Old 03-08-2021, 06:34 PM   #1
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Default Trouble with authorities or locals

I'm guessing this topic came up several times during the forum's history, but I would like to do some global or at least trans-Atlantic comparison: what are your experiences in getting in trouble with policemen, other persons of authority or local inhabitants while photographing trains?

I grew up in a country where railways still counted as military infrastructure and there was a general photography ban, but it wasn't enforced much in the last years of dictatorship. It still taught me to inquiry in advance how rail photographers are treated before visiting a new country.

Then again, I do most of my railfanning in countries and regions where rail photography is a popular sport, and my one big incident was in such a location, in a ski resort in Austria. Returning to the station after shooting two trains during a half-hour walk - on public roads/paths and never trespassing, with a big camera dangling on my neck -, I was detained by police for twenty minutes of questioning. It felt like a comedy because I was fully cooperative but they wouldn't get to the point, holding back from revealing what they were really after. At the end, they finally admitted it: not terrorism or vandalism or theft; I was suspected of planning a suicide. By someone who saw me from a window. That someone being a local politician, who, after a string of suicide jumps in the region, feared bad headlines ahead of an upcoming local election.

I'm told in the US, getting in trouble (and I mean without doing anything illegal) can mean a rancher pointing his gun at you, or a policeman treating you as a terrorism suspect. At other places, you'll find policemen and locals who never heard of railfanning and think you're an idiot or hiding some other nefarious purpose. Do you have any stories to tell?
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Old 03-09-2021, 05:46 PM   #2
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My experience in the US has been pretty uneventful. I have been approached and questioned by law enforcement many times but once I explain what I'm doing they usually continue on their way. Occasionally they will remind me to be mindful of railroad/private property, or explain that illegal activities are common in my location. I have been more harassed by local inhabitants who inform me that I'm on (or close to) their property, I guess either they suspect I am trying to steal something, or perhaps they are engaged in illegal activities themselves and don't want to be seen. These people sometimes can be aggressive. In all cases if asked to leave, I just do. Some railfans in the US will assert they are on public property (as long as they rightfully are), and refuse to move when asked, which sometimes will escalate the situation. It's their right to do so, but I personally don't think it's worth fighting over.

The only other country I've done serious train photography in is Germany, and I was left alone by everyone, even when in some cases I was walking right along peoples' houses. They just didn't have the aggressive reaction to someone being on their property that people in the US can have.

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Old 03-09-2021, 07:05 PM   #3
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Only once has any police officer hassled me about taking pictures of trains.....but then I shoot only steam locomotives and many of my activities are formal photo charters that involve many people and are done with the full cooperation of the railroad. I am only occasionally out shooting regular tourist operations and in that environment, a person looks out of place if they DON'T have a camera.

In the one situation I mentioned above, I was out chasing a private charter (not a photo charter) on the Valley Railroad in Connecticut. This particular train was operating on a portion of the line where steam locomotives almost never go, so it was an unusual situation. I had a spot staked out and had talked to the crew in advance about where I would be. They had agreed to provide a little smoke and steam to enhance my photo upon passing that location. Unfortunately, unlike most of the photo spots on this line, this one was along a well-traveled state highway. I had safely and legally parked my car and was standing inside the roadside barrier, on public property waiting for the train, when I saw an unmarked State Police cruiser pass by me. Instantly, I thought he would probably stop and investigate what I was doing.....and I was right.

He spun his car around and pulled in behind mine. Since the car was some distance away, I did not approach him or his vehicle. He sat there for perhaps 3 minutes, before finally getting out and walking in my direction. I still did not walk toward him, but waited patiently, right where I was.....I pretty much stood my ground. I had a big, black, Nikon D4 around my neck, with the 24-120mm f/4.....about $7,500 worth of camera. When he approached, I greeted him and he immediately asked what I was doing. I quickly explained exactly what I had planned, and he did indeed ask me if I knew that photographing trains was a "suspicious activity." My reply was that this was a tourist train, powered by a STEAM ENGINE, and that if he were to patrol around the Valley Railroad on a sunny Saturday, he'd probably find a lot of other people just like me. He asked for an ID, which I provided. He then seemed to settle down and agreed that I was not doing anything illegal, I was not on private property and I was not in harm's way. I also noted to him that terrorists would be unlikely to be sporting the type of gear I was carrying. He then headed back to his car, but did not leave. He waited until the train came.....with the cylinder cocks open and lots of dense smoke pouring from the stack. As I was putting my lens cap back on, and walking back to my car, I saw him depart. I guess he was satisfied that my story checked out.
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Old 03-09-2021, 07:24 PM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Flowing View Post
The only other country I've done serious train photography in is Germany, and I was left alone by everyone, even when in some cases I was walking right along peoples' houses. They just didn't have the aggressive reaction to someone being on their property that people in the US can have.
True. However, in Germany, you will be called out if you break any rules. I lived there for some time so it comes to me naturally, but sometimes I slip up. Once I was photographing along a secondary line with old signalling, next to a road crossing on the edge of a station. When the train left and there was obviously zero danger, I thought of shortening my route to the platform (still an old low one, not the typical modern platform raised to low-floor train door level), just 10 metres from the road crossing, along the edge of the tracks. Would be pretty normal where I live, but there and then, I barely stepped off the road when the c. 25-year-old switchman jumped from his tower and told me in no uncertain terms to not cross the tracks. (I promptly complied and walked the long route through the station building.)

Last edited by 18 316; 03-09-2021 at 07:32 PM.
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Old 03-09-2021, 08:49 PM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by 18 316 View Post
True. However, in Germany, you will be called out if you break any rules.
True, I was warned of this before visiting. Thus I was very careful to comply with all posted signs everywhere I went. I do tend to act a little more willfully in the US as long as it is not a dangerous situation, or obvious to upset someone.
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Old 03-10-2021, 07:35 PM   #6
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I've been stopped in many countries, quite a bit in the US. My response generally reflects how I am approached (and where I am). If I'm in the US, where I'm a citizen, and I'm approached with curiosity, I am kind and explain what I'm doing. If I'm approached with authoritative BS, I respond with defiance and hold to my rights. Would never do that in other countries however, where just by being a visitor, I'm automatically more suspect. Only times I've ever been thrown out of a location were times I was caught trespassing, and in those cases I left. They were in the right, I was in the wrong. Even unfriendly confrontations when I've been on public property in the US that started with, "9-11, you can't shoot pictures of trains, blah blah blah," have ended with me getting my photo when I've known I wasn't breaking any law and was on public property.

I'd also note, 95% of the time I'm approached in any country, it's more with curiosity, "what are you doing?" It's rare (although it does happen) that I get the "9-11" BS before I hear "hello."

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