Railroad Safety for Photographers

Railroad Safety for Photographers


If I walked into your yard and just started taking photos, would you call the police or would you just ignore it?

If you have a studio and I waltzed in with my camera and models and started shooting my latest and greatest session, would you have me removed immediately?

Chances are that after initial shock wore off you would be calling the police and asking them to get me out of your studio or off of your property.

It might an extreme example, but realistically this is what happens when a photographer brings their client, props, and their camera onto railroad tracks to shoot.

Railroad tracks are private property. They are not public property. It is illegal to shoot on railroad tracks. You can see what your particular state says about even being on the tracks by going HERE.

You might say “Well, these tracks are abandoned”. Unused tracks are not abandoned. They are still owned by the railroad company and you are still trespassing.

Ignorance of the law will only get you so far when you are confronted by a police officer or a tragedy because you didn’t follow the law. It is virtually impossible for the railroad companies to cover every inch of track with signs that warn them that they are trespassing.

railway photography safety

You might say “We can hear the trains coming.” Not all trains will sound their horns. Trains cannot stop as quickly as a car. It takes approximately one mile for a train to come to a stop. Trains travel between 79-125 mph even though it may not look like they are going that fast.  If you are driving 125 mph and a child ran out in front of you, would you have time to react to stop in time to not hit the child? No, you wouldn’t. Now think about all the cars that are attached to that front of the train. The force of the trains coming to a quick stop in time to avoid a tragedy is unimaginable. Even moving at a slower speed it would be very hard for a train to come to a complete stop to avoid hitting people who are on the tracks.

railway safety photography

I recently had an exchange with a photographer and we talked about her shooting on active railroad tracks. Her response when she found out that it was not only illegal but dangerous was “There are about 6 other photographers that take pictures in this location that I know of. As far as accidents, the trains have came many times while we are out there & the lights and little gate things come down way in advance.”

Where is the logic or the pure common sense in her defense of being on the tracks? There is none. She clearly stated that she was on active tracks and she clearly dismissed any danger. In her portfolio there are images of small children on suitcases and several props around them. There are images of pregnant women lying down on the tracks. Client safety clearly is not a priority.

Trains can move in two directions. The railcars can be pushing the locomotive instead of the locomotive pulling the railcars. Someone in the locomotive might see you on the tracks, but by the time they communicate with the back of the train that is pushing those railcars it would be too late.

When you bring clients onto railroad tracks you are putting them at risk and you are putting yourself at risk. You or your client could get hurt or killed. You are also putting the people who are operating that train at risk. The potential pile-up when they have to abruptly stop means you are putting more people at risk. A train derailment can mean chemical spills and property damage to any nearby homes. A photographer causing accidents on the tracks would be responsible for the any injuries or deaths, derailments, chemical spills, property damage, delays in shipping, etc.

Photographers will imitate other photographers. Client education is a key component when it comes to railroad tracks and safety. If your client asks for a session on railroad tracks, explain to them about the laws and the fines for being on the tracks.. As the photographer, you are the one ultimately responsible for the photo shoot. If anything happens it is your business, your finances, and your name on the line. Photographers need to educate other photographers that shooting on tracks is NOT acceptable and then they need to work on educating their clients that shooting on tracks is dangerous on too many levels to get that clichéd image.

For further reading about railroad safety and photography:

Amtrak’s guidelines for photographers is outline on their website

If you are found shooting in areas that are owned by Amtrak that are considered a part of their restricted area, and this includes the tracks, you can be subject to fines, arrest, and seizure of your camera and equipment.

Union Pacific has very specific policies regarding their tracks, whether they are active or inactive. They not only fine photographers who trespass on their tracks, but if they find the images online, they will request that they be removed.

Operation Lifesaver has published an article regarding railroad track safety and it can be found HERE.

Download a pdf copy of Why Photographers Must Stay Away from Train Tracks HERE

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Lori Peterson is an award winning photographer based out of the St. Louis Metro Area. Her dynamic work ranges from creative portraits to very unique fine art photography. Lori's work can be seen at www.loripetersonphotography.com and also on her blog. You can follow her on Facebook.

  • Randy Broadwater

    Railroad police are sworn law enforcement officers, typically with multi-state jurisdiction.

  • Erndog105

    I was going down I35 in Austin last week at90 mph. I wanted to take some pictures of the opposite lane of cars and get the unusual affect of cars going by.
    I got some great shots. If you try this please be careful.

  • Joanie

    Recently, as in just a couple weeks ago, a friend of mine was killed by a train while he was on the tracks having his photos done. Not only had this particular area of tracks in Washington state been the site of other fatalities, but the photographer didn’t bother to relay that info to her client.

    Such senseless deaths! Not just my friend but all the others who’ve died for the sake of a “cool photo”.

    I read this post several months ago and agreed with the idea that trespassing is wrong and working with clients on live tracks is just plain stupid. At no point while reading did I ever imagine someone I knew would end up being killed in such a manner and, yet, it has happened. It’s even worse knowing the photographer KNEW others had been killed in that same exact location and went ahead and decided to take my friend there anyway.

    “A 42-year-old man from Las Vegas, Nev., was struck and killed by an Amtrak train in the 900 block of C Street Southwest in Auburn last Saturday afternoon, Auburn police reported.

    According to the Las Vegas Sun, the victim was Jeff Ray, a guitarist for the Jersey Boys Band.

    A female friend was taking pictures of Ray, then sitting on the rails of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks, using Mount Rainier as a backdrop, when an Amtrak Cascades train approached from the south. Ray couldn’t get off the tracks in time before the train, traveling at 79 mph, struck him around 3:40 p.m., police reported.”

  • someone in USA

    As for parks if they are public park you don’t need to have permission!
    If its a private park on the other hand then yes you need permission!
    Animazement Park think they assume people are going to take pictures. Where they think is unsafe have a camera they tell you at less ones I have been to!

  • someone in USA

    Think it’s funny how people read what they what out of a comment. Then make it sound the way they what it to sound

  • Michael Novoseletsky

    Sorry “someone in the USA” but what you said is not true. Public parks are typically managed by the park district or some other village or city department. And they do often require you to obtain a permit. Public parks in the Chicagoland area DO INDEED require a permit if you’re shooting commercially OR they often lump weddings into that category as well.

    Please do go check your local listings and regulations before making blanket statements which simply aren’t true.

  • Buddy Burton

    First of all, driving at 90 in a 65 or 70 mph interstate hwy is not only wrong but DUMB. Just like photographing your clients on train tracks, that also is not only wrong but DUMB.

  • awesome shot here! ….stand up, hook up, shuffle to the door.

  • Mario Oostendorp

    Firstly lets look at the situation,we have some Police officers who are sworn to uphold the law but yet are quite happy to bend it when it comes photography. What they are doing is no different to you and I and yes you have done it. Railway Tracks are private property and so are railway yards. Railway lines make for great photography as do trains. Rules to remember a train can only travel in 2 directions forward and backwards. A fully laden train traveling at 60mph can take up 800m or 1/2 a mile to come to a complete stop after hitting an object and if you are on the tracks and a train is coming from behind you you may not even hear it. Safety is always paramount. As for the Americans I am quite sure we can find someone to draw some pictures to make it even more simple for you

  • Miboy

    You almost got the point. Maybe next time.

  • Miboy

    You should go back and re-read those posts. Slowly this time. Pretty sure they explicitly say that they are not advocating it.

  • Guest

    “Pennsylvania has no regulations or laws specifically targeted to railroad property or equipment.


  • Stoffers

    “Pennsylvania has no regulations or laws specifically targeted to railroad property or equipment.”
    How about for those who’s states don’t call it trespassing?

  • Stoffers

    “As an officer, I’m not advocating you run out and trespass on railroad tracks, that decision is yours.”

    ” including a self-professed police officer, who not only excuse, but openly advocate trespassing and lawbreaking.”

    I’m amazed at the number of commenters here who comment in English but can’t seem to comprehend a word of it.

  • MomInKS

    If you don’t have a local rail museum, another option is looking to see if there is an incomplete “rails to trails” program in your area. The tracks are there for quite a while after being disconnected from the active circuit and before they are cleared to make a trail. One clue to whether or not it has been disconnected is to look for old train intersections where the tracks have been removed and paved over but the tracks are still on either side of the road. It might still be private property, but that is a different issue than pure safety.

  • Guest

    Unfortunately, some people leave their brans checked at the door. It matters not how good a photographer you are. If your not using your head, your just heading to Darwin’s Yard…

  • Edward Millership

    Unfortunately, some people leave their brains checked at the door. It matters not how good a photographer you are. If your not using your head, your just heading to Darwin’s Yard…

  • JOhn

    In PA and in other states with no law “specifically targeted to RR property” standard no-trespass law applies as it does to any other private/commercial/industrial property, there just aren’t any RR-specific clauses. So in these states its just as illegal as say, strolling into a steel mill.

  • JOhn

    These laws exist to “protect people from themselves” which, if the average of commenters here is any sign, is a flawed system. I say if a person is dumb enough to be in the right of way, the train should just keep going, putting a train in emergency is just too dangerous and puts the general public at risk. You can’t avoid hitting a person on the tracks, and a human body won’t damage the train all that much. People need to get over it, if you’re dumb enough to be there at the wrong time, and illegally, why should the RR take extreme measures to save your life?

  • JOhn

    The “Midnight Rider” incident is the perfect example of why being on the railroad can look fine one minute and be deadly the next. They were there despite having clear correspondence from the railroad DENYING their request. They could hear the train, but did not have as much time as they though to “get clear”. Railroads do not grant these request regularly, they are far too busy these days, busier in the last two years than they’ve ever been in the last 40 years.

    You CANNOT anticipate when a train will come. Trains are big, and they DO NOT run on schedules (at least not in the US). You CANNOT hear a train doing more than 40mph soon enough to get out of the way, it just isn’t physically possible. It is nearly impossible for even the trained eye to estimate the speed of a train. The crew CANNOT stop the train for you, period, and frankly they shouldn’t have to try. It is YOUR job to stay out of the way and keep yourself (and others) alive.

    Railfan photographers get the majority of the flack, despite how hard we try to follow the rules, just because some stupid jackass (usually a “professional”) decides to “steal a shot”, break the law and get arrested or killed. WE suffer police harassment even when doing our hobby LEGALLY. So, if we see you trespassing, we’ll take your picture and call the police, no exceptions. Remember that the next time you see a bunch of us at the local crossing with our baseball caps, tripods, and nasty sneakers. Don’t trespass and we’ll be nice, maybe even help you get good shots!

  • GestapoKitteh

    “As an officer, I’m not advocating you run out and trespass on railroad tracks, that decision is yours. I am saying life is a risk. Just as a high rise iron worker attempts to mitigate his/her risk, at the end of the day there is still risk. I believe those with a real passion for photography (like most of us here) will take risks as needed to obtain that shot which will set us apart.”
    That is saying “Hey, if you think your shot is worth it, then go for it.” Tell me how it isn’t. There are MANY impressionable people out there, and the fact that you are a police officer saying something like this is deplorable.

  • GestapoKitteh

    Well, maybe you need to move out of Chicago, because I’ve never been to a public park that required a permit.

  • Michael Novoseletsky

    That’s a dumb comment. Just because you haven’t been asked for a permit, doesn’t mean they don’t require one. Usually not an issue. But technically those are the park district rules. Either way your comment lacks intelligence.

  • GestapoKitteh

    I’ve always checked to see if I needed a permit in any of the parks I’ve decided to shoot in. Every time I was told it wasn’t required. So, how does my comment lack intelligence?

  • JOhn
  • Jason N photography

    I did that in Union, IL and some crabby man yelled at me for it.

  • Professional Trespasser

    Being paranoid and scared of everything and too afraid to live a little is the best advise I’ve ever read. Safety first! God forbid we do anything risky or borderline dangerous. God lord people, did your parents lock in a padded room your entire lives? Oh no trespassing! Trains! West Nile Virus! Hahahahaha You can all just stay in the safety and security of your suburban homes and studios, and I’ll go out and take the photos that are actually exciting and worth looking at. Call me ignorant, but at least my life, and photos, won’t be boring.

  • Shannon Parker

    First of all, the traffic in Austin is horrendous!! It is nearly bumper to bumper.. so I’m amazed that you would be able to do 90mph on I-35 at anytime of day. Secondly, as a fellow Texan, photographer enthusiast, and law abiding citizen, I hope I never see you or I may just be inclined to beat the ever living tar out of you. That is just ignorance beyond belief to drive like that, no matter what the reason is!! Wise up, or you won’t live to see or catch any great shots! Word….

  • y_p_w

    As has been noted, railroad police have full police powers in most states. Amtrak Police are designated as federal law enforcement officers. Many commuter railroads contract with police or sheriff’s agencies. While they might not have the right to delete files, they do have the right to collect evidence in case of arrest for trespassing like any other police officer.

    So if you’re trespassing on railroad property, then they might confiscate your camera as evidence the same as a burglary suspect might have lockpicking tools taken into evidence upon arrest.

  • y_p_w

    Appreciate the article, but I’d just like to point out that there’s no delay for a passenger train being pushed.

    A typical passenger train in “push configuration” will have the engineer in a cab car with full controls similar to the ones in the locomotive. It’s a fully wired control and overrides the controls in the locomotive. I take commuter trains all the time. In push, there’s typically nobody in the locomotive. There’s no need to relay anything by radio to the locomotive since everything can be controlled from the other end of the train.

  • Terry La France

    Clearly she has mixed her information, though all of it is basically correct. The speeds she cites are high speed passenger speeds. The push or pull issue is irrelevant, and she fails to understand the actual operation but it doesn’t change the fact you should stay off the tracks.

  • Terry La France

    Did you coordinate with the museum staff about being on the rails or did you just pay to go in and started shooting?

  • Terry La France

    The ability to appreciate satire is a lost art, especially in social media. But at least I got the point.

  • Terry La France

    Satire is often too subtle for most people.

  • Terry La France

    Railroads= private property. As in you are not welcome by the owners. Owners that vigorously protect their private property with their own police and years of funding public awareness campaigns to educate people to stay off.

    Streets= public property, free to be as stupid as you want within the limits of the law.

    Your disregard for these owner’s property is at the center of the issue.

  • don’tbeanass

    It’s not pushing a boundary it’s breaking a law, I can’t walk up to someone’s house and start snapping photos. If track inspectors find you on the tracks they have a legal obligation to stop, notify the authorities and try to question you because of the new anti terrorism policies. Don’t harass them at work like this just stay off private property.

  • Don’tdothis

    If a railroad employee finds photographs you took on the tracks it’s proof of willful trespass, if they decide to pursue charges, you will lose that case and will be fined, and remember ignorance is not an excuse. They will most certainly pursue charges if they tell you not to trespass and catch you doing it again. I wouldn’t go up to your house and start taking pictures of your backyard so why should you be able to do it to them?

  • Mary E Woodward

    Crazy cool!

  • Mary E Woodward

    People?! No way! Really!? I have a family member who is a state trooper. He was involved in a car accident, where he was found at fault. The driver didn’t make it. It IS a very dangerous intersection and visibility is close to none. I know I’m off topic, but my point is, God forbid and officer be considered a human being that can also make mistakes!! He has been harassed, bashed, you name it. Forget that he has to live with the fact that he is responsible for the death of a Mom who has 2 children the same ages as his. I think most people who have not been on/in the medical field, are totally ignorant to the fact that we are all just people as they are. If no one went on tracks, we wouldn’t have some of the amazing photographs that we do!

  • Alicia

    Thank you for posting this. My husband is a railroad engineer for a freight company, and one of his biggest fears is killing someone on the tracks. There are a couple of really interesting shots I’d love to capture around me, involving trains and tracks, but I know from listening to him that the tracks and surrounding land are private property. You don’t have to be physically on the tracks to be trespassing. This is one case where post-processing/Photoshop is a wonderful thing. Don’t risk lives to “get the shot.” There is not a single one that is worth that.

  • u THANT

    There is a trial starting in my little town on Monday precisely because of taking pics on railroad tracks without permission.

  • ebolaoutkast

    What a shame, well, can’t expect all police officers to behave appropriately.

  • Merlin 702

    I had a very nice park ranger run me out of a public park while shooting some images. He explained that with the gear that I had with me ( tripod), that, yes, I would need a permit. Just bring my insurance paperwork covering the city and county , assorted fees, and possibly an application for the police dept. for security, to the licensing dept. and I should have my permit in about 2-3 weeks.

  • DHoffmann

    Umm, Lori Peterson – does Union Pacific know you`re using their name? The PDF of “laws” gave you away. Nice try though.

  • Clark

    You are right about the limits of their powers, but wrong about their designation. They most certainly ARE police with FEDERAL-LEVEL jurisdiction! Doesn’t make them Federal agents/officers, but they are RR police in at least every state their railroad operates in as codified by Federal law. Some states extend their authority, some limit it strictly to railroad offenses, but they are full police officers in every state of the Union.

  • Kal Kelley

    That wasn’t a crabby man, it was my mother-in-law.

  • Mister Salty

    In addition to trespassing, virtually every photo I’ve seen on a railroad track at this point is a cliche. Be more creative when you’re looking for a photo location.

  • Duane S. Loya

    You can’t on their property, but you can from a cross the street on public property or even on the side walk right in front of their house. That doesn’t mean someone from the house will not call the police, I know I have photographs farm barns from public property and have been approached by the police later on about what I was doing and told them I was on public property photographing the farm barn. Which I am immediately free to go.

  • Duane S. Loya

    I don’t think Warren said anything bad, he was in the middle with his entire statement. I have used railroad crossings which I am allowed to cross on foot like a car is allowed to cross to shoot a train that is standing still. I have to keep moving I can not stop in the middle of the crossing area, but legally I have the right to cross there.

  • Pam M – Grand Inspirations

    Let’s keep spreading this important rail safety message in the photography community. I worked closely with Operation Lifesaver and friends in the railroad industry to write this recent rail safety article >> http://bit.ly/TLT-Rail-Safety

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