in advance of crossing movements on the BNSF/NS. There are new constant-lit intermediate signals on both tracks north of downtown for northbound traffic. Both display flashing yellow (advance approach) when there is no activity, other indications are predictive of train movements.

Signals on the BNSF and NS are constant-lit. There is a "D"-placarded ("distant") signal in front of the station which is a fixed yellow in both directions and never changes - ignore it. The former Type SA searchlight for northbound trains with just the red and lunar (restricting) indications was replaced by a double-mount with 3-color heads; the lower head put into operation on 9/3/2018 after being "bagged" for seven months. Flashing-red-over-red (restricting) will be immediate advance notice for a BNSF movement. Red-over-green (diverging clear) or red-over-yellow* (diverging approach) indicates junction alignment for NS westbounds. The southbound BNSF signal controlling the IC crossing is now reversed from prior practice: lunar indicating BNSF, yellow for NS.

* - Indicates the signal for NS westbounds at the east end of Shattuc siding is red (stop). If the westbound train at the downtown junction is not on the tail of another NS train, then the red-over-yellow is confirmation of a meet at Shattuc, predictive of an eastbound movement through town.

A standalone two-indication signal (red and yellow) just to the south of the station controlling trains entering the CN from the BNSF was removed on 2/10/2017.

If you spend any time around the interlocking where 13th Street makes the turn onto Wabash Ave., just west of the BNSF and NS connections, you might notice a three-aspect color signal on the NS facing into the interlocking, on the backside of the junction control signal. It is an ABS signal for the block. It remains green unless there is a train (either direction) between Centralia and Walnut Hill. NS has installed PTC on this line, although ABS and warrants remain the signalling protocol.

Radio Information

Same thing goes for radio - BNSF and NS frequencies have changed.

CN - 161.190. Little advance notice on CN trains due to CTC, but all NS and BNSF trains have to talk to the CN dispatcher ("CN RTC Homewood Desk 3") on this frequency, generally before you see them since trains cannot wait for the junction in town due to crossing blockage. Amtrak is on this freq. Two hotbox detectors can be heard, one just south of Irvington and another north of Odin, the latter requiring a pretty good antenna to hear from Centralia. Yard activity on 161.280.

BNSF - 161.340 & 161.100. Also yard activity on 161.160 and 161.460. NS trains are required to contact the BNSF DS ("Beardstown Dispatcher") for warrants on 161.340 before calling CN for permission to cross, and frequently the too-busy BNSF DS may take a while before answering. Line is ABS and requires track warrants.

NS - 160.830 Road (Ch. 1) and 160.245 Dispatcher (Ch. 2). Lots of radio activity with some NS crews a little too chatty (railroad CB?), so there's plenty of advance notice. NS's line is also ABS and requires track warrants. There is a hotbox detector near Walnut Hill, southeast of Centralia. Common control points or siding locations heard on the radio are New Baden (40 mi. west), Shattuck (4 mi. west) and Golden Gate (near Fairfield, about 50 mi. east-southeast), as well as Mt. Vernon. The former road channel, 160.950, is not active in Centralia.

CSX- 160.320, 160.230.

UP - 160.410, 160.470.