Exposed: The Risks of Photographing on Railroad Tracks

Apr 19, 2016

Topic: Business
Time Investment: 8 minutes
Suggested Product: All-in-One Contract Bundles


How many more news stories will we see before photographers stop the dangerous and illegal practice of photographing on railroad tracks?

We’ve all likely seen some of these (or similar) headlines:

An Adventurous Life Cut Short on the Railroad Tracks
Man Killed by Train During Photo Shoot in Downtown Fresno
Another Person Killed by Train While Filming
Greg Plitt Death is Latest Railroad Stolen-Shot Tragedy
Man Posing for Photo Struck, Killed by Train Near Kalama
Camera Assistant Killed by Train as Crew Films Dream Sequence on Railway Tracks for ‘Midnight Rider’
New Details Surface on Fatal Train Incident With Film Crew
Jeff Ray, Member of ‘Jersey Boys’ Band, Dies After Being Hit by Train Near Seattle

Each headline reports another loss of life while photographing on railroad tracks. Frankly, the number of articles found just related to deaths while photographing on or near railroad tracks is astounding. Add in all the other articles reporting injuries and/or deaths from general trespassing on railroad property and your head will spin.

A national nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing deaths and injuries on railroad tracks and property, as well as collisions at railroad crossings – Operation Lifesaver, Inc. (OLI) – launched the “See Tracks, Think Train” rail safety campaign in 2014 to highlight the dangers of trespassing on the railroad right of way, as well as raise awareness of the tragic results. Why? Because according to OLI, a person or vehicle is struck by a train every three hours in the United States. Every. Three. Hours.

Joyce Rose, OLI president and CEO, remarked at a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) forum in March 2015 that railroad trespassing deaths have outnumbered those from car-train collisions in the U.S. every year since 1997.  In 2014, 526 deaths and 419 injuries resulted from trespassing on railroad property, with an additional 213 suicide deaths and 40 injuries from failed suicide attempts on railroad property. In comparison, there were only two deaths and 128 injuries resulting from derailments and vehicle-train collisions in 2014.

In an attempt to educate the photography community about the dangers of photographing on the tracks, OLI partnered with the Professional Photographers of America (PPA) in 2013 for the safety presentation “Operation Lifesaver urges professional photographers to stay safe, stay away from train tracks” and the October 2015 webinar, Safety First: Photography Near Tracks and Trains. OLI has set up a rail safety exhibit at PPA’s annual meeting, ImagingUSA, the past few years as well. OLI now also has an entire page on their website dedicated to Photographer and Filmmaker Safety.

Photographing on railroad tracks, equipment, or buildings is illegal

Most railroad tracks are owned by a railroad company, not the person who owns the land or the town/city/county/state the tracks traverse. Being on the railroad right of way, which typically extends 25 feet on either side of the track’s centerline, but can be up to 200 feet from the centerline, without permission is trespassing. It doesn’t matter if the tracks are considered live, ‘dead’ or if the rails have been removed; it’s still trespassing in most states. However, in some states it may not be trespassing if the tracks in question have been legally abandoned following an order by the federal or state agency with jurisdiction over those tracks, and the tracks are not being used for railroad service. Trespassing is a misdemeanor in most states but can become a felony depending on the nature of the offense. You can look up the laws and regulations for each state on the Federal Railroad Administration’s website; go to Chapter 9 of its compilation of state laws and regulations. While misdemeanor trespassing fines also vary from state to state, again depending upon the nature of the offense, there is a 2012 report of a woman in California being fined $6,000.


Tracks you think are inactive, dead and/or abandoned may not be

Shiny rail is a sign of an active rail line, but rusty rail is not necessarily an indication of inactive or abandoned rails. Under the right environmental conditions, rust can develop quickly on tracks that see regular use. Likewise, tracks overgrown with weeds may not be an indication of abandonment, but infrequent or poor maintenance. Those tracks may see occasional movements—for example, to service an industry along the line. Case in point, there is a rail line in my area that only sees rail traffic when the circus is in town, or the local dinner train is running; both schedules are highly unpredictable. The only tracks you can be sure are abandoned are those that have been legally abandoned after approval from the Surface Transportation Board.


Any time is train time

Freight trains don’t follow set schedules. Passenger trains can be delayed or even early due to a number of variables. Just because you see a train pass by a specific location at a certain time today doesn’t mean it will pass by at the same time tomorrow, or at all. It’s also not unheard of for inactive tracks to be suddenly put back into service. Always expect a train, day or night, weekday, weekend or holiday. ANY. TIME.


You may not hear or see a train approaching

Really! I’m not kidding here. There’s an optical illusion that makes trains appear farther away and slower moving than they are. High-speed passenger trains like Amtrak are much quieter than heavy freight trains. Highway traffic, emergency vehicle sirens, snow, trees, and other environmental elements can muffle the sound of approaching trains. Most of us are used to hearing the distinctive “clickety-clack” sound of a train moving along the tracks. This sound results from the wheels hitting the joints between sections of rail. However, especially on busier lines, jointed rail usually has been replaced with miles-long stretches of welded rail, which eliminates much of the distinctive sound of an approaching train. Then there’s the Doppler effect, which is how the pitch of a sound changes based on where you are in relation to where the sound originated. Popular Mechanics magazine published an article in March 2014 explaining these factors.

Now you’re thinking, “But I’ll hear the train horn and/or the crossing gates and lights.” WRONG! Although engineers always were required to sound the train horn for crossings, more and more areas are designated ”Quiet Zones”—and the horn is not sounded for crossings. More important, by the time the engineer sounds the horn and the gates and lights are activated, it’s too late—the train is almost at the crossing.

You need to be even more attentive if there is more than one set of tracks, as there is now potential for more than one train to be traveling along those tracks at the same time. A July 2015 incident in Fresno, Calif., resulted in the photographer’s death when he was photographing one train and didn’t see or hear another train approaching behind him on the other track. We’ve all been in ‘the zone’ when photographing and don’t really see or hear anything else going on around us. You can also read about a recent experiment in the UK and take a test to see if you can hear the train and identify its location.


Locomotive engineers can’t just slam on the brakes to quickly stop a train

The average 100-car freight train traveling at 55 mph takes more than a mile to come to a complete stop after the engineer applies the emergency brake. It’s too late to avoid a collision by the time the train crew sees you on the tracks. Video from a recent collision with a limousine in Indiana shows someone asking if the engineer saw him trying to flag down the train, and the engineer responds, “I sure did; I got 10,000 tons behind me though.” Remember high school physics class? Velocity and mass come into play here.

Here’s a good example. Most of us have even seen the viral video of the women on a train trestle in Indiana as a train approaches. Just before 7:00 am on July 10, 2014, a 14,000-ton Indiana Rail Road freight train rounds a bend approaching the 500-foot-long, 80-foot-high Shuffle Creek trestle when the locomotive engineer spies the women on the tracks. The engineer applies the emergency brakes and sounds the horn multiple times; the women run away, toward the opposite end of the bridge. Although the train is slowing down, it’s gaining on the women; all the crew can do now is wait for the train to come to a complete stop. The train is only 30 feet away when the women lie on the track between the rails; the train passes over them and finally stops after the end of the bridge. The women were incredibly lucky to escape relatively unscathed from this incident; both women were identified and have been charged with criminal trespassing.

“The consequences of trespassing on railroad-owned property are never taken seriously by those choosing to do so, and this incident at Lake Lemon is one of the most glaring examples I’ve seen in more than 40 years in this business. In this case, not only did two trespassers narrowly escape a horrible death, but had the heavy train derailed due to the emergency brake application—which isn’t uncommon—it could have taken down the bridge, possibly killing the engineer as well. The human, environmental, and financial toll would have been enormous.”—Tom Hoback (railroad founder, president and CEO)


Danger is one step away

All it takes is one misstep for someone to be hurt or killed. Railroad employees are required to wear personal protective equipment (PPE), which includes steel-toed boots, hard hats, high-visibility safety vests, eye protection, and hearing protection when working in railroad yards and anywhere along the tracks. Yet photographers and clients continue to climb around the tracks and railcars in sandals, flip-flops, and high heels—even formal gowns, tuxes and wedding dresses; walking on the rail like a balance beam, laying and/or sitting on or between the rails, climbing aboard a railcar, sometimes even sitting a small child in a basket or suitcase between the rails. It’s difficult enough to walk in the stone ballast along the tracks in work boots, but even more so when you throw high heels and long gowns into the mix. This unstable walking surface is not meant for pedestrians, and the railroad ties often are soaked in creosote, a sticky, oil-based preservative—in case the usual dangers of broken glass, shards of metal, and other debris aren’t enough.

It’s never safe to climb on a rail car. Cars can move suddenly and without warning. Railroads prohibit their employees from getting on or off moving equipment, because the risk of maiming or death is so high. A simple slip of the foot can cost you a limb or your life. Just standing near a moving train is dangerous; trains overhang the tracks by at least three feet on each side; loose metal straps hanging from rail cars or shifting cargo may extend even further. Even if the train misses you, your clothes can get caught by these hazards, and you may be pulled under the moving train.

A friend working at a local railroad yard once discovered a wedding party climbing on an idling locomotive for portraits. Why anyone would want to climb all over a dirty locomotive in their wedding gown is beyond me.


Someone is always watching

Railroad employees, adjacent property owners, security cameras, the general public, railroad buffs…there is always someone watching, especially in these days of heightened security post-9/11. Security cameras capture more of what goes on in our communities than many think. In addition to regular policing by local law enforcement agencies and the railroads’ own police—yes, they’re sworn law enforcement officers who can arrest you—property owners along the tracks tend to keep a watchful eye on their property. Property owners have been known to confront trespassers and/or contact the local law enforcement agency.

Then there are the railroad buffs, commonly referred to as railfans. These men and women are very knowledgeable about railroad operations in the area and spend many hours trackside photographing trains. Many railfans also participate in Norfolk Southern Corp’s Protect the Line and/or BNSF’s Citizens for Rail Security programs, which encourage the public to report suspicious or criminal activity directly to railroad police. Railfans have been known to snap a photo of photographers on the tracks, as well as the photographer’s car and license plate, and then turn that information over to the authorities.

Some railroads have employees scouring the internet for photos taken on the tracks, so they can identify and contact the offending photographers. Union Pacific Railroad actually contacted a photographer who was using a studio backdrop of train tracks, asking her to remove the photos and stop using the backdrop. Operation Lifesaver (OLI) also receives frequent reports of photographers shooting on railroad tracks; OLI will contact the photographers to educate them about the illegal practice and danger.


People follow our example and mimic our behavior

Clients expect photographers to be knowledgeable about session locations- Are permits and/or fees required to use the location? Is the location public or private property? This should also include knowledge that railroad rights of way are private property and being on the right of way constitutes illegal trespassing. People see photos taken on railroad tracks and incorrectly assume they can do the same. In fact,many people have absolutely no idea that the adjacent property owner does not own the tracks and that it is illegal, let alone extremely dangerous, to be on the railroad right of way.

We, as photographers, need to be responsible enough to listen to the experts, educate our clients, and set the right example for our clients, the community, and other photographers. The photography industry itself needs to take a more active approach to educating photographers about the dangers of photographing on the tracks.

How many more headlines will we see before photographers stop this dangerous and illegal practice? In the words of Operation Lifesaver: “Stay off, stay away, stay alive”.

Read Rail Safety for Photographers - Part 2 here.

For additional rail safety information and resources please visit:

Rail Safety Pinterest Board
Operation Lifesaver, Inc.
Operation Lifesaver Canada
Protect the Line
Citizens for Rail Security
See Tracks, Think Train

Many thanks to my friends in the railroad community and Operation Lifesaver for their assistance.

Operation Lifesaver has many resources for photographers available for download, as well as many other rail safety educational graphics.


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