Caution! Train photography can be dangerous

Los Angeles Union Station main waiting room, photo by NSL Photography

Trains and train stations, whether modern or historic, are often a favorite photography subject for travelers. The attraction to photograph trains of all kinds and ages has been pulling vacationers to stand on tracks and train platforms to catch perfect shots for years.

The world’s love affair with railroads and railroading started in the 19th century and continues to this day. Travelers wish to both enjoy trains of a bygone age and use today’s fast trains as transportation to see the world. Thousands flock to ride Amtrak’s California Zephyr and discover the American countryside each year, riding from Chicago to San Francisco passing through the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevadas, as well as Byers and Glenwood Canyons.

Thousands more ride restored railroads, such as the Strasburg Railroad in Pennsylvania, steaming along the Amish countryside, or the Wilmington and Western Railroad, which puffs through Delaware’s Red Clay Valley.

In Europe, thousands more board such great train rides as the Chocolate Train, riding between Montreux and Gruyeres in Switzerland, or the Flam Railway in Norway, which climbs 2,838 feet with spectacular views. Others take the two-day journey from London to Venice aboard the restored Simplon-Orient Express, hearkening back to the “Golden Age” of rail in Europe.

Viewing, riding and photographing today’s modern trains is also part of our continued romance with train travel. People want the experience of riding in a train traveling at 200 mph across the countryside or moving through the Chunnel at high speed, and photograph them as well.

Whole museums devoted to train travel, like Baltimore’s B&O Railroad Museum, greet countless visitors every day. While anyone traveling to Philadelphia has heard of the Franklin Institute’s walk-through heart, no one misses a chance to see, touch and step on to its massive Baldwin 60000, 350-ton steam locomotive, during their visit there.

All that romance of the rails aside, railroad photography can be dangerous unless serious safety precautions are taken. Train traffic on the rails is unpredictable, with passenger and freight traffic often sharing the rails. Moreover, we can never forget that trains move much more quickly than human beings can run; if they hit anyone, their mass will crush them.

In December, 2012, for example, Kathy Carlisle, a 52-year-old professional photographer and an instructor at St. Francis High, was photographing an approaching train from an adjacent track when she was struck from behind by another train headed in the opposite direction.

This past January, a 42-year-old man was hit by an Amtrak train in Auburn, Washington, while his girl friend was taking photos of him sitting on the tracks.

I see travelers regularly taking photos of trains and stations and have made train images myself. I’ve seen travelers take absurd risks to capture their “perfect” images. I’ve made many railroading images at shoots over the years, including a recent series of images of the world famous Grand Central Station.

In 2009 I extensively photographed Amtrak’s Autotrain for a piece I wrote in June of that year for Consumer Traveler: Buy your car a train ticket: A complete AutoTrain user guide. In making many of the photographs, I was in and around the train cars themselves, tracks, loading ramps and stations. Safety was on my mind every second. I had help to ensure I was always at a safe location while photographing the train.

According to the US Federal Railroad Administration, about 250 people who are standing on or crossing train tracks are killed annually by trains running them down. This is a major improvement since the 1990s when 400 to more than 600 people were killed annually by trains. Of course, not all or even most of those killed by trains were travelers or photographers, but train photography has led to enough deaths that Operation Lifesaver, a “non-profit organization, providing public education programs to prevent collisions, injuries and fatalities on and around railroad tracks and highway-rail grade crossings,” has a safety program devoted to train photography.

If you intend to indulge your love of trains and railroading by photographing them in action while traveling, please follow the below guidelines so you’ll be able to enjoy sharing your images with friends and family when you come home.

1. Never forget that trains can’t stop quickly to avoid colliding with people or vehicles on their tracks.

2. If you’re photographing while on train tracks, unless you’re on an extremely long straightaway, remember that the engineer running the train may not be able to see you until it’s too late to stop the train from colliding with you.

3. Especially when a train is moving at high speed, it’s extremely hard for anyone to accurately estimate how long it will take the train to arrive at your position.

4. The typical train car overhangs the track on both sides of the car by three feet (1 meter) or more — even if you’re not on the tracks, you still could be hit by the train.

5. It is folly to assume that any train tracks are abandoned or totally inactive. Some tracks look inactive, but are used periodically.

6. Always find a way to get a great shot without playing “chicken” with a train weighing thousands of tons.

Ned Levi is a professional travel photographer. You can view some of Ned’s travel and other photos at NSL Photography, or get more travel photography advice at the NSL Photography Blog.