America's Largest Railroad Urges Photographers to Get Off of the Tracks

America's Largest Railroad Urges Photographers to Get Off of the Tracks

With the trend of using train tracks in photographs continuing seemingly unabated, we hear of another avoidable tragedy far too often. One railroad has had enough.

Union Pacific Railroad has recently launched a social media campaign strongly encouraging photographers and high school seniors to stop taking photos on or near train tracks. Using the hashtags #TracksAreForTrains and #SafeSeniorPhoto, they have encouraged the public to hashtag safe photos (particularly senior photos, which seems to be particularly prone to this trend) that do not involve train tracks. They have also released a short video that illuminates the ill-fated logic of shooting on tracks, comparing it to shooting on a highway:

Photographing near railroads has long been a hot topic of debate in photography, as it is both illegal and dangerous, but nonetheless, photographers and clients continue to use the tracks, often with tragic results. One only needs to perform a quick Google search to find numerous examples of photographers and clients who have been struck and killed by trains in the midst of photoshoots:

A Google search makes the grim reality of mixing photography and train tracks clear.

I myself have very little patience for the persistence of this trend. People often make the fatal mistake of believing tracks are abandoned or that trains are so large and loud that they will hear them coming with plenty of time to move from the tracks, but as these stories prove time and time again, this is not the case. Worse, trains can take miles to stop. Often, we hear of photographers or filmmakers who become trapped on a bridge by an oncoming train that cannot stop and end up literally running for their lives, sometimes losing that race. I also find it to be a very careless, selfish and unprofessional way to conduct oneself. It's one thing to place your own life at risk, but to risk the lives of your clients is utterly unacceptable. Furthermore, no train engineer wants to spend the rest of their life knowing that a train they were in command of ended someone's life. When we make assumptions about the schedule, loudness, or agility of trains, we are taking a perilous and unnecessary gamble.

Even if the dangerous nature and illegality of photographing on train tracks doesn't sway you, the cliché and uncreative essence of it should. We've all seen hundreds, if not thousands of train track photos in our careers. Let's find a more creative, inspiring and safe way to take pictures that doesn't risk the lives and well-being of ourselves, our clients and train operators in the process. Read more from Union Pacific here.

One of Union Pacific's public awareness images. Courtesy: Union Pacific

Lead image by Wikipedia user Kmw2700

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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Honestly, railroad tracks are so cliche. Isn't it time we start thinking outside the box when it comes to these types of photos? Every time I see a photographer shooting a client on the tracks, I die a little on the inside. But hey, at least they aren't using selective color!

You mean like this?!? (This isn't mine, I don;t shoot on train tracks or use selective color)



I love images on train tracks with the model wearing a gas mask and giving me the finger. Awesome.

The cliche argument is a good one. The highway analog is less persuasive—unless the highway you are referring to is completely devoid of vehicles 99 times out of the hundred that you pass by it. And the fact that it is illegal...well, so is speeding.

Personally, I'm very conscious of getting trapped on a bridge or in a tunnel with no means of escape. However if I'm in a relatively quiet environment with a good view of the tracks in both directions I won't hesitate to be up on them. I have yet to read a convincing explanation as to why you wouldn't hear and feel train coming with more than enough time to take five steps to safety. That said, I am open to having my mind changed.

Another good argument would be the trespassing on private property argument ...

I completely agree with you, Timothy.. and not just because of your name. Also, when they request train track shots you can always inform your client of the dangers of such an escapade, asking them to be ultra-vigulant as to the tracks behind you, while you keep a second eye on the tracks behind them.

Life is dangerous, and common sense goes a long way. The dangers must always be weighed with the rewards, fully compensating the dangers with proper precautions after a clear-headed analysis. If there's no immediate escape after sensing the danger of a train, then I would never enter such an area, like that of a bridge.

Trains can sneak up on you. Granted, being on a straight portion of the track with unobstructed view helps reduce the risk, but sometimes people can become distracted or focused enough onto something that you lose situational awareness.
Not being "trapped" (ie. on a bridge or tunnel) certainly helps to run back to safety faster (as you said, it only takes 5 big steps and you're safe)

I lived almost all my child and teen years very near a railroad track. Electric engines make almost no noise and you do not hear them coming until they are almost there. the ground tremors can easily be overlooked also.
Of course, diesel and coal engines (are there coal engines these days?) are a lot noisier and you get some room to react. But get caught on a bridge and you're as good as dead

@brendan baker I bet they are too!

Given what happened on the set of Midnight Rider and the tragedy that followed, I'm not in the least bit surprised by this.

i agree with tim. every train i have seen makes noise and the ground does rumble. i would never go onto a bridge but that's just me. i see that there are always guys getting hit by them but really how dumb do you have to be to get hit by a train ? they can't sneak up on you. i'm sure this will anger many and draw the expected negative comments but think about it. if you wanna play chicken or get that super close shot, you will lose. yes it is illegal, so are a lot of things people do and get killed at.

cliche probably. but so are so many other photos.

here is one of mine, looks a bit over saturated though. these tracks are dead and i'm standing in a hole at the end of them so if a train does come i'll get some great derailment shots.

trains CAN sneak up on you. I lived for almost 20 years very close to a railroad track which was used mainly for electrically powered trains. They are very very quiet. Add a little bit of environmental noise, a little distraction and you'll only notice the train coming once it's already there

They can indeed sneak up on you! I was 12 years old and walked along the tracks to get to school and back everyday (it was the shortcut used by all the kids). This was before any music-listening devices and headphones were around, so my hearing was not impaired. Had someone not pushed me off the tracks, I would be one of those "dumb" people that got hit by a train. I didn't hear it, didn't feel it; couldn't see it because it was coming from behind.
There's a track in my city that people normally cross to access a local hiking trail. I've crossed that track a few times when no train was visible or audible, only to hear/see one come barreling around the bend mere seconds after I finished crossing.

i too grew up around the tracks. either we have diff trains or i'm a lot quicker than you. to look and see no train and have one come wizzing by mere seconds after makes no sense, unless you lived in japan and that bullet train was it. i get it that it's dangerous and people get squished by them all the time. i just think it's tough to get hit if your paying attention. that's just my opinion.

If a client wants photos on the tracks, I tell them that I am the wrong photographer for them. I want to be able to focus 100% on giving them the best photos possible, not worrying about getting myself or my clients run over by a train. Besides that, locally there is only one really good spot for photos on the tracks and it is horribly over shot. I am pretty sure that I am the only photographer in town who doesn't have at least one shot in that spot in my portfolio.

Honest question: Why is it illegal in the US to take pictures of railroad tracks? Is it that tracks are not to be photographed for whatever reason, or that getting into harms way (i.e. standing on tracks) to get the shot is illegal in a "reckless endangerment" kinda way?

(not being sarcastic or anything... not being a US citizen and being unfamiliar with these kinds of laws, reading that it's illegal makes me wonder)

Hi Javier,

It's not illegal to take pictures of railroad tracks in general; it's illegal to be on the tracks, as they are private property (as is the land on either side). This is strictly enforced because of the numerous safety issues involved.

Thanks for clearing that up for me :)


There is a lot to be said for tacking photos by trains. I got this Photo of a mother and a son by a Train. Of course it should be mentioned that the train struck and killed his cousins in a car who were going to pick him up. He live across the tracks.
Trains can be traveling at 70 mph and it can take1-2 miles for them to stop.

Trains are only loud and rumbley in the movies. Here in Missouri I was doing a photoshoot not on the tracks but with 100 feet (and no the tracks wasn't part of the shoot) This train was at top speed, and all I heard was a faint whistle turned and looked there it was and it was gone.

They are very quiet when they are up and running fast. I was very surprised that they are so quiet.

Other reasons? Trains, even slow moving ones have kicked up ballast acting as a projectile. Heavy straps have come loose, flapping in the breeze up to 10' or so from the edge of rail. On a bridge and can out run a slow moving train? Maybe. Railroad ties are soaked in creosote, usually unevenly spaced and the stone in between can be pointy. Walking is a challenge, let alone running. So one might be willing to dodge trains while carrying thousands of dollars worth of equipment? Hope you or your client does not trip. Rail is abandoned. Ok, maybe. If it is, the rail line may not be maintained. So what? If it is maintained, railroads spend tens of thousands of dollars even on a short line treating their right of way with herbicides - that's chemicals folks. Does anyone walk in their or other backyards when Chem-Lawn puts down their treatment? Would you want yourself and a client to enter an area that you did not know the last time it was sprayed? - and this is commercial stuff, not the minor league stuff used next door. If not treated, it is amazing what grows near and between the rails. Many plants beginning with the word, "Poison..." Abandoned lines have rail that 'sheds" and leaves paper thin, but sharp metal edges. Spikes and nails come loose. Best of all, the RR ties deteriorate. Snakes love to breed and make their home in RR ties. And, yes, abandoned or not, RR property is private. Railroad police have just as much authority as your local sheriff. They carry citation books and handcuffs and with their discretion, will use both. They are armed. I have yet to meet one with a sense of humor. One more thing. What about the RR Engineer. You ever drive a car and have a kid dart out in front of you chasing a ball or on a bike? What does that feel like. How does the engineer know that someone is going to get off in time. Having him quickly "slam" the brakes puts him and his crew/passengers at risk.
How do I know all this? I don't work for a RR, but work for an agency that deals with multiple railroads and also work with Operation Lifesaver. If you don't want to take the word from some dope like me, that's fine, but please do a little Google search on your own before you enter RR Right of Way, especially with a client. Seriously, please be safe. Thank you.

This old man was also unfortunately hit by a train on the train tracks, repeatedly...

It's a sad day whenever this sort of incident occurs.

To be honest, I really don't understand why people are trying to include railroad tracks in their photography when there are so many other possibilities out there. I'm the first to understand that we all have different tastes but this is just plain dangerous.