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.

  • VELS14

    It’s hard to believe intelligent people would stand on active train tracks to get a photo and not pay attention to what’s going on around them, but obviously they do it.

  • NedLevi

    LZ126 pointed out Sen Blumenthal and his aide correctly as just another two people not paying attention to what’s going on around them. They aren’t stupid people, but clearly, they do lack some sense. Thanks for your readership.

  • LZ126

    Too bad Senator Blumenthal (D-Conn.) didn’t read your article before appearing for that photo op on the Milford Amtrak platform! :-D

  • NedLevi

    Indeed, you are right. As zephyr17 said, the yellow line is a bare minimum. We all actually need to stand behind the entire yellow line. Sen. Blumenthal’s aide stood on the line and setup the easel on it, which was almost knocked over.

    Sen. Blumenthal’s aide is a very lucky man. Had he been a bit closer he might very well have been hit by the train.

    Thanks for your readership.

  • LZ126

    That was no aide – that was the senator himself!!! (The speaker was the mayor of Milford).

  • zephyr17

    Well said. As a railfan photographer I am often appalled at the danger people unfamiliar with railroads put themselves in. People do not understand the size and speed of trains, and the platform yellow line is a bare minimum.
    I will add some other pointers about behavior around trains or in stations.
    1. Keep a close eye on your children on platforms. NEVER allow them to play onto the tracks, and keep them well back when a train is passing.
    2. Never stand on the rail head, never try to “rail walk”. Rails are bare steel and can be slippery. They are just far enough apart that if you slip, your head is likely to land on the other rail and crack your skull. This is over and above to simply STAY OFF THE TRACKS.
    3. If you must cross the tracks, only do so at designated places where there are walkways. Follow the instructions of Amtrak/railroad personel.
    4. When a train is arriving, it will always have bells ringing. If the engineer sounds his horn, too, that usually means someone is too close for comfort and to MOVE BACK. Make sure he isn’t sounding his horn at YOU.
    I also have a selfish motivation. As railroads have gotten more liability concious, they have cracked down on photographers. Most railfans know how to behave around a railroad, but there are a number people who don’t, and the railroads tend to crack down on anyone with a camera, whether or not they are exhibiting safe behavior.
    “Any train, any track, any time.”

  • NedLevi

    Thanks for your readership and your great additional guidelines.

  • bodega3

    We have a new rail system being put in here in our area. Trains haven’t been running in our area for a couple of decades, so with the new system being implemented, public service messages have to be issued as many don’t know how to act safely around them.