SAN BERNARDINO — Two hours before daybreak, David Giglio, 22, and Frank Keller, 22, had set up camp with a dozen other hunters near the center of town. Now it was 10:30 a.m. and they'd had few good shooting opportunities.
Suddenly, Keller spotted prey. "There's green in it," he shouted, causing an excited flurry among the throng. The hunters took aim.
The place: The outskirts of the Amtrak train station.
The prey: Five coupled train engines creeping into the yard.
The hunters: Train-watchers, also called railfans, armed with 35-millimeter cameras and zoom lenses.
What excited Giglio, Keller and the others about this pack was that the third and fourth engines bore the distinctive green coloring of the Burlington Northern Railroad, surrounded by three yellow Santa Fe Railroad engines.
"This will make my whole day," Giglio said, explaining that it's unusual to see the St. Paul, Minn.-based Burlington Northern in the area, especially coupled with Santa Fe's.
Still, he couldn't help imagining an even more exciting sight.
"If it was four Burlingtons alone, you would see this place go nuts," said Giglio, a photography student at Cerritos College. "The phone booths would be packed with people phoning their friends. We probably would chase them (the engines) all the way to Needles."
Railfans, as they prefer to be called, have been creeping up for a closer look at trains since the 1800s. They have been considered bothersome pests at best by the railroads, pilferers at worst.
But the Santa Fe and the railfans recently reached a compromise of sorts: The railroad eased some prohibitions against close-up photographing of the trains on Santa Fe property in exchange for a promise from the railfans to report acts of vandalism and thievery that they witness.
Rock-throwers still plague the railroads in addition to burglars who break into automobiles that are being transported and make off with stereo systems and other parts.
Even with the agreement, however, the railroad still forbids unauthorized access to high-density areas such as railyards, Santa Fe spokesman Mike Martin said.
"We're trying hard to make it a two-way street, without being overrun by the fans," he explained. "They have to recognize that we're a business and that we have to answer to our stockholders and not just them. There are thousands of fans in the L.A. area alone, and we can't accommodate them dropping down on us all at once."
He also emphasized that railfans are instructed only to report incidents, not to attempt to halt criminal activity themselves.
Giglio hopes it's the beginning of a new, friendlier relationship with the railroads.
"I've reported incidents in the past," he said, "but I've also been spread-eagled on the ground by (railroad) special agents."
In San Diego, railfans and the Santa Fe have jointly formed a group called Railwatch.
"Railwatch has been very helpful in alerting us of incidents," Martin said, adding that the railroad would like to see groups formed in Los Angeles and elsewhere in California.
The Southern Pacific Railroad does not share the Santa Fe's enthusiasm, however.
"We don't allow people anywhere near our trains," said spokesman John Tierney. "If they want to stand on a mountain some place and take pictures, fine. But as far as policing the area, that's what we have special agents for."
The Union Pacific, the area's third major railroad, seems to take the middle ground.
"We appreciate the position of railfans," spokesman Ray Troyer said. "They help promote railroads in a positive manner. We appreciate hearing of incidents from them--or anyone else. But we don't encourage even casual trespassing. There's always the chance a person might not be that acquainted with railroad operations and might be involved in an accident."
True railfans aren't discouraged by the lack of backing from Southern Pacific or Union Pacific.
They coordinate their activities with such equipment as scanners to listen to the radio transmissions of trains and walkie talkies to communicate the approach of special trains (or of special agents). And they maintain a network of contacts in different areas that would do the KGB proud.
"If our government could gather as much information throughout the world as these guys do, no one could bother us," the Santa Fe's Martin said.
Explained Giglio: "You have to be able to have cooperation and communication with each other if you are going to see the unusual rather than the mundane."
Railfans, like most obsessed aficionados, are hard-pressed to explain what drives them, though most admit they never got over the childhood awe that a locomotive can produce.
As a teen-ager, Keller--now an engineering student at Cerritos College and a sergeant in the Army Reserves--couldn't afford a car, so he spent a lot of Saturday nights sitting by the railroad tracks near his house.
Giglio's father was a model-train buff. "He would go out and look at (real) trains to get their paint schemes," Giglio said, "and I'd go along too."