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Photographing on a Railroad? Just Don't!

Lately, I've heard from many travel photographers, amateurs and professions alike, looking to make images of railroads, their yards, tracks, passenger and freight cars, and locomotives.


Making photographs while on train tracks and in train yards is very dangerous and there is much cause to stay off railroad property, and their tracks:


• It's illegal to be on or very near to railroad tracks for photography without the permission of the railroad which owns and/or uses the tracks. (Many railroads share tracks with other railroads. You need at least the permission of the tracks' owner.)


If you're on railroad property without permission (Get it in writing.) it's considered “criminal trespass.” Trespassing anywhere on railroad property, including tracks, bridges, buildings and signal towers, is illegal. Violators are subject to a citation for trespassing and it's normally accompanied by a hefty fine, which in the US is as high as $10K though often the fine is more like $2K. To me, even that smaller amount is more than I want to pay.


Railroads like the Union Pacific and Amtrak will also seek removal from publication, any photograph or video which was made while the photographer and/or the subject of the photograph was trespassing on their property.


• It's dangerous, very dangerous! Trains can't stop quickly to avoid people or vehicles on the tracks. In fact, it can take a mile or more for a train to make an emergency stop. An optical illusion makes it hard to determine a train's distance from you - and its speed.


• The average train overhangs the track by at least three feet. You don't have to be directly on the tracks to be hit by an oncoming train.


• Trains moving at high speed induce a vortex which can suck people into the train if they are standing too close to it. You don't have to be directly on the tracks to be literally sucked into an oncoming train.


• Tracks which appear safe because they look abandoned or inactive are rarely so, and are still dangerous, plus it's still illegal to be on or very near them without permission. Every year people are killed by trains running on “abandoned” or “inactive” tracks which aren't.


• It's highly possible a train attempting to avoid a photography shoot on or near the tracks will derail. Derailments often cause severe property damage, and can kill or severely injure many people. It can cause deadly chemical spills. If on a bridge, chemicals from a derailed train can pollute a river below killing large numbers of wildlife and eliminate it as a source of drinking or agriculture water for years. A photographer causing such a derailment due to trespass would be legally and morally responsible for any injuries or deaths, derailments, chemical spills, property damage, delays in shipping, etc. caused by it.


• The more photo shoots which are held on railroad tracks and on railroad property, the more others will imitate those reckless actions. Let's face it, photographers will imitate other photographers. We must educate all photographers about the dangers of railroad photography from tracks and yards.


Professional photographers must educate clients about this kind of photography when approached to do it, and talk about the problems of shooting on or around railroad tracks and its safety and legal issues. Professional photographers are the ones ultimately responsible for the photo shoot. If anything happens, it is your business, your finances, and your name on the line.


If you think I'm overstating these warnings, think again. The U.S. Federal Railway Administration (FRA) reports about 500 trespassing deaths along railroad tracks each year. Moreover, photographers die making photographs on train tracks!


• Cathy Carlisle an art teacher for Saint Francis High School of Sacramento, California photographing a train, while standing on the tracks of another was struck from behind killing her.


• 50-year-old Gregory Duncraft, photographing an approaching passenger train near Kokiri, New Zealand, failed to move out of the way of an oncoming train in time, despite two long warning blasts by the train's engineer, as he was busy checking images on his camera's rear LCD.


• 27-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones on the set of the movie “Midnight Rider” outside Doctortown, GA was killed by a train while working on a narrow train trestle over a river.


• Jonathan D. Eade was killed by a train near Sedalia, MO, trespassing on a narrow railroad bridge conducting a photo-shoot on the tracks, by an Amtrak train which came around a “blind curve.”

For additional information check the Operation Lifesaver website.


I've made great landscape railroad shots from a distance, and some close up from outside yards and from overhead bridges. I've also made some fun shots at great railroad museums, like the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. With creativity, any good photographer can safety make fantastic images from vantage points like these, which are safe.


I've also shot railroad images for travel articles about train travel, such as Amtrak's Auto Train, on railroad property, right at the tracks, with permission of the railroad owning the equipment, tracks, and yards, and with the cooperation of their operational and security personnel, who were with me onsite ensuring everyone's safety and security. It's the only safe way to work at or near railroad tracks.


Making photographs on railroad property without permission and cooperation to ensure everyone's safety is at best irresponsible.

Ned S. Levi is a PPA member and well regarded Author and Travel Photographer. Check out more on this important topic here.

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