Okay, so this has been a gripe, pet peeve, irritation, whatever you want to call it…for me for a while now. I’ve kept quiet about it, but a recent onslaught of photos I’ve run across, along with the upcoming Senior Portrait Season, leaves me with the decision that it needs to be said.
Through Travis Dewitz, a local train photographer and railroad enthusiast, I have learned a lot about trains. I’ve also learned a lot about the safety of trains, and how often people are killed by them. When you hear about something everyday, it makes you hyper sensitive to all news related to it and you’re a part of that community. No matter how small your role may be.
With that said, it breaks my heart into a million pieces when I hear of someone who has been killed via train. I have a lot of personal heartache related to a death by train incident. On January 27th, 2008, my cousin Joshua David Gordon Westaby died as the result of a head on collision with a rapidly moving train. He was travelling in the early morning hours, through fog when he came to an uncontrolled area of tracks, there were no warning signals or crossing gates to warn of the train passing through the area. Josh hit the cars head on, and he died instantly. He was only 20 years old, and there was barely anything left of his vehicle after the train drug it for over 3 miles. His loss was a tremendous loss to our family. He was young, funny, active, loving. He enjoyed four wheeling, farming, and was not an indoors type person. He loved his family, and he loved joking with us and giving us a hard time. He is missed every single day and he will be in our hearts forever.
It is because of this incredibly painful knowledge, that when I see photographers taking their clients out to railroad tracks, onto cars, on TOP of cars, etc., it makes my whole body cringe. Trains are powerful, so much more powerful than many people realize. At any moment, anything can go wrong. The margin for error is so extremely small, and most definitely not worth the risk. There certainly is not an insurance company in the world who is going to back a photographer and pay damages if said photographer has injured a client due to negligence.
Which brings me to the next issue. No matter where you are…on the tracks, on a car, in a car, on the back of a car, or even just on their property, you are trespassing. Unless you have specific written or verbal permission from a yard master or supervisor of some sort, no one belongs on the property. The State of Wisconsin actually has laws that specifically pertain to anyone under the age of 17 years old, and will result in fines or much worse. Railroad trespassing laws are exactly the same as regular trespassing laws, they include fines, criminal charges, and potentially a trip to jail.
In fact, Union Pacific recently put a photo policy in place, which was covered in the April 2012 issue of TRAINS Magazine. You can read the new Policy statement HERE and photographer guidelines can be found HERE. A very large part of the Chippewa Valley area trackage belongs to UP, and there is a good chance that the property you’re standing on belongs to them. In the TRAINS article, it states very accurately, that trains can easily sneak up on you. They are not always loud, and they almost always seem to be travelling much slowly than they actually are. Even more importantly, it is pointed out that many people who would never think twice about walking on an airport runway or a highway, seem to think it’s okay that they walk on a railroad. In addition, UP has been rallying support from local law enforcement, sending them to high schools across the nation to talk to kids about the dangers that trains pose.
No photographer wants to be the cause of someone’s death, but it can happen. Even more scary to me, is the fact that if you take a young, impressionable individual (such as a teenage child) and you, as an adult give the impression that it is OKAY to climb on these train cars, tracks, etc., you are sending the message that it is okay any time. Worse, you’re not just sending the message to that child, but also to all of their peers. Trains are something to be respected, trespassing signs are something to be respected. Ask a train engineer and his crew, who have been through a fatal accident how they feel about it. What has it done to them? Do they sleep at night? Do they have nightmares? Do they blame themselves? It’s not fair to these individuals who just came to work that day, to do their jobs and now they have to deal with a lifelong emotional scar and upheaval of being involved with someone’s death. No matter what, it’s never the crew’s fault. A train cannot swerve, and has no alternate route, and once the emergency switch has been thrown, it can take more than a mile before it stops. That means that by the time they see you, it’s usually too late. If you’re on top of a car when the engines start moving, they always do a pretty violent jerk. If that happens, best case scenario is you fall and hit your head pretty nicely. Worst case…well, I don’t think I need to cover that.
To other photographers; to my peers: Please think twice before you put your clients in harms way. Especially those who have so much to lose, and are just really beginning their lives.With all of that said, I don’t want this to sound like a lecture. I’m writing this, with unique knowledge to trains as a portrait photographer. I am writing this because I care about my community, and I care about my peers and their businesses. I am asking parents who are reading this, if your child is a Senior this year, PLEASE do not let your photographer take your child into any environment that could potentially cause them harm. It’s not worth the photo. It’s not worth anything. Your photographer should know better, but if they don’t…fill them in. Tell them that you do not want to send the message to your child that it is okay to trespass on private property, or that it is okay to play on extremely dangerous equipment. Tell them that you value your child’s life more than that single photo.
A special thank you to Travis Dewitz of therailroadcollection.com, for providing me with the photo related to this article. The very first photo is from Josh’s accident, the flowers at the scene were place In Memoriam. Travis’s photos are available for purchase through his website, or by direct contact.
Additional thanks to Don Phillips & TRAINS magazine for some of the verbiage used on this post. Don can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can get your copy of TRAINS magazine at your local newsstand or on their WEBSITE.