Editor’s Note: While we rarely try and tell photographer’s what to do… this is an important safety issue. Please be open minded. I lost my own grandfather to an accident on train tracks and know that the areas can be deadly. Thanks for listening.

Seriously! Shooting on railroad tracks can be deadly for a whole lot of reasons. Before I get into why, here are some pertinent stats.

Nearly 500 Killed in 2014

That’s right. Almost 500 people died in 2014 because they were on railroad tracks according the the Federal Railway Administration. Over 400 people were injured. Breaking these numbers down, someone or a vehicle gets hit by a train about every three hours. That’s eight incidents a day on average. Why am I talking about this on Photofocus? Simple. Those parallel tracks that converge at infinity are photographic icons. To a photographer, they are almost irresistible.

See tracks? Think trains!

Operation Lifesaver operates in all fifty states in the U.S. There are coordinators in every state that can answer questions as well as speak to groups and schools about railroad safety. They can be found here. I met Georgia’s Operation Lifesaver coordinator Jennie Glasgow during Imaging USA, PPA’s convention in Atlanta. Their booth had seven volunteers from Norfolk Southern Railways including Officer Joe Shirley and his K-9 Smoke.

2889-0025 Officer Joe Shirley and Smoke
Norfolk Southern Railway police officer Joe Shirley and Smoke his K-9 partner

They were there to talk with photographers at the trade show about just how deadly shooting on tracks is. Note I said “is.” I did not say “can be.” This freestanding display by the booth says it all.


A Death in Southern Georgia

One of the 2014 deaths caused by flagrant disregard for the danger of being on train tracks happened on a trestle over the Altamaha River near Jessup, Georgia during the filming of an opening scene from “Midnight Rider, the Gregg Allman Story.” CSX Transportation had twice denied the producers permission to shoot on the tracks.

According to the film’s location manager, “the director [Randall Miller] insisted that filming would proceed despite CSX’s denial of permission.” Sarah Jones, an assistant camera operator, died when a “CSX freight train Q12519… passed the film crew’s location on the bridge, it struck a prop–a metal framed bed. Debris from the prop struck some crewmembers on the bridge walkway. One film crewmember [Sarah Jones] was killed.” This is quoted from the National Transportation Safety Board report. The train was on a single track. Two locomotives were pulling 37 freight cars. The train was going 56 miles an hour on a track rated for 70mph. The weather was clear and 80.

Sarah Jones by LA Times
Sarah Jones was killed while working on a train track. Photo from the L.A. Times.

The director, Randall Miller, plead guilty to charges related to Jones’ death. He is serving his sentence in the Wane County Detention Center in Jessup, Georgia. The cause of Sarah’s death and injuries to six crewmembers was trespass according to the NTSB report.

Operation Lifesaver

The booth at Imaging was very busy. Volunteers passed out flash drives with videos and a slide show to interested attendees. The takeaway is simple. Railroad tracks are dangerous. Trains can be up to three feet wider on each side than the tracks. Straps on freight cars can extend beyond the side of the car. Rights of way are private property. Anyone on the right of way is not only in danger, they are trespassing. Railway officers like Joe Shirley have the authority to arrest trespassers. One of the points Georgia Operation Lifesaver Coordinator Jennie Glasgow made is that it’s impossible to hear a train coming towards you. All of the noise is behind the locomotive. If you are on the tracks when you see the train, it’s too late. You are already a statistic. Which column, dead or injured, is up to fate. For more go to Operation Lifesaver’s website.

Photographers of all ages crowed around Operation Lifesaver’s booth at Imaging USA in Atlanta to learn about the danger of shooting on tracks.