Railfan and Train Observation Safety – Trains

Railfan and train-watching safety are key to any successful train-watching trip, whether it’s a block away from home or across a continent. You have to have situational awareness.

Literally hundreds of miles from anywhere! Ely, Nevada, is home to the Nevada Northern Railway and was the destination for Trains magazine in 2016. The photographer fueled the car and had food and water on board for the trip (but probably not enough for a emergency!) Photograph by Steve Sweeney

Taking the time to learn about your surroundings, what looks good, what doesn’t is key to ensuring you have a great trackside experience. Historically speaking, railway tracks, yards and facilities have not always been in the best locations for safety. Always on the train, it’s good to know where you are in case of an emergency with yourself, someone near you or if a train has an incident. A street address, a business nearby or in rural areas, a GPS location can ensure any assistance can find you quickly when minutes count.

Ground Safety

Passenger train in a cityscape approaching the photographer at high speed.
Safe and legal. Even though the photographer is in the middle of a complicated intersection of Union Pacific and Metra lines near Chicago’s A2 tower, he had permission. Most importantly, a railroad employee served as a signalman with high-visibility equipment and a radio to alert oncoming trains and ensure the safety of the photographer. Photograph by Steve Sweeney

When you are at the side of the track, you should always watch the passing train to make sure it is moving safely and not posing a threat with anything that may be dragging or coming loose on a carriage.

A chain or drag strip from a speeding railcar can be deadly if it hits anyone standing near the tracks. Select your safe viewing location as if dragging something from a passing train car. By giving the train plenty of room to pass, you’ll be sure to have a great ride

Also, if you are too close to the train and a derailment occurs, your reaction time may not be fast enough to get you away from danger. As a general rule, always plan an emergency exit at 90 degrees to the path of the train. This will put as much distance as possible between you and the train, if necessary.

Be cordial but beware of strangers

Along the trail, I regularly meet many people, from rural farmers to the urban homeless. Most of the time, they won’t give you any notice, while for others, your mere presence will cause them to investigate further. Provide an escape route in case a less than favorable situation arises.

Whether on foot or in your vehicle, know what behavior feels right and what doesn’t. Do not hesitate to move if you have the feeling that something can disturb you.

Know your location

Depending on where you choose to railfan, railroad ownership may not always be marked. If you are unfamiliar with the area, you can always stay on the side of public property, such as roads or railroad crossings, to limit any interaction you may have with landlords or law enforcement . Remember that in many places people use routes through and around train tracks as shortcuts, so a property owner may not realize you are a photographer.

Railroads routinely intersect street addresses in an emergency. The best thing to know is your kilometer marker on the railway or a level crossing/street. At all crossings there is a blue Emergency Notification System sign. This sign has an emergency telephone number and a reference number for this crossing. This unique geographic identification number will direct help to your specific location.

Local emergency services will NOT know railway bollards or railroad crossing ENS ID numbers. If you call local authorities, be prepared to relay an address as this is their primary means of locating, alerting and responding to emergencies.


Extreme heat and cold can be a big problem for those unprepared who venture to the edge of the trail. Remember to bring plenty of sunscreen and water for hot weather and plenty of cold weather gear for winter trips. During the winter, put extra heated items in your car in case you need them – blankets and sleeping bags can make waiting hours for a tow truck or a ride home from a broken down car a little longer. bearable when it’s 10 degrees. below zero. Also, don’t position yourself in a location where your escape route could be cut off by water or debris after a storm. In the Mojave Desert, for example, distant thunderstorms can turn dry washes into raging torrents causing flash floods without warning. If you’re looking at a dry wash during the monsoon season, there’s a chance it could get wet at any time if the storms are upriver.

Animals – big and small

If you prefer to railfan in remote areas, you need to have your head on a swivel. In some places rail fans are lower on the food chain. A rail photographer recently shared an experience of encountering a wolf on BNSF Railway’s Stevens Pass in Washington. The wolf held on for some time after being alerted to his presence. Bears and mountain lions can also be things to watch out for, especially in remote areas where you may enter their territory.

Small animals are usually a passing glance. In more arid regions, however, you will have to deal with poisonous reptiles and insects that will sting or bite your hands or feet. Be sure to look first before grabbing or walking to ensure the area is clear. Insects can be bothersome to the point that the only refuge is in your car with the windows up! From mosquitoes to hornets, they can surely ruin a good outing if you’re not prepared.

Is your vehicle fan ready?

For a successful trip, make sure you have enough fuel and that your vehicle is in good working order. Areas around train tracks are also notorious for being less tire friendly, so make sure the rubber your vehicle is running on will be somewhat resistant to the sharp rocks, debris, and spikes you may encounter.

Always have jumper cables with you for those long days at the trackside where you forget your scanner is constantly running in your vehicle. Your car battery will not forget and its power will become low or disappear.

Be prepared to talk to law enforcement

    A green locomotive leads a freight train through a marshalling yard.
A BNSF Railway intermodal train moves through a yard near Denver in 2017. This image was taken from a sidewalk on a highway overpass above the yard near Denver. But four police cars still investigated the photographer. Photograph by Steve Sweeney

In most cases, law enforcement does their job and has no intention of bothering you if you have a camera and tripod at the side of the trail. Some contact with the local police, sheriff, or railroad special constable will be the result of a called report or the curiosity of a passing officer. Be friendly, professional, and ready to tell them what you’re doing. I’ve found that having a copy of Trains with me is usually enough to establish contact quickly, allowing you to quickly get back to taking train photos. The agents have a job to do, and the sooner they realize you’re not a threat, the sooner they’ll leave you alone.

Basic safety rules are pretty much common sense, but what works in your home area may not work if you practice looking elsewhere. Some places can be wary of people at the edge of the track. If you are new to an area, follow proper safety procedures and stand in a safe place to watch the trains. This should limit interactions with others and make the trip a success.

Robert W. Scott is Chief of Operations for the West Thurston Region Fire Authority in Olympia, Washington. Scott is also a famous railway photographer and The trains donor.

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