Stay off the train tracks!

I see it all the time, photographers posting pictures of their clients on and around train tracks.


1) It is illegal – Photographing on active tracks is always illegal and photographing dormant tracks is almost always illegal.  The tracks and the area surrounding them are private property, so when you shoot on the tracks you are breaking the law (criminal trespassing). Even if you don’t see trains on the tracks, and there’s vegetation growing up in the railbed, it is still private property and those tracks can be active at any time.

If the tracks are dormant and non-functional they will be clearly marked, and even then your presence on them is still trespassing.

2) Photographing on tracks is trespassing and subject to fines.  Assuming you find some abandoned tracks that are cut off from the rest of the rail network, you’re still trespassing. Trespassing is a misdemeanor that can result in fines and/or jail time. Inactive tracks that are on private property could still result in heavy fines and/or jail time for you and your client. The fine for being caught on the tracks can be up to $5,000 and 30 days in jail. The officers who monitor the tracks issue those fine regularly.

3) You may be asked to remove your pictures from your website or social media. Most rail companies are monitoring the internet for pictures of their rail lines and requesting removal of the images. That photo is really all the proof they need to charge you with trespass.

4) It sets a bad example.  I know that you can green screen the image, which gives the allure that you are using train tracks. This causes other photographers to continue to misuse the train tracks. This is then communicated to children and teens that it is ok as well. You wouldn’t pose your child in the middle of a busy freeway or on the ledge of a high rise building would you?

5) You could lose your business insurance coverage. Your insurance won’t cover you and you’ll likely be dropped. Business liability insurance is built on the principle that you have taken necessary steps to avoid the risk. If you are committing a crime by trespassing and shooting on train tracks, then you did not take the steps to avoid necessary risk. If your client twists an ankle or worse dies due to your lack of care, you may be up a creek. Your equipment if damaged as the result of your crime won’t be covered either.

My own insurance would be void and discontinued if we did something blatantly illegal and dangerous like this. Check with yours to see if they would cover you or your business if you were to drop your camera while trespassing, or your client twists an ankle, or worse.

6) Physics is not on your side.  An optical illusion makes it hard to determine a train’s distance from you – and its speed.  Trains can’t stop quickly to avoid people or vehicles on the tracks, in fact it may take MILES to come to a complete stop.  Also, the average train overhangs the track by at least three feet, so moving off the track itself is not enough to avoid injury (or worse). Often people move from one track to another and are hit by the unknown train on the other track.

7) The potential for injury or death is too great. Last year, more than 800 people were injured or killed while trespassing on railroad property in the U.S., according to preliminary Federal Railroad Administration statistics. A photography teacher was recently killed when she was photographing active tracks.  Locally, not far from my studio, two teens were tragically killed while photographing on the tracks.  And just recently, one photographer died and another is injured in California after standing on tracks to take pictures.  Even though we do not have high speed trains in the US it is still difficult to move out of the way of a moving train in time, as evidenced by this high injury and death rate, despite all the publicity around this issue.  Check out this video for some additional hard hitting information:  How far can you run in 60 seconds?

Portraits on train tracks have become enough of a concern that Operation Lifesaver addresses this topic specifically in it’s latest education campaigns.  OLI’s mission is to end collisions, deaths and injuries at highway-rail grade crossings and along railroad rights of way.

“We know that photographers seek creative portrait settings; however, using train tracks as a backdrop for photos is not only dangerous, it is illegal trespassing,” said Operation Lifesaver, Inc. President and CEO Joyce Rose.

If I see a photographer post portraits on the tracks on social media, I will be sending them a message letting them know that they put themselves, their business, and their client in danger.