September is National Rail Safety Month.
Photos taken on railroad tracks seem to be popular, especially for senior portraits or engagement photos. I get it. People associate railroads with a sense of adventure and romance. Railroads can symbolize moving from one stage of your life into another. For this reason, several rail safety campaigns target photographers. Hardly a year goes by without reports of a train killing someone taking photos on train tracks. These photos simply are not worth it. That said, I’ll never take a photo on railroad tracks. (This post concerns active railroad tracks. Assuming you have permission from the owner, there is nothing wrong with photos on inactive tracks).
Taking Photos on Train Tracks is Illegal
Let’s get this out of the way quickly. Railroad tracks are private property, not public as commonly thought. Railroads own them. Taking a photo on tracks is no different than sneaking onto someone’s land to take some photos.
I’ll grant you prosecutors are unlikely to charge you for being on railroad tracks. That said, it is still illegal, and I’m not going to risk it for a photograph, especially since, in Mississippi, the property owner is, by law, not liable for your injuries if you are trespassing.
Photos on Train Tracks are Dangerous
Most people misunderstand and underestimate the dangers of taking photos on railroad tracks. Statistically, a train hits someone or something in the United States every 94 minutes. Most of the time, the train is not at fault.
You Can’t Hear a Train Until it’s Too Late
It’s a common misconception that you will hear a train in time to get off the tracks. That simply isn’t true.
For this photo, I set up to take a photo just of the tracks. Suddenly, the train appeared. Even though I was maybe a half-mile, if that, from the curve in the tracks, I couldn’t hear any noise from the train.
Trains Minimize Friction with the Rails
Trains are remarkably silent for their size. The first reason for this is engineers design trains and train tracks to require as little energy as possible once the train gets up to speed. Look closely at either a wheel on a rail car or the rails of a railroad track. You’ll notice they have a polished finish where they contact one another. This allows the train to move with as little friction as possible—so little, in fact, a single person can push a train car on well-maintained tracks.
The side effect of this is there is the train generates very little sound from moving on the tracks. Most of the sound comes from the engines on the locomotive and from the couplings between train cars.
Environmental Factors Affect Sound
Secondly, environmental factors can mask the sound of a train. A hard rain muffles all but the loudest sounds. Trees, snow, and some types of earth “absorb” sound similar to baffles in a recording studio. Brick and metal buildings reflect the sound back in the direction from which the train is coming. If you’ve ever spent any amount of time outdoors, you know wind hinders the transmission of sound when it blows away from you.
In short, you shouldn’t rely on sound to give you adequate warning of an approaching train.
Trains Are Designed to Keep Rolling
As I stated earlier, trains are designed to have as little friction as possible between the wheels and the tracks. Trains have difficulty stopping because the huge weight involved and this low coefficient of friction between their wheels and the track.
That’s very simplified. Many other factors are at play, such as temperature, train length, atmospheric pressure, humidity, and more. The best thing I’ve found: if you have to ask how long it takes a train to stop, the answer is, “Too long.”
It’s Not Just Your Life That’s Affected
If you are killed or injured while taking a photo on train tracks, you aren’t the only one affected. It also affects:
- the train engineer
- the photographer or model (assuming they survive)
- your family and friends
- first responders
So don’t pretend that you know the risk and are ok assuming the risk. Did you consult all those others whom your decision will affect? I didn’t think so.
Train Track Photos are Cliché
These photos are so common that they lack artistic value. If you are going to make such a photo, you might as well use selective color while you are at it. You can evoke the same sense of adventure with a photo of a dirt road or a hiking trail. I don’t advocate risking your life for a photo, but if you are going to do that, at least do it for something groundbreaking.
Do you think I overstated the dangers of taking photos on train tracks? Let me know in the comments.