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The 5th Reason Photographers Should Stay Off the Tracks

By Tanya Goodall Smith on November 17th 2013

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Last week I agonized over writing my post, 4 Reasons You Shouldn’t Take Portraits on Railroad Tracks. I have to admit, I once took a family photo on some supposedly abandoned tracks, because I was completely ignorant of any of the points brought up in the article. Through my research, I learned a great deal, and thought it was important to share with our community. I figured it was kind of a boring subject and most would pass over it for a more interesting read.

Imagine my surprise by the barrage of heated comments on Facebook and following the article Sunday afternoon. I was even more shocked by the blatant disregard for the law, and the safety of clients, by many of the commenters.

Common themes were: Who cares if it’s illegal? Only an idiot wouldn’t be able to tell if a train was approaching. How many photographers have actually been killed on tracks? It’s ok to use tracks that are abandoned… Julie La Combe, Kansas Operation Lifesaver Executive Director, read the article and contacted me to clear up a few of the arguments made by photographers. She gives answers, as well as a Reason #5 to stay off the tracks. Basically, if you disregard your own life, please at least consider the lives that are affected when a person is hit and killed by a train (which happens every three hours in America.)

“I would offer, after reading through the photographer comments, that a possible reason number 5 would be to consider the train crews, their families, the paramedics, and anyone else who has suffered through a preventable tragedy. Photos of people on tracks bring these tragedies into cruelly sharp focus.

Even if the line is “abandoned.” It doesn’t have to be active to be a terrible idea. The last thing a train crew sees right before impact is that innocent face, unaware of what is about to happen to them, and there is nothing they can do to stop it. A rail-themed shoot is okay if it’s clear that no one is on tracks, equipment, bridges, or tunnels—real or green-screen.

“Education is the step that we try to use before enforcement. We send a photographer safety notice to those who are in violation. If they don’t take down the photos from their websites or Facebook page, I call Railroad police, as well as local law enforcement to report the trespass violation. I don’t like to see a photographer get fined or arrested, but if it means saving his or her life, then I suppose it’s necessary.

“Railroad law enforcement can also fine the CLIENTS if a photographer shows a habit of continuing the practice…since the photographers give them all the evidence they would need on Facebook, tagging clients after posting trespassing photos in galleries available for public view. Something to consider.

“I would also offer that if a photographer knowingly uses private property for a shoot, and a client is injured or killed, that photographer could be liable.”

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Operation Lifesaver in Kansas sent the above poster to all high schools in the state (public and private), urging yearbook editors to reject photos submitted that feature railroad tracks. Some have already taken action to comply.

I realize we have a global audience here at SLR Lounge, and trespassing laws may vary by location, but I believe staying off the tracks is still the wisest choice for the safety and consideration of all concerned. Please stay off the tracks!

Note: Our article 10 Basic Poses for Wedding Photographers features a couple posing on tracks. We will no longer be endangering our clients in this way. For lots of safe posing ideas, check out our Natural Light Portraiture Workshop. Click here to view more details.

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Tanya Goodall Smith is the owner, brand strategist and commercial photographer at WorkStory Corporate Photography in Spokane, Washington. WorkStory creates visual communications that make your brand irresistible to your target market. Join the stock photo rebellion at workstoryphotography.com.

9 Comments

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  2. J.D. Gallaway

    I am an amateur photographer as well as a locomotive engineer.

    Speaking from my own experience: I grew up near tracks…. as a kid I could hear the rumble of the diesel motors crawling up the hills near my grandmother’s house more than four miles away from the house: I could hear them about ten minutes before they got close enough to activate the crossing. But as a youngster, my entire life revolved around those trains coming and going.

    Once I started working for my first railroad (a small line in New York which operates a steam locomotive) I began to realize just how true the old saying was about not really noticing the trains until they were right on top of you.

    When I began my mainline conductor training, I figured my years of being around trains would help keep me safe. I very quickly learned just how (dead) wrong I was. While walking along my train at a place we were setting off cars, we were right next to a New Jersey Transit track. NJT’s diesels run nearly/over 3,000hp and can make speeds approaching 100mph (I don’t know know their exact specs/rules). As I was walking, all of a sudden I heard this strange sound from the rails. I suddenly realized it was “rail-sing” a resonant harmonic sound created by the rolling steel wheels on the steel rails. I realized I was suddenly in danger and dove between two cars of my train (for any railroader reading, 3-step had already been established when we got on the ground) and less than five seconds later, a Jersey Transit train of a diesel and about ten coaches went flying by at a speed of at least 60mph.

    Now I had been within enjoyment distance of trains since I was a toddler. Every house I’ve lived in has been less than a quarter mile from railroad tracks or ancient abandoned rights-of-way. Yet even expecting that train to come, I only heard it about 5-7 seconds before it would have plastered me on its “cowcatcher”.

    NO, a photographer nor their client will NOT detect a train coming. Seriously, if trains were so easily detected by trespassers, fatalities would come once or twice a year, not once every three hours.

    Please, please PLEASE do NOT go near train tracks. Even tracks which appear abandoned might not be. And even if they are, its still possible for a train to be there. An old freight car, also abandoned, on a siding somewhere gets bashed by a falling tree and begins to roll, its brakes long since having rusted so much that that impact broke them off. That car now has no way of stopping and since the railroad is abandoned, there isn’t even anyone to recognize that a car is rolling that shouldn’t be.

    And tracks which are in service, could very well host a freight train at 60mph or Amtrak at 79mph. At 60mph, a train covers 88feet per second. In less than 3.5seconds, that train will travel from one endzone to the other. How fast can you detect the train, process the fact that you are about to die, overcome your instinctive terror, make a decision to save your life, and carry it out? Really? in 3.5seconds?

    While you have heard it before, it is VERY true. BY the time we can even see you on the tracks, there is absolutely NO way a train can be stopped in time. A single engine with no cars weighs in excess of 300,000pounds. A heavy coal train? In excess of 19,000 TONS! Time for highschool physics. How much kenetic energy is there in a 19,200ton coal train traveling at 50mph?

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  3. Mr. Libris Fidelis (my true name)

    There are signs on platforms in southern California that say something like:

    “Stay off the tracks. Tracks are for trains. If you can read this you are NOT a train.”

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  4. Bill Stone

    As a railroad employee and amatuer photographer, I find the general public’s blatant disregard for property laws very disheartening. They fully expect people they do not want there to stay off their land, and respect the rights to their photos, but feel they don not owe anyone else that respect. It is misguided selfishness in its purest form. People forget that respect is earned, and not given. A disrespectful person is underserving of respect being returned.

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  5. Chip Frazier

    1st – Thank you Tanya for this attempt to raise the level of conscientiousness about this perplexing problem.

    2nd let me comment on a misperception about being hit by a train. When someone is struck, depending on speed, they may be smeared across the track. However, they are more likely to be finely sliced & diced like a potato in a fancy kitchen gadget. Any body part caught between the rail & a wheel as the corpse rolls under the locomotive or car body is cut off cleanly. The result is often an indistinguishable bag of body parts!

    Finally, I ask those who argue using abandoned track is harmless to consider the potential consequnces of communicating the message “it is cool to be on railroad tracks.” What may be a well executed plan to conduct a photo shoot on tracks can easily mislead other less discriminating folks to attempt a similar shoot on active track. What is the mystique of being on railroad tracks anyway? We ALL have a role to play as responsible citizens to discourage unsafe & in this case, illegal behavior.

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  6. Eric Bowen

    Is there anyway I can become involved in your organization. Far to many people a getting killed in the Charleston , WV area. Please contact me at [email protected]

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  7. wjp

    I guess that not many people here have much experience working on the railroad. I have, and I can tell you that when you are concentrating on a task you tend to ignore everything else. When a ‘tog is telling you to tilt your head a little to the left and smile (but not that big) while standing in a position that you wouldn’t normally be in, you’re distracted enough to miss that giant mass of several thousand moving steel parts weighing hundreds of tons bearing down on your 180 lbs. of creamy goodness. It really would be a shame if you spent all that time and money making sure your hair and makeup were just perfect to have them smeared across the tracks like so much jam on toast. Just stay off the effing tracks. You don’t know if it is abandoned track. You likely are not in a position to have access to that information.

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  8. Thomas Elkin

    I don’t see what could be controversial about it to be honest. I mean if it’s against the law, it’s against the law and IT’S FREAKING DANGEROUS! Unless you know, for a 100% fact that the tracks are abandoned and no longer in use what so ever, STAY OFF! And even then, double check with the local authorities and GET PERMISSION!

    Photographers that disregard the laws about private property, trespass and make statements like, “Who cares if it’s illegal? Only an idiot wouldn’t be able to tell if a train was approaching.” Cause more problems for those of us who abide by the law and do our best to do things by the book. Not only are you running the chance of getting you and your clients arrested, you’re risking your own safety, your client’s safety and those of the railway workers.

    Obey the laws! To be honest, if I saw a photographer doing this I would call the authorities myself.

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