Two reasons not to shoot on train tracks:
- It’s illegal
- You and your clients could die
Isn’t that pretty much “enough said”? I should end the post right here. But you know me; when I’m passionate about something, I am thorough. And when I see photographers doing photo sessions on train tracks, it gets me all riled up. (Can you tell?) Read this post, share it with photographers who are doing this, and spread this information as much as you can.
I Got In Trouble For Shooting On Train Tracks
I want to share something that I’m rather ashamed of–but I think sharing my personal story will discourage others from doing the same. A few years ago, I took a picture of one of my nieces and two of her best friends walking down the train tracks in my town. Originally, I took them to that location because there was an awesome graffiti heart painted on a “random building” near the tracks. (That random building? Oh, it’s CSX railroad property.) It was a beautiful summer day, and I wanted to get a shot of the girls walking down the tracks together. Having grown up near train tracks, that was just something we did in the summer–walking on the tracks. Did my parents know I spent a large amount of time on the train tracks, putting pennies on the rails and collecting the sparkly rocks between the railroad ties? Probably not. (Sorry, mom and dad!)
One summer, a little boy in my neighborhood was struck by a train and killed in the exact place where I always played on the tracks. I knew this, and it terrified me.
But there I was, letting three preteen girls walk down the tracks while I looked at them through my viewfinder, with one of their mothers to the side watching us. It was irresponsible. When we were done with that photo, we moved back over to the side where I took some individual portraits against that “random building.” That’s when a white SUV showed up marked CSX Police. Oh, you didn’t know railroad companies had their own police?
When the CSX officer approached, he told us we were trespassing on CSX property (and he hadn’t even seen us on the actual tracks!) He said that all the area around the tracks, including the building with the graffiti, was private property owned by CSX. He took my ID and my niece’s friends’ mom’s ID. He told me that he could arrest us, but instead gave us a stern warning. It was such a humiliating experience; I apologized to the girls’ mom over and over. I was thankful that it wasn’t a client session, just something I did for my niece for fun, but that doesn’t make much of a difference. I was still ignorant. I still illegally trespassed. I still put three kids and myself in danger.
Facts About the Legalities of Shooting On/Near Train Tracks:
- Railroad tracks are private property.
- The areas surrounding train tracks are usually owned by the railroad company as well. This includes non-marked buildings.
- Even abandoned, non-live tracks are typically owned by the railroad company, and it is still illegal to take pictures on them without permission.
- A lot of railroad companies have their own police.
Facts About the Dangers of Shooting On Train Tracks
- Trains are closer than they appear! It’s an optical illusion that makes trains seem farther away and slower than they’re actually traveling. You cannot accurately judge a train’s speed and distance as it’s approaching you.
- Trains cannot stop quickly to avoid hitting you. A 100-car train traveling 55 mph takes 1 mile to stop.
- On average, trains stick out about 3 feet on each side beyond the tracks. So even if you jump out of the way, it might not be far enough. Read about a 16-year-old boy who didn’t jump far enough to escape an oncoming train during a photoshoot and was struck and killed.
- Every 3 hours in the US, a person or vehicle is struck by a train.
- Train engineers are traumatized after these deadly incidents.
The Most Common Argument for Taking Photos on Tracks
The most common argument I observe about shooting on train tracks is “I’m going to be really careful; any idiot would hear a train coming.” Remember what I said above about the optical illusion? This fools people into thinking the train is farther away and moving slower than it actually is. In articles about train deaths, the witness almost always says something like “it just came so fast/we thought we had enough time to get away.” Everyone assumes they would get out of the way in time. I’m sure the photographers and filmmakers who died made the same assumption.
Here’s a list of just a few incidences of people dying (or almost dying) on train tracks during photoshoots:
What can I tell clients who request photos on train tracks?
“No, it’s both illegal and dangerous. A lot of photographers and clients die every year doing that.” If that doesn’t scare them, and they still try to coax you into it, you can either show them this blog post, or politely turn down doing the shoot altogether. Alternatively, you could shoot at a local railroad museum–with permission.
For more safety information, read this PDF from Operation Lifesaver: Rail Safety Education.
Photos in post by Michael Kulesza.