Chen photographs, learns about trains, develops passion for conducting


When the railroad lights start flashing and the ground starts vibrating at Encinitas Station, pedestrians are quick to move away from the tracks as they hear the train’s blaring horn grow increasingly louder.

Kerry Chen (11), however, is ready.

He’s been ready for a while, with his tripod and Canon camera set up on the side of the railroad station for almost half an hour. He didn’t need the station’s intercom to tell him which train was coming—he’d already committed the entire Amtrak passenger train schedule to memory. On this sunny October morning, the crossing bells signaled the arrival of the Amtrak 562. But he already knew that.

He presses record, double-checking to make sure the frame is right before shifting his focus to the train speeding towards the station in front of him. The train’s bells and whistles are deafening, yet Chen steps closer, nearing the yellow warning paint at the edge of the station, only a couple feet away from the train soaring past him.

The passenger train lasts seven seconds, and then it’s over. Chen presses stop on his camera, packs up his things, and drives home.

He considers it a successful day.

For Chen, any day in which he sees a train is a successful day. As a self-described train enthusiast, Chen dedicates most of his time to seeing trains as often as possible. From visiting local stations in Escondido to travelling to entirely different lines in Bakersfield, Chen’s love for trains knows no boundaries.

“I’ve gone pretty far to see some trains,” Chen said. “I would drive for at least five hours just to see some trains on another line.”

Though Chen has seen countless trains in his lifetime, he can still clearly recount the day that started it all: the day his parents bought him a Thomas the Tank Engine toy.

“That was the moment I knew I liked trains,” Chen said.

But while many kids grew out of their Thomas days, Chen’s interest in trains only continued to grow. Eventually, Chen swapped out his toy trains to see bigger, real-life trains, as his love for trains quickly began to surpass that of a typical hobby.

“I found it pretty fascinating as a kid, and I still find it fascinating today,” Chen said.

Chen knows the southern California Amtrak systems inside and out, memorizing the passenger trains’ schedules on the days he goes trainspotting to optimize his chances of seeing and recording them. Though Chen enjoys trains of all shapes and sizes, the railroads in San Diego carry mostly passenger trains. Because of this, he has to travel lengthy distances to see his favorite type of train, freights, which can often be difficult to spot because freight companies do not release the schedules of their trains.

“I find freights pretty fascinating because the average length is around 200 cars long, but they don’t have a fit schedule at all,” Chen said. “So I usually just wait in one area and hope that some come along.”

Most of the time, though, Chen knows that the wait is worth it, since he will usually see at least one freight train. On a typical train trip, Chen never forgets to bring his camera with him so that he can film his train spottings and post them on his Amtrak fan accounts on YouTube and Instagram.

Chen started posting train videos online in June of 2013 and since then, he has posted over 600 videos and gained over 5,000 subscribers on YouTube and almost 1,000 followers on Instagram. But for Chen, it isn’t about the number of followers or likes he gets. What matters to him are the people he meets and the friends he makes within the train community.

“Social media has allowed me to attract other people who also like trains as much as I do,” Chen said. “It makes me feel like I’m not alone and that there are other people like me out there.”

Throughout the past couple of years of posting his train videos on YouTube, Chen found and identified with a group of fellow train enthusiasts who have embarked on this train journey with him.

“Some people in the community call us trainspotters, but most of us call ourselves railfans,” Chen said.

Though Chen doesn’t mind a quiet day of trainspotting alone, he much rather prefers seeing trains with his fellow train lovers.

“Sometimes they tell me they’re going to a location and if I’m interested in meeting up I go see them,” said Chen. “It’s nice [trainspotting with them] because I get to meet new people, and it’s always great meeting new people.”

Chen’s full-fledged passion for trains prompted him to immerse himself into the topic completely. His knowledge of train history and mechanics has grown vast through his time spent visiting train museums, attending model train shows and doing research on trains in his free time.

Throughout the years, Chen’s passion for trains has left the station and followed him into the comfort of his own home as he has collected several pieces of mechanical equipment over time, as well as a model train track and set.

“I have an HO-scale track laid out on a table at my house,” Chen said. “I have about six or seven model trains. Model railroading is an expensive hobby, but I still find it pretty cool.”

Chen has also become familiar with the equipment that train conductors use on a daily basis.

“I have a scanner radio, which looks like a walkie talkie that you can only listen into,” Chen said. “I punch in the code that’s being used in that area whenever I want to hear some conductors communicate about running the trains.”

The vast amount of time spent seeing and learning about trains has turned Chen’s passion for trains into a possible career as a train engineer.

“I’ve always wanted to operate a train since I was a kid,” Chen said. “I’ve done extensive research, and it’s not a typical nine-to-five job. The job would require you to be on call 24/7 and you have to be up all night. It’s not as easy as people think it is.”

Chen says he plans on majoring in mechanics or electrical engineering in college and then going to railroading school.

Because for Chen, trains have become more than just a passing hobby or a momentary obsession.

By intentionally choosing to wear an Amtrak t-shirt to school on most days, by planning mini-vacations based on which train stations are nearby and by attending annual model train shows, Chen has made trains into a lifestyle, a community and a home.