Railfan Harassment

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I wanted to write this to get an idea of how widespread this is. I just recently started writing a book so I can publish my archive of rail photos. Since this is going to take some time I thought I would warm up with a simple article. Recently I have been noticing that the list of railfans that are being harassed by railroad employees, police or anything in between had grown significantly. Ever since 9/11 the DHS and TSA have been completely out of control. As a result railroads have also taken a great deal more time with what those three letter entities consider security. If you have been harassed, even vaguely, I would like to know. Please give as much detail as you can. I will take this into consideration as I write this. I will use no names and in fact I will not relay any of these stories directly. I will use them all as a kind of ratio meter to determine the flavor of the article. I have also contacted a few railroads to see what the deal is and what we can do as railfans so that we end up on the friend side of their friend or foe detectors. Thank you all in advance.
Out here in the great Midwest, the railroad and the crews never seem to get uptight at railfans. In fact, most crews will still wave and give a shot of whistle now and then.


5th Generation Texian
I believe it is still rare, and as before most (but certainly not all!) is self-induced by trespassing, knowingly or not (not knowing is not a legal excuse, btw). The few cases of real harassment are widely and rapidly publicized. Yet untold is the countless 'non-harassment' occurances, probably 1000s per day in just the USA. We never hear of those, nor do we often hear the 'other side' of the more real ones.

A lot depends on our definition of harassment. Being asked a question or 2 trackside by an official of some sort is not harassment in my book, but some feel that even a simple slow drive-by by a cop is somehow a constitutional violation. In my 25+ years, pure/actual/real harrassment has more often been by well-meaning but otherwise clueless and paranoid civilians or in fewer cases, railroad employees who probably misinterpreted some memo from the boss.

there are too many real cases to let myself get the panties in a wad over every web post of some clinical paranoia from an overactive imagination of a foamer with a persecution complex and a penchant for 'slightly' altering the actual facts.

Perhaps we need balance. Perhaps from today onward, I will be reporting each case of non-harassment that I receive.
I hope this is the case. If I am just imagining this I would be happy. While I have not been harrassed I keep noticing that some of the major hotspots in this area have grown full chain link fence and I keep hearing stories. There is also the bit of legality that I have seen later making it punishable to film at my local Amtrak station. I am going to keep paying attention here for a few weeks and see how BNSF and UP answer my hails on this. If its nothing then I will give up and go back to what I was doing.

I "railfan" in North Alabama and was approached by a city policeman who was called by an NS employee while was parked on a public street. He was nice, ask my reason for parking; told him I was watching yard switching. Looked at my ID and said, "You are not breaking any law, don't know why they called us", and let me stay where I was. I don't take pictures and don't have a scanner, I grew up next to the railroad and my whole family worked on the RR; its in my blood.

Thanks for that. I had heard that NS was being a bit uppity. I live on the west coast so I wouldn't know. Here it is UP that is being uppity while BNSF welcomes us. This could just be the railroad in question. I remember that I used to railfan a shortline called the Modesto And Empire Traction a while back. The owner tried to have us thrown out, we were on a public street so we didn't honor that request but the owner did try to have us removed. Strange thing was that the train crews loved us and actually covered for us when they could. I suppose it could be all about how aggro the management is.
I've been fortunate to never get into any trouble, though i stay off their property.

I did hear a funny story once (might have been here?) about a guy getting flipped off by a conductor/engineer while he was filming a train going by. The guy was able to take the still-frame from the video and email it to that railroad company along with the date and time. Think he actually got a "im sorry" letter from the railroad if i'm not mistaken.
One way or another I am looking for the little problem that no one is seeing. All groups like the police or railroad security are given marching orders and there are always little things that they are told to look for or deal with. I am looking for some of those, trying to figure out the change that has to be made so that none of us will register as a threat. I have been watching video for the last hour on this and I find that one of the things that seems to be taboo is being young and a railfan. I think this is just a police thing, in the video they warned a 19 and a 22 year old away and lied about what the limit line on each side of the tracks was. Its little things like that lie that I take notice of. There is a reason for everything that happens, ever. I guess what I am saying is, there has to be a system to use for everyone to be able to just get along and I want to try to find that. Like with me I belong to both the UP and BNSF groups for railfans (the corporate groups), I also make sure to report every problem I see along the lines to their maintenance offices. I make sure to know everything I can about an area before I go there. And finally, if there is a time that I have to get in closer to the tracks I find a place to do it where it is safe and no one can see me. If visually I am not there then I am not a problem. I also figure that there are people out there who don't follow any kind of rules. The kind of people who spoil it for the rest of us. That is always going to be the case. There needs to be a way to differentiate ourselves.

Now, I want you all to keep in mind that I know that people here are most likely upstanding railfans but I remember the insanity after 9/11 and how much the DHS and TSA took advantage of that. I remember a number of previously visitable areas becoming closed off to the world due to "terrorist" threat. Even though those "terrorists" seem to be only in the minds of the gov and those who have nothing better to do than worry, it changes things. I am not really saying that any of this is the case. I am just stating what I have seen and what I have determined. This thread and about a dozen others like it are what I am using to find out if this is the truth or if the truth lies elsewhere.
Heh, thats kinda neat. Honestly I have always kept myself in the railroads good graces. With the exception of the one I mentioned. From what I have heard most of the problems come from local PD and not the railroads themselves. Although like I said I have heard that NS sometimes calls the authorities on railfans and I know UP makes it difficult at times. Honestly I just thought it might be time for an article telling the new railfans how to exist so that they can maintain their hobby without incident. Now I know I did some things when I was young that were, well, questionable but I think we all do. I find that young railfans however tend to be pretty well rounded and will listen to suggestions in this respect. The other thing is that I cannot stand the DHS or TSA and I know they just look for excuses to make things difficult. I am hoping I can find something to make them less annoying for us all. Oh and once again, thank you all for your cooperation. You help this 40 year old SP fan think he might be worth something :)
A BNSF crewman told me they were cooling their heels in an engine near a wooded area. They saw two men with cameras and binoculars hiding in the trees. In this era of terrorism, they immediatly notified security on their radios. Later, they were told "those men were railroad detectives spying on you guys." Another employee told me "the railroad goes to great effort to recruit and train its people, then, the first thing they try to do is fire them for some minor infraction.


Photo Critiques Welcome
Railroads were tightening security in the early 90’s. It had more to do with liability than anything else. The FRA logs over 400 trespasser fatalities each year with another 400+/- injured. If a railroad were aware of widespread trespassing and injuries and failed to act, they would be at risk for being negligent. Knowledge of an unsafe condition and failure to act is one of the tests for gross negligence. Things ratcheted up up after 9/11 but the move was already underway.

There are a few well publicized incidents but I don’t see any systematic effort to harass railfans. I don’t hear it from the people I know either. I get stopped a couple times a year. Sometimes it’s an employee and sometimes a cop. A couple times I’ve been blatantly trespassing, a.k.a. on the track, and they were firm that that wasn’t allowed. But sensible distance from the track and staying on the correct side of No Trespassing signs I find them actually pretty accommodating.
I hear ya. Honestly I might be making more out of it than it is. While that might be the case I am just making sure. So far this doesn't sound to me to be that widespread. I have heard multiple incidents from NS but as for the rest I only hear the occasional whimper. Thank you for your take on this.

Oh and BTW, with the encroaching on property lines, I have been guilty of that many times myself. If I see a hard to pass up photo its hard for me to think rationally sometimes :). Usually I will take a few days on a railfanning trip, the first one is for scouting mostly. To try to find that little nook or tree stand that gets me closer to the action but is not dangerous. A spot that is hidden. Sometimes I will even bungie a camera to a solid area near the tracks. It really depends on if the zoom on the camera is going to be enough. I am always safety conscious though. I always liked calling it guerrilla railfanning.

I have had so many trips that I have come back from where I ended up rolling around in the mud or running headlong through a storm blindly that I cant count them anymore. I had even bought one of those old mail jeeps a while back because the door opens by sliding directly backwards, which means you can film out the door without any possibility of the jeep getting in the shot. I look back on it all now and sometimes wonder what I was thinking but as it stands I would do it all over again and probably will :)
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I started railfanning in February 2002; so after 9/11 happened. I have had 4 major run-ins with the police all in the Virginia and Maryland area where I live and work. I have been all over the country railfanning with my own car with out of state plates or a rental car and have never been approached for questioning by the police. If I see a police officer, they usually just give a friendly wave in these other areas of the country. So here are my experiences with the 4 times I have been approached.

1) The first occurrance I was railfanning the CSX RF&P Subdivision in Alexandria behind the Target in the Potomac Mills shopping center; site of the old RF&P Pot Yard. I was eating lunch and noticed an Alexandria police car come around the corner of the Target. I then saw 5 more following him. I instantly had a feeling that they were coming for me. I put my lunch down and got out of my car. When I turned around, I was surprised to see that all 6 cars had me blocked in and the police were behind their car doors with guns drawn. How I didn't crap my pants, I don't know. I kept my hands where the police could clearly see them as two officers approached me and asked for my ID. I gave them my license and showed them my Government contractor card. While one of them ran my license and the others relaxed and put away their weapons, the one officer chatted with me. He said the shopping center security guard called the police after seeing me by the tracks (granted you are up on a hill with a fence down below so you can't access the tracks). He said they were on alert because of the fact the railroad tracks, Metro, and even the planes from Regan National flew by the area. He also went on to say he was a modeler and understood what I was doing, but they still had to investigate. After my ID came back clean, the police left. Unfortunately, they never passed it on to their relief, as another police officer came by hours later and ran my ID again. To me, this encounter was an over-reaction; especially when you have guns drawn on you!

2) I was railfanning one day in Fredericksburg, VA taking pictures of the CSX RF&P over the Rappahannock Bridge in a public park. Someone called the police on me and an officer came and asked for my ID and questioned me. Once again, my Government contractor ID seemed to diffuse his immediate thoughts of ill will.

3) I was railfanning CSX at the historic Point of Rocks, MD station and was questioned by a MD State Trooper. I have railfanned there for 11 years and that was my only encounter with police; odd considering the historic site and that railfans and non-railfans come to see it and take pictures.

4) I was railfanning CSX in Relay, MD (around the S curve from the MARC station in St. Denis) and a police officer came to question me. It was questionable as to where I was parked as it was close to the ROW, but railfans had been parking there for years. This cop was an ex-Marine and was an ass! He stated that one of the neighbors called the police (she must have been new since railfans had been railfanning there for over 60 years). Even after I told him I was a Navy veteran, he was a complete dick and asked me way too many questions and wrote everything down. My guess is that this interview landed me in the Baltimore County Police Department database and possibly Homeland Security database. He stated that he had called the CSX police and they would be along shortly. Of course, the CSX police officer for the area knows all the railfans in the area and when he arrived he just told me that he had to respond because the local police had called them and just to stay safe.
I "railfan" in North Alabama and was approached by a city policeman who was called by an NS employee while was parked on a public street. He was nice, ask my reason for parking; told him I was watching yard switching. Looked at my ID and said, "You are not breaking any law, don't know why they called us", and let me stay where I was. I don't take pictures and don't have a scanner, I grew up next to the railroad and my whole family worked on the RR; its in my blood.

Interesting. I'm in Huntsville and havn't had any issues with NS. However, I have gotten the finger from one of the HMCR engineers a couple times. I haven't seen him in a while though.


Marty, it runs on steam!
I've told this story here before, but in 1998, I was coming back from a rifle range with a buddy of mine. Both of us were rail fans, avid shooters, and active duty US Army at that time. I won't name the place or RR involved, but it was on the East Coast. We were stopped at a bridge over a RR track, cameras in hand, waiting for a freight we saw a long way off when crossing the bridge. The bridge was on a public road but within the boundries of our Army post (there's no reason to be on the road as it only goes to the main gate and nowhere else). We'd stopped, jumped out with cameras (guns in the car, unloaded and in their cases, by the way) and were standing on a sidewalk just shy of the bridge itself. We could then see the freight was in the hole. So, I took advantage of the pause to go use the "green latrine." Nobody could see me well off the roadway. I was down there for a minute or so when I heard yelling and scuffling going on at the bridge. I ran up the embankment around the front of my car to see two guys in street clothes pushing my buddy around yelling at him, talking about, "giving him a good thumping." I had no cell phone to call the law, so I quietly got into my SUV, pulled out my M-1 Garand rifle and quickly loaded a clip and jumped back out.
I ran around the back of my car and leveled the rifle at one of them, and said on colorful language to back off or I'd shoot. You've never seen people jump back so fast! Their hands went up, their eyes got as big as pie plates, and I’m pretty sure I literally scared the poop out of one of them. Turns out, they were plain clothes (and unarmed) RR cops. As soon as they ID'd themselves, they launched into this whole thing about how they'd throw us under the jail for this, that I'd be convicted of a felony for attempted murder on a cop, etc. Jim, my buddy, told them they were full of crap (keep in mind, I'm still holding the rifle at this point but no longer pointing it at them) and if they were lucky, they'd still have a job by the end of the day. He pointed out that they had started pushing him around, threatening to beat him up, and never ID'ing themselves until I'd pulled the rifle out on them.
Then, Jim pulled out his MP badge. :eek: :D
Never have two men changed tact so fast. Once they realized that they were in the wrong, it was suddenly apologies and the word "sir" got used a lot all of a sudden!
Jim got their employee #s and did have a long discussion with the local cops and the RR over that. We both got formal apology letters from the RR (I lost mine during one of my later moves, darn it). I tracked down Jim a couple of years ago and he said he was told soon after this happened that the cops involved would be “seeking other opportunities elsewhere” over the incident.
I did hear a funny story once (might have been here?) about a guy getting flipped off by a conductor/engineer while he was filming a train going by. The guy was able to take the still-frame from the video and email it to that railroad company along with the date and time. Think he actually got a "im sorry" letter from the railroad if i'm not mistaken.
That was me, posting about my best friend back in Florida in the 80s. He was with some pals of ours, around Chatsworth rocks in CA. An Amtrak train went by, fans waved and shutter clicked. After the train went past one of the guys asked the others, "Hey, did the hogger just flip us off?" None of the rest of them caught that. Sure enough, he gets back to Florida, develops his film and there it is, big as day! He mailed a letter to the president of Amtrak with a print of the photo with the date and location so the train could be ID'd. He got a long apology letter from the President (I guess it was Claytor at that time) and I can only guess what happened to the engineer. :cool:


Been Nothin' Since Frisco
Some railroaders don't like to be filmed/photographed, especially in this day and age of internet, facebook and youtube, since the photographer can inadvertently document a rules violation. The idea behind flipping the photographer off is to spoil the photo and prevent its publication, but that doesn't always work. ;)

I wave, even blow the horn for kids and I don't sweat getting caught breaking a rule. I'm trying to follow the rules all the time anyway, so except in those cases where I overlook something, I should be doing everything by the book.

Every time I get new GTBs, there is a message stating BNSF is on high alert and we should report any trespasser or suspicious person or vehicle. If we don't report it and something happens, we'll be in deep trouble. There are many railroaders who have disdain for railfans, but most have a live and let live attitude. If you are taking photos and you're off railroad property (or at least sufficiently clear of the tracks), I doubt you're going to be reported. If you're dangerously close - and my definition means a greater distance than yours does, guaranteed - you will have problems with railroaders.

The fact that we have had something like 18 fatalities of railroad employees in the past couple years gets us on edge. These were people who knew how to act around this equipment and they still didn't make it home. When the general public behaves in a risky manner around rail equipment, we get nervous and want it to stop. That's when you may get yelled at, flipped off or reported. We don't want to discover you've been struck or cut up. You might not make it home, your family and friends will blame us and we will see the image of your body every time we close our eyes. I love trains and I love moving freight. I have no use for being a first responder. I hate the sight of blood. I want everyone who loves trains to continue to live long lives doing so.

One thing that would be helpful to railfans is to know where the property lines are so you can be informed and make good judgements on where a good, safe, legal place is for you to take photos. If you're in the United States, you should have access to your local tax assessor's records. Among these records are tax maps showing approximate property lines drawn to some scale. You might find the majority of the right-of-way is 50' wide, but some portions are wider or an irregular shape (often to accommodate embankments, railroad signal/communications equipment or some other part of the physical plant). Use these resources to your advantage. You might even discover places you can railfan you didn't know about before.

As long as you shoot photos and video from a safe, legal place a sufficient distance from the tracks, you should be fine with railroaders. If your vantage point comes into question with any law enforcement, knowing you are not trespassing is a good thing.
Thank you for that. Honestly, for me, I have always been in love with the railroads. I grew up next to the Southern Pacific. If there was a problem with something along the right of way you could be sure that it was me that called Fresno to report it. At least where I was. If one of the crew needed help with something and I was in the area I would do what I could. Hell I even spent one day putting out grass fires that the rail grinder crew missed.

Point being that I have only once been at odd with a railroad and that was because the owner was an elitist swine. I do however get my share of police reports by the standard populace because I am kind of scary looking. 6'3, 250lbs, long hair. Usually though, when the police find out that I know what I am talking about and notice the camera and the scanner they back off and leave me be.

BTW thank you all for responding. I am going to be looking at this thread for a few weeks to see what is the reality of it all. The idea that railfanning might have become an adversarial thing was depressing, but so far I am wondering if I might have been reading too much into it.
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