While Metra commuters file onto their usual trains at Ogilvie Transportation Center, Fred Van Dorpe frantically weaves from one platform to the next with a hand-held video camera strapped to his palm.
In a matter of minutes, the 20-year-old from Chicago captures the engine of one train and the brake system of another, then drops to his knees for a panoramic angle of rail cars leaving the station with a city skyline backdrop.
"This is a lot of action," Van Dorpe shouts excitedly over the trains' deafening hums and bells. "It all adds up on YouTube."
Van Dorpe is one of many young train enthusiasts reinventing the hobby of rail watching, a pastime once reserved for old-timers and eccentric transportation buffs. With the help of Internet tools including Facebook, YouTube and Flickr, crowds of teens and 20-somethings meet online and gather with lawn chairs at dusk at otherwise sleepy stations across Chicago's suburbs.
There they collect video footage and still images that draw thousands of online views. Some of the images have been picked up by railroad lines and popular rail magazines, which pay hundreds of dollars for unique shots. Other rail watchers are making hundreds of dollars a month posting videos of trains on YouTube.
"I know some of these kids are making more money than I do," Steve Barry, editor of Railfan & Railroad magazine, said with a chuckle. The New Jersey-based publication has 18,000 subscribers.
In acknowledgment of the younger audience, the magazine is launching a new app next month that will allow train watchers to pass along real-time information about trains traveling the country.
"It's always good to have young kids come into the hobby," Barry said.
For years, Chicago and its suburbs have attracted train enthusiasts who revel in the many railroad lines that travel local tracks. Rail watchers, often members of long-standing model railroad clubs, bond over sightings of trains painted special colors to mark historic railroad anniversaries; chugging through snow, rain and other weather; or derailing for unexpected reasons.
From the window of Elijah's, her Elmhurst coffee shop, Laura Giese has admired the passion of the rail watchers, who start setting up their chairs along the tracks after the sun goes down.
"I would have never thought anyone would be at all interested in watching trains, but it's this whole thing," said Giese, whose employees have become accustomed to customers who say they've driven miles in search of certain train cars.
And more recently, Giese has noticed that the train-loving crowds are not just retirees, but often much younger.
Stephen Schmidt, an 18-year-old from Wood Dale, heads out several times each week with his video camera to capture footage of interesting-looking trains. He learns about noteworthy incoming trains through Facebook groups where people he's never met post updates about cars that have passed through their towns.
Sometimes Facebook friends meet at the same station — the railroad park in Rochelle, or the stations in Franklin Park or Blue Island — where they bring food to grill and sleeping bags for overnight viewing and photo-taking parties.
"It really makes great friendships," Schmidt said. "There are a lot more younger people than you would think that are into it."
Chase Gunnoe, 19, of Charleston, W.Va., helps run the railpictures.net website where train enthusiasts view and post footage. He attributes the hobby's appeal to his generation to the immediacy and exposure the technology allows.
Even mediocre photos on the website typically get 300 to 400 views, while more significant or newsworthy ones can attract 3,000 to 4,000 views in 24 hours, Gunnoe said.
"The young people are getting into the photography and video aspect because it's instant feedback on what they're doing," Gunnoe said.
The potential for a financial payoff isn't bad, either.
Drayton Blackgrove, of Jackson, Mich., travels to Chicago three times each year to collect footage of trains for a YouTube site he created in 2011.