It is an iconic image, that of a person walking along a lonely stretch of railroad track. It is a path of contemplation, a shortcut, an escape. It’s also dangerous and against the law. Many states have trespassing laws dealing specifically with railroads. Even in the states that don’t, general trespassing laws apply.
Tracks Mean Danger
The U.S. Federal Railway Administration (FRA) reports about 500 trespassing deaths along railroad tracks each year. A fact sheet released in 2008 by the FRA calls trespassing on railroads’ private property and along rights of way “the leading cause of rail-related fatalities in America.” To combat those deaths, the FRA has pushed a model code for states to enact to prevent railroad trespassing. Many of the states have adopted such an act.
Rails are Not Trails
A long freight train barreling behind you can take a mile to stop, and surprisingly you might not hear or see it in time to move out of the way, especially if it’s coming around a bend. You’re in particular danger if you cross a railroad bridge or enter a tunnel, because even if you step off the track, there’s not enough clearance for you and the train. Even in the open, standing too close to the tracks puts you at risk of being struck by coal or gravel flying off a hopper car, or by metal cargo straps that break loose.
Hunters are Trespassers, Too
States often encourage private property owners to give access to hunters, but that doesn’t include rail lines. The FRA, in its analysis of the model code, points out that a hunter shooting from railroad property to another location, or shooting from another location onto a rail line, are both considered trespassing. “Should the hunter be so lucky as to successfully shoot a prey from a safe and lawful location, he or she would then probably have to enter upon the railroad property to get the carcass,” according to the FRA website.
Rail Enthusiasts Beware
Rail enthusiasts differ from other recreational users of railroad tracks because they’re looking for trains, often to shoot pictures of them. But if an enthusiast stands on railroad property to shoot a photograph that’s published in a magazine or distributed on the Web, the photo can be used as evidence of trespassing.
Putting Those on Board at Risk
The FRA argues that trespassers also put train crews, rail passengers and the community at risk. To avoid striking a trespasser, a locomotive engineer might engage the emergency brake, which could derail the train, risking injury or death to anyone aboard. He could also risk spilling hazardous material from a freight car, threatening people in nearby homes.
Facing the Judge
Trespassing on railroad property is usually a misdemeanor, with penalties ranging from $100 to $1,000, and some jail time, depending on the state. If your trespass results in the injury or death of someone else, you could face felony charges. If you vandalize railroad property, such as painting graffiti on rail cars, you could face other charges.
Tom Chmielewski is a longtime journalist with experience in newspapers, magazines, books, e-books and the Internet. With his company TEC Publishing, he has published magazines and an award-winning multimedia e-book, "Celebration at the Sarayi." Chmielewski's design skills include expertise in Adobe Creative Suite's InDesign and Photoshop. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Western Michigan University.