Taking pictures on railroad tracks is illegal & deadly

Railroad Tracks


I know a lot of photographers who take their clients to railroad tracks for their session. I will admit, it makes for an awesome backdrop, but the danger of my client (or myself for that matter) dying for a “pretty picture” OR being thrown in jail has always kept me off the tracks. Wait? What? Dying? Being thrown in jail? Huh?

I have heard over and over again from clients and other photographers that there is nothing illegal about stepping on a railroad track. It’s then that I have to educate them; because yes it is. The police have no problem throwing you AND your clients in jail for it. Some still don’t believe me, but as a professional photographer I know the laws when it comes to photographing on property that is not owned be either me or the client, to include random spots in the city. That’s what being a professional means.

For instance, did you know that many cities REQUIRE a permit before you can hold a session in their city parks? State and National parks always require a permit. Oh and doing a session on railroad tracks is illegal.

Standing on railroad tracks can kill you. For instance, in late 2012 a teacher, who taught art and photography, was struck and killed by a train while taking photos on the tracks.

The Danger!

Everyone always thinks they will see the train in time. The sad fact is, that by the time you see or hear the train, it is usually too late. Even if you spot it on a straight stretch of tracks from 5 miles away (highly unlikely), what happens if you go to step off and your foot gets stuck? It has happens, more times than anyone would like to count. Even “abandoned” tracks can become active without you ever knowing.

Another interesting fact, trains typically overhang the tack on each side by 3 feet.

So if your photographer says oh these are abandoned, the only way he/she will know that is if she found out who owns that stretch of railroad track and called them right before stepping on that track, not last week, not yesterday, but right before.

It’s illegal!

And lets assume that is the case, now you add into the fact that what you are doing is illegal unless you have gotten written permission from the railroad company that owns that set of tracks or if they are abandoned and ownership was handed back to the original owner of the land, then the owner of the land. Either way it is PRIVATE PROPERTY AND YOU ARE TRESPASSING.

The railroad may outright own some portions of the track or it may have only the right to use other portions, which are held in easement. Easement (if you are not familiar with the term) means a right to use the land belonging to another for a particular purpose, such as for right-of-way. Either way, if you are going to photograph on those tracks you must get written permission from the property owner, and finding out who owns that section of track can be time consuming, and rather complicated. I won’t go into detail here as you can search on how to do that through the internet. But trust me when I say, it’s a nice long process!

If you do not have written permission from that railroad company (or the owner of the land if it was transferred back), you can be fined up to $10,000 AND thrown in jail for criminal trespassing.

Something else to consider…the railroad company doesn’t own only the land under the tracks but on either side of the tracks as well. The distance varies but could be anywhere from 10 feet on either side of the track on up to 100’s of feet on the other side, no matter where it lays (even if it runs through your land). You won’t know for sure without doing a lot of digging and  looking at the official property lines. The only time you can legally step foot on railroad tracks is if you are crossing them at a designated crossing (or have written permission from the land owner that owns the land the tracks are laid on).

Tracks are policed!

Believe it or not tracks are policed by local law enforcement. Think you are safe from a fine or arrest by shooting on tracks that are “out in the sticks”? Think again! Most locomotives are equipped with cameras  AND many “rail fans” (train lovers who typically go to different stations and tracks to take pictures of the trains and tracks) participate in the Protect The Line. Can you say cheese? I hope so because your photographer won’t be the only one taking your picture! The rail fans share pictures of you and pictures of your vehicle and license plates number to local authorities.

So if you are dead set on risking your life and jail time, this professional photographer will not help you do it! I would suggest finding another “photographer” that doesn’t mind committing criminal acts =)

Now this doesn’t mean that a little later down the road you won’t see me taking photos on tracks. WAIT! WHAT? And by tracks I mean ones that I have built personally on my own land that lead to absolutely no where! My husband has promised to buy acreage as close to the city as possible, he will use it to hunt, but most importantly I will have at least 5 acres that are all mine to build a photographers playground of every scene you can think of all in one location =)

How cool would it be to go to one location, but be able to get “country” “city park” “urban” railroad tracks” and so many more “locations” all in one place? Yea I thought it was cool to, so be on the lookout for that!

For more information about stay safe around railroad tracks, visit Operation Lifesaver, Inc.

Still think you can stay safe? Watch this video:

Leave a Reply