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Photographing the Train, Safely

Be Thoughtful, Prepared and Smart

Story by Neil Zeller December 7th, 2017

Getting the shot at no costs

I simply don't take chances. You'd be really surprised at how quiet a freight train is until it's upon you. I've been staring right at the oncoming train and had a hard time hearing it even knowing it's coming.

If you are going out to photograph trains, plan to be thoughtful on your chase. What I mean is, don't end up reacting to your situation at the last moment. Be thoughtful with every step, every movement, every shot. Think about where you are around the tracks so you don't end up where you shouldn't. And the first place you shouldn't be is on the tracks.

If you are on the tracks (or even near the tracks) and aren't at a pedestrian or vehicle crossing, you are trespassing. Period. You can't go there. If you find yourself NEEDING to be close or on the tracks to get THE shot, then honestly your gear is lacking. A phone won't zoom well enough to get a great shot, so that person moves closer. A kit lens on a DSLR body can't go wide enough to get the whole train, so you climb the embankment beside the tracks. Both no!

If you really want to take some spectacular train shots, get the gear. I am using a 600mm telephoto lens, 100 ft from the bend in the track, which may make it look like I'm in front of the train, but I am safely away, usually standing next to my car on the road. I also use a 20mm and 11mm super wide angle lenses. This quality equipment allows me to stay on level ground to get the WHOLE train into view as opposed to going dicey places, like into busy roadways, to get the shot. If you are attempting to shoot an 'artistic' photo with phones or beginner equipment, please just remember you are going to get a snapshot at best, so it's best not to put yourself in dangerous places for mediocre results.

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Other risks

You will likely 'two foot brake' for a train photo opp one day. Please be careful when out on the highway or backroads. If you are already being 'Thoughtful' when shooting around the trains, the next most likely place you may be involved in an accident is with fellow motorists. It's especially true around the Holiday Train. Where there are trains anywhere in the world, there will be train enthusiasts parked on the side of the road. Don't get so caught up in the moment that you forget about your fellow motorist, or keeping your eye on the road ahead. Find a safe place to pull over and then get your shots.

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Safety tips

* Always stand safely back from the tracks, at least 50 feet. Standing closer means you're probably trespassing, and also giving the train's crew a scare. Photos taken from farther back are going to show the train better anyway.

* Overhead bridges offer a great vantage point for photos. Many have walkways so you can be separated from traffic while taking your photos.

* If you want to get to the other side of the tracks, find a grade or grade-separated crossing. Cutting across the tracks where there is no crossing is neither legal nor safe.

* When using a railroad crossing, obey all active signals. When approaching a crossing protected with a crossbuck, the X-shaped sign that bears the words "railroad crossing," motorists and pedestrians must be sure no train is approaching before entering the crossing.

* Just because a train is stopped doesn't mean it's going to stay that way. Expect rail equipment to move at any time without warning. This is yet another reason why it's important to maintain a safe distance from rail lines.

* If you spot people engaging in unsafe activity around the tracks, reach out to the railroad. At every railroad crossing is a phone number that will put you in touch with the rail line's owner.

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The Law and the statistics

Canadian Pacific Railway has launched their CP RailSense program, highlighting the dangers and consequences of trespassing on railway property. It's a good read and very enlightening. Click here to view the CP RailSense website

The Statistics:

Last year (2016), 46 Canadians died when trespassing on tracks in 69 incidents. 20 people were seriously injured, which translates to loss of limbs and a life-altering recovery. That’s in addition to 133 grade-crossing vehicle collisions that resulted in 19 fatalities and 24 serious injuries.. In the U.S., a person is hit by a train every three minutes on average. Trains cannot stop quickly, so it’s essential that the public obey the law and act in a safe fashion around rail lines. The chances of survival are slim for trespassers involved in an incident with a train. Those who do survive often suffer from life-altering injuries, including amputation.

The next time you hear someone reminiscing about the good ol' days of placing pennies on the tracks or showing off that family photo they took while standing on train tracks, talk to them about CP RailSense. While their experience may have seemed harmless to them, not everyone who engages in that activity is as lucky.

And it's not just you and your family. CP Rail workers and police, along with local emergency responders and their families are dealing with the aftermath of your life altering decisions.

The Law:

Entering railway property is illegal, even for the purpose of crossing. The only legal place to cross a railway line is at a marked grade crossing.

Trains and railway property are private property. Walking on railway property is trespassing and illegal. This property includes the right-of-way, which extends 50 feet from either side of the track.

In Canada, federal offences under the Railway Safety Act range as high as $10,000. Fines vary by province. In the U.S., felony trespass can result in up to 4 years in jail and/or a $2,500 fine. This varies by local and state jurisdictions.

Footnote: Oh. and 'just don't' do wedding photos on the railway tracks.