Monday, September 1, 2014

Photographing trains...Stay off the Tracks!!!

Diesel locomotive, Amtrak's Auto TrainLately, 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.


James - Philly said...

I had no idea of the incredible danger of getting close to trains to photograph them. Thanks. Great article.

Vic - Dallas said...

Wow, I never thought of most of those problems, and had no idea it was at all dangerous. Thanks.

Tina - Chicago said...

People take too many chances on railroad tracks every day. Great article Ned.

Anonymous said...

There's a gentleman named Pete Lerro who leads charter trips around the country specifically to photograph trains. These are controlled runbys just for photographers, and so are very safe. Check out his site for more info:

Ned S. Levi said...

Publisher's note: While I have published Kim's informative comment, I'm in no way are commenting on, or endorsing Lerro Productions. I have had no direct contact with Lerro Productions, Peter A. Lerro, Jr or Peter Lerro III, nor do I have direct knowledge of their company and its offerings, despite the fact they went to school in my hometown and that we all live not that far away from each other.

I'm intrigued, however, and may look them up to find out more.

EDSAR Search Notes said...

Great article. I have always respected trains, but had friends in college who rode the rails- still creeps me out. Not directly related to photography- I know of a number of deaths in N. CA. where someone was walking down tracks with iPod in their ears and +/- under the influence. Did not know illegal to photograph near tracks until mentioned on PPA. Alan Fudge

Ned S. Levi said...

Thanks Alan. Here in the Northeast last year we had 139 fatalities on the tracks, almost all of them trespassers. Most are pedestrians apparently seeking shortcuts across the tracks rather than walk to the nearest underpass or overpass, or controlled "at grade" crossing. In the Greater Philadelphia Region, SEPTA, the regional transportation authority, and AMTRAK have a terrible problem with locals cutting through fences, and jumping walls.

As I mentioned, I do quite a bit of railroad photography, but with the permission and cooperation of railroad and track owners. Many don't realize that often railroads run on tracks they don't own, so when seeking permission to shoot at or near the tracks you need permission of the track owner and/or the railroad running on the track, according to their contractual arrangement, and to photograph safely, you definitely need the cooperation of the railroad(s) running on the tracks.

That brings up another important point. Much of the railroad track in the US is shared among multiple railroads. It's critical to determine which railroads run on any track section one wishes to photograph on or near the tracks, as you could get the cooperation of one, only to be rundown by a train from another company on that section of rail.

And with regard to abandoned track, it's critical to contact the owner of the track, not only to obtain permission to shoot on the private property on which the track is laid, but also to determine if the track is definitely abandoned or inactive.

Anonymous said...

Just in case anyone needs even more proof, here you go Ned, from May 2014.

Ned S. Levi said...

Thanks for the link Carman.

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