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Master Class: Tracks Not Worth the Risk

Train track sessions are both dangerous and illegal

By Robert A. Howard, M.Photog.Cr., CPP

Holders of the PPA Master of Photography degree share essays and ideas in service to the industry.

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As a professional photographer with more than 30 years of experience, I can truly say I’ve seen it all and in many cases done it all. Staying on the cutting edge of the photography profession requires dedication, creativity, and the ability push the limits.

I’ve photographed nearly every type of subject during my career, but nothing challenges my creativity more than capturing the personalities of high school seniors. Their outside-the-box ideas, while sometimes frustrating, are always fascinating. I’ve seen many trends come and go and just as many recycled with a unique spin, but one of the most common requests I’ve received in the past five years is for train track sessions.

Teenagers nationwide are fascinated with those parallel lines of steel, which they see as a symbol of transition in their young lives. Some teens pose between the rails, with the vanishing point of perspective representing their journey into the future. Others walk the tracks strumming a guitar, mimicking musicians they admire.

I admit I’ve done dozens of these sessions, never really taking into account the danger or the potential legal consequences associated with my actions. Yes, that’s correct. Train track sessions are illegal. Hard to believe, given that a Google search for “train track session” churns up hundreds of images of children, families, brides, and high school seniors taken all over the United States. It demonstrates the serious lack of knowledge that these extremely popular sessions can actually get you arrested and fined. Nearly every image I took on or near the tracks was not only very dangerous but involved me breaking the law. At a minimum, I could have been cited for trespassing.

KNOW THE DANGERS

These days, when I’m asked to provide this type of session I am quick to say no and here’s why: First and foremost, it’s dangerous. The railroading industry spends a great deal of time and effort teaching employees safety measures when working around the tracks. In spite of all this training, the industry has hundreds of accidents annually. And it’s not just the risk of being hit by an oncoming train; posing in and around the steel rails and wooden ties can cause physical injury from slips and falls.

If you think you’re safe because you never pose in an area with heavy train traffic—or that you’d see or hear a train long before you’re in danger—you’re wrong. The railroad typically builds tracks in as straight a line as possible between points A and B. However, every track has turns or bends that were designed to avoid an object or an area. Add to this the often dense growth of trees and bushes that line the track, and the train crew’s line of sight is dramatically reduced.

The danger is compounded by the fact that trains are large, heavy, fast-moving objects that don’t stop on a dime. The average freight train engine travels 50 mph, weighs over 120 tons, and requires more than a mile to come to a complete stop. Roughly every three hours in the United States, a person or vehicle is hit by a train.

If those statistics alone don’t put an end to your quest for this type of photography, there are several additional reasons to avoid train tracks cited by the Federal Railroad Administration and Operation Lifesaver, a national nonprofit organization devoted to railroad safety education:

• Trains can’t stop quickly to avoid people or vehicles on the tracks.

• An optical illusion makes it hard to determine a train’s distance from you and its speed.

• The average train overhangs the track by at least 3 feet.

• Railroad tracks, trestles, yards, and rights-of-way are private property.

• No tracks should be assumed to be abandoned or inactive.

• People in your community mimic your behavior.

Some photographers argue that these issues don’t apply to them because they conduct train track sessions only on old or abandoned tracks. But the Federal Railroad Administration notes that all tracks, live or dead, whether owned by private freight or public transit, are dangerous. Nearly all of these tracks are private property, and you’re trespassing by doing anything other than legally crossing them via a marked roadway, grade crossing, or other safely posted location. The bottom line is this: If you’re still considering a train tracks session, think again, because in addition to the safety issues, both you and your client could be fined up to $10,000 or even face arrest.

TRACKS ARE POLICED

Yes, enforcement is real. Every time I did one of these sessions I risked that a police officer or railroad employee would see me engaged in this illegal activity. Most modern locomotives are equipped with cameras, so the chance of being caught and identified is more real than ever. And if you’re still thinking It’ll never happen to me, allow me to add one last deterrent: Nationwide there are hundreds of thousands of “rail fans”—train lovers with cameras. They are trackside nearly every hour of every day. While engaging in their hobby, many are also participating in Protect the Line, a program that asks these individuals to keep a watchful eye out for anything that is unsafe around the tracks. Many of these rail fans have photographed pro photographers and their clients as they engage in this illegal activity. Their images along with license plate numbers are shared with authorities on a regular basis.

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Posing young clients on train tracks is dangerous,
illegal, and not very creative. Steer them toward
more interesting and original settings.
©Robert A. Howard

Up to this point, most of us have been lucky. In many cases, if caught, you may receive a warning, but sooner or later you will have to pay the piper, and that could be a huge check to write. We need to ask ourselves whether taking such a big risk for such an unoriginal style of portrait is really worth jeopardizing the safety of all the people involved.

Safety needs to be a top priority for professional photographers; we need to set the best example. We all need to educate fellow professionals, amateur image-makers, and clients about the real risks associated with train track sessions.

Robert Howard has been a PPA member since 1987. He is the owner of Howard Studios in Lebanon, Pa. howardstudios.com

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