Friday, March 20, 2015

Update: Photographing near the railroad — Don't!!!

Diesel locomotive, Amtrak's Auto Train
I've been writing about the problem of photographers and videographers, amateurs and professionals alike, working at, on or near railroad tracks and yards for a long time, without the permission and the cooperation of the railroad. Too often, they're putting themselves and others unwittingly in serious jeopardy by the way they are conducting themselves.

Just last September, you might have read my article, “Photographing trains…Stay off the Tracks!!!

Unfortunately, my articles, and those of colleagues haven't had enough of an effect. Photographers, videographers, and sometimes those being photographed or videod, continue to die needlessly while making images or videos at, on or near railroad tracks.

In September I wrote that in February last year, less than thirteen months ago, 27 year old camera assistant Sarah Jones, working 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.

This year, in January, Greg Plitt, a well known American model, and TV reality “actor” was killed by a train, apparently while trying to outrun it while working on a commercial for an energy drink. Police said after reviewing video of the accident, it shows Plitt standing on the tracks as a train raced toward him, then racing the train down the track, and finally losing the race to the train. It hit him, throwing him off the tracks to his death.

This month, Achilles Williams, a popular Atlanta, GA personal trainer, was making a video for his YouTube channel. Investigators say Williams and a friend were shooting the video near train tracks, though not directly on them. The friend, who shot the video, said Williams was jumping rope when a freight train struck and killed him. He said Williams must have misjudged the overhang of the train cars.
When will people learn, making photographs or videos at, on or even near train tracks and in train yards is very dangerous. Many people die every year by being hit by trains. The deaths are a needless waste of a human life.
If you think I'm overstating the warning, think again. The US Federal Railway Administration (FRA) reports about 500 trespassing deaths along railroad tracks each year.

The list of needless deaths of those involved in photography and videography near trains, on railroad property is lengthy. It includes Cathy Carlisle, an art teacher from Sacramento California who was photographing a train, while standing on the tracks of another, when a train struck her from behind. It also includes Gregory Duncraft, who was apparently so engrossed in checking images on his camera's LCD, while standing on the tracks, he ignored two long warning blasts from the train's engineer, before being run down.

Beyond the dangers involved in photographing on railroad tracks, near rolling stock or on railroad property generally, it's illegal to be on railroad property without permission of the railroad which owns and uses the tracks. Going there without permission is criminal trespass and the railroads are prosecuting those found trespassing.

Railroad trespass violators in the US are subject hefty fines, as high as $10,000. In light of the number of railroad trespassing deaths occurring every year in the US, judges are meting out heavy fines regularly, with the average fine running around $2,000. While that's not $10K, that's still a great deal more than most can afford to throw away.

For photographers and videographers, there's another downside to making images and videos while trespassing. The photos and videos might not ever see the light of day. Railroads, like the Union Pacific and Amtrak, scan publications and Internet sites, then contact publishers and site owners to remove any images and videos from their publications and sites made while the photographer/videographer and/or their subject(s) were trespassing on railroad property.

It's critical, if you intend to make railroad images and videos to understand:

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.

I've made many railroad images for travel articles about train travel, including the one at the top of this article, while on railroad property, right at the tracks, with permission of the railroad, and more important, with their operational and security personnel cooperation, ensuring everyone's safety and security.
Making photographs on railroad property without permission and cooperation to ensure everyone's safety is at best, irresponsible.
For additional information and to learn more about railroad dangers, check the Operation Lifesaver website.


Harriet - Philly said...

I can't believe it. A video jumping rope and the guy is dead? How much of a moron can you be.

Orin - Chicago said...

Really bad article Ned. You've so overstated the danger of photographing on railroad tracks. I checked out your FRA stats, and while they appear to be right, almost none are photographers or those making videos.

The accidents you cite are isolated instances which hardly ever happen and they were just a strange combination of events.

I photograph on railroad tracks all the time. I never get permission. Getting permission is costly and the railroads always refuse anyway. And it's stupid because there is very little danger on the tracks. It's easy to get off when a train is coming, then get right back on when it passes.

You need to stop pontificating when you don't know what you're talking about which is now. Stick to talking about f/stops and focus. You're good at that. Leave the rest to people who are experienced about such things, and stop preaching.

Susan-San Francisco said...

Well said Orin. Ned, stick to techniques. You really know your stuff when it comes to photography itself, but on this you're all wet. No one gets hurt on railroad tracks if they're paying attention.

Ned S. Levi said...

Orin, Susan, I thought about not approving your comments to be published, but decided to post them, because I suspect many actually believe you're right.

You're not right. In fact you're dead wrong!

To start. throughout the US, going on railroad property, not just the tracks, without permission is a violation of the law. It's criminal trespass. That may seem ridiculous to you, be it's not only the law, it's a law which makes perfect sense.

When you trespass, you put lives in danger. If an engineer sees you on the track, the engineer is required to slam on the breaks and stop. According to where that happens, the condition of the track, the weather conditions, etc., as emergency stops are hazardous your presence on the track could cause the train to derail. It thankfully doesn't happen frequency, but it does happen.

Fortunately many photographers and videographers are more intelligent that the two of you, (By making your outrageous and wrongheaded statements the gloves are off.) which generally accounts for the fact that there aren't many cases of photographers and videographers being killed on the tracks, but I assure you if more follow in your footsteps more will be killed.

Susan, about 500 people are killed while trespassing on railroad property every year in the US, so unless you consider them nobody, you're dead wrong in what you've said.

Orin, you're all wet that it's easy to get off the tracks in time to ensure you're not hurt. If that were true, no one would die on the tracks. In fact, trains move much faster than most people realize. They often are on top of you before you see them, especially if you're near a bend in their right of way.

I hope neither of you get killed by a train, but if you persist in your reckless behavior, it will probably be the last thing you ever do.

Germain - NYC said...

Ned, I don't know why you wasted your time answering those two. They're idiots.

Conner said...

They're jerks Ned and likely will be killed by a train one day. Forget them. They won't listen to reason no matter what.

Luke said...

I can't believe those two. What a pair of morons!!!

Keep the great articles coming. It's a shame those two aren't capable of learning. It will cause them to die young.

Jordan said...

Wow, it looks like you really touched a nerve with those two. They need to see a doctor. They have a screw loose somewhere.

Ned S. Levi said...

Thanks for the support everyone, but let's not make this about me, Orin or Susan. Regrettably, people have died because they acted recklessly. Let's concentrate on getting the word out about that and see if we can change just one person's behavior and thereby keep them safe.

Sean said...

Orin and Susan made it about you Ned, and they're dead wrong.

People like Orin and Susan are the ones who really need to take your advice to heart, but unfortunately they're too closed minded for that.

Callie said...

What duds Orin and Susan are. Keep up the great blog Ned.

Cole in Pittsburgh said...

Ned it's an article Orin and Susan clearly need to heed. You were right to let their posts stand, but also to call them out. I tip my cap to you.

Leah - Boston said...

Ned I wanted to thank you for the article too and say how I feel so dismayed at what Orin and Susan wrote. They aren't in touch with reality and I fear for their lives. Their eyes are shut and their minds closed. That's a bad combination.

Charlie said...

I was on an Amtrak train traveling at top speed for that section of track coming in to Newark from NYC, probably 60mph or so. The signals went dead due to a power failure on the route and we came to an emergency stop. It took more than a half mile to stop and very little time to travel that distance

Asher said...

Great article Ned. Hopefully someone will learn from it.

Clyde said...

I posted an article in my blog for my photography club and kept adding to it. Now it's a daily routine to update it. Can barely keep up. Sad.

Anonymous said...

You nailed it Ned. Sadly its people like that, which give all us photographers a bad name. I have never understood why these certain people get so close to or on the tracks period...other then the fact that they are total idoits! I have been able to produce award winning photos without being on railroad property or more than 200ft away, depending the area. great article!

Ned S. Levi said...

Thanks to all for your support. It's appreciated.

Ned S. Levi said...

I want make sure that all here understand I'm not against railroad photography, even while in railroad yards, on tracks, and among working railroad personnel.

For example, in 2009 I did a well received article for Consumer Traveler, "Buy your car a train ticket: A complete AutoTrain user guide" You can see it in their archive at:

As you can see from the images in the story I made many photographs while safely on the train, but also in the two stations used by the AutoTrain, and in the train yards where they assembled the train and got the autos in the train cars which haul them between Florida and Virginia.

This difference in what I do as a photo journalist and those mentioned in the article above is get the permission and cooperation of the railroad, and follow the guidelines they set for me, and the direction of their personnel with me who are helping to ensure my safety.

Close up railroad photography is possible to do legally and safely, but only with the permission and cooperation of the railroad.

Russ Nelson said...

Well, Susan, I'm a railfan, not a photographer, and on this one, you're all wet. People who think they're paying attention on railroad tracks get hurt anyway. There's a couple of appropriate railroader catchphrases: "the rule book is written in blood" and "any train, any track, any time."

Anonymous said...

I can tell you from experience... you may think you are smart enough to be safe while standing on the tracks, that you can hear and get out of the way before it is too late.

I was with a group that was track side one day watching an oncoming Steam powered fan trip. An AMTRAK train was approaching from the other direction on a track that we was standing next too. It was coasting downgrade, and nobody could hear it until it was almost right on top of us.

NeiljohnUK said...

Some 30 years ago I was one of the safety team (medic) for a TV show recording a stuntman jumping onto a slow moving ~5 mph preserved steam railway carriage from a bridge. The 'film' crew was 5 people, the safety crew 8 plus a railway safety escort EACH as we were trackside. Even had the stuntman fallen, standing orders were, YOU don't move until the train has stopped and brakes applied, or its cleared the section by at least 100 yards and your safety escort takes you to him. A slow moving train is dangerous enough, to a high speed train you just a bug on the windshield.

Unknown said...

I was aboard the California Zephyr last year when we were delayed 4 hours because some guy photographing a train on the other track carelessly stepped back into the path of the Zephyr. Remarkably I believe he survived, but as they say, there's no cure for stupid.

Wayward Son said...

I'm not a photographer but I am a locomotive engineer and Ned is 100% correct. On almost every trip I make, I see people on or near the tracks and always wonder what they have on their mind. I usually can't see a camera from my vantage point so the question is this a kid playing chicken? A suicide attempt? Or just someone being foolish one way or another? The fact for us is that by the time we can see and identify what that something is way out there in front of us, it's already too late to stop if it doesn't move. Then you live with what you see. It's a terrible feeling.

There's lots of ways to get that rail shot you want without putting your life on the line and by extension, the safety and mental health of train crews. Do a little research and find a tourist or short-line railroad that is much more likely to grant permission to photograph on their property than a large Class 1. Do it right and spare me the flashbacks.

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