Sarah and Natalie Crim had just taken 35 photographs on the train tracks. The 16-year-old twins stepped off and looked at the screen on Sarah’s 35mm camera.
Several pictures caught their eyes.
One showed Natalie holding hands with her 16-year-old boyfriend, John DeReggi. Another showed Sarah, the sun lighting up her hair, with John striking a skateboarding pose atop a rail. As the sisters clicked through images, John stayed on the rail, balancing.
Behind the teenagers, less than a mile away, Amtrak’s Capitol Limited was heading toward them at 76 miles an hour.
What happened moments later — a train looming, startled people who had been taking photos — has become a deadly phenomenon nationwide. John, a well-liked high school junior in Maryland, became the fifth person this year killed while taking photos or videos on train tracks in the United States.
It’s not just kids taking photos. Professional photographers like to pose high school seniors on tracks to evoke moving on in life. Brides and grooms seek similar shots. Parents even take photos of their toddlers on the rails.
“People always think they have time to get away. That’s a mistake you can’t undo,” says Marc Orton, director of visual communications for the Norfolk Southern Railway.
In his six years at that position — where, among other duties, he coordinates safe photo shoots near tracks for the company’s marketing — Orton has seen a growing number of portraits taken by the public on tracks.
“It’s an alarming and growing trend,” says Aaron Hunt, spokesman for another large railroad company, Union Pacific.
In Boyds, in Montgomery County, Md., where John DeReggi was killed three weeks ago, Carl Hobbs regularly sees photographers on tracks behind the small-engine repair shop he owns. “There are people taking pictures all the time,” he says.
Indeed, while John, Natalie and Sarah were taking photos, another trio of teenagers was doing the same thing about 150 feet away. One of those three, Jeremy Sprites, 16, says he has taken photos on active tracks more than 30 times. “A lot of kids at my high school do it.”
Natalie and Sarah go to Clarksburg High School, where they are honor roll students and play varsity field hockey, and where this year Sarah signed up for a photography class. One of her first assignments: Take a series of photos that would illustrate pushing forward in life. The twins had been on the railroad tracks before and said in an interview that they felt they would be safe.
For as long as there have been trains and cameras, people have been taking photos near tracks.
Recognizing that appeal, the railroad industry is increasing efforts to tell teenagers and professional photographers that shooting photos on the tracks is not only dangerous but illegal trespassing.
In June, Union Pacific pushed out jolting, animated videos over social media showing teens posing for photos on roads. In one, set on a country highway, an 18-wheeler comes up suddenly from behind; in another, it’s a city bus that swoops in.
Why, the videos ask, would students who wouldn’t feel safe taking senior-year photos in the middle of a road think it was fine on railroad tracks?
This month, Operation Lifesaver, a railroad group, will host a Web-based seminar with the Professional Photographers of America to discuss the dangers of track photography and explore safer alternatives. Operation Lifesaver regularly mails letters to professional photographers whose track pictures show up on the Internet. The group will roll out its own public service announcements this year.
While the Federal Railroad Administration keeps track of how many pedestrians are killed by trains, it doesn’t break out what they were doing when they were hit. But the FRA, Hunt, Orton and others in the industry say photography on tracks is a growing problem.
Part of the reason, they say, is the constant photo-sharing over the Internet — meaning images that once would have been tucked away in physical albums are now zipping around, planting ideas for similar shots. And with so many cellphone cameras, there are simply more people taking more photos of everything.
“This is a trend that seems to be going in the wrong direction,” says Travis Campbell, a locomotive engineer in Idaho.
During a decade operating freight trains, Campbell says, he has come up on people taking photographs more than 50 times. Sometimes it’s people on the tracks who rush out of the way. Other times they remain next to the tracks, cellphone in hand, to snap a selfie with the blurring train behind them.
The risk, often lost on otherwise careful people, is high: The selfie-takers don’t realize that trains extend several feet beyond the rail. And those on tracks don’t realize that a train moving at 70 mph is covering the distance of a football field every three seconds.
“All reason and logic,” Campbell says, “seem to go out the window when people get around train tracks.”
The romance and history of trains make for compelling photographs.
Earlier this year, in Hartford, Wis., Mike Daly’s wife, Roxanne, gave him a surprise Father’s Day gift: A professional photo shoot on the tracks, complete with a Batman costume for him and a Robin outfit for their 15-month-old son, Finn. Roxanne positioned herself across the tracks, as if she were tied down and Mike and Finn were rescuing her. The photographer also got shots of Finn, seated by himself, on the tracks.
The images went viral on the Internet — and suddenly the Dalys were vilified. “I get where they were coming from,” Mike Daly says, “and I’d certainly not advise people do it.”
But he said he has no regrets, and one of the photos of all three on the tracks hangs in the family’s living room.
Three years ago, in Grand Rapids, Mich., high school student Trever Yakich wanted a senior photo that played off images in a music video for the song “Long Black Train.” He enlisted his cousin, professional photographer SesiLee Cnossen, to take photos of him on railroad tracks — playing his guitar while seated, playing his guitar while lying on his back across the track, head resting on one rail, feet on the other. “I didn’t feel that nervous,” Yakich says.
But Cnossen did, and she tried to get off the tracks within a few minutes. She says now she tries to take her track photos on abandoned tracks.
Newly engaged couples also are posing on tracks. In Boise, Idaho, Logan and Justin Weis commemorated their 2013 engagement with photos next to the city’s historic depot. “It was an image of us walking down a path together,” Justin says. He says he felt safe because the few trains he’d seen passing through downtown Boise were going slow.
Photographer Anna Gorin, who took the shots, pitches the location for high school seniors. “A great moving-toward-the-next-phase-of-life feel, very appropriate for graduation,” she writes on her Web site.
Last year, high school senior Chloe Krishnek arrived at the tracks with her parents. But there was already a photo shoot underway, so they moved to tracks nearby that are not in use. Even on the active set of tracks, though, Gorin said the slow speeds of the trains make her feel safe. “You definitely have to take into consideration where the tracks are,” she said.
Getting ready for work last year in Virginia, Norfolk Southern’s Orton found himself drawn to a beautiful story on TV about a family in Georgia. Their 12-year-old daughter suffers from mitochondrial disease, which saps people of energy, and when her father danced with her on a stage, holding her as they twirled, the footage was bounced around the world.
Midway through the piece, a family photo was posted: Eight people on railroad tracks, including the girl in a wheelchair and two other young children — a sight that shocked Orton. After getting to work, he asked a Norfolk Southern police officer to call the photographer.
On the other end of the line was Maggie Culver of Studio ME Photography, who thought she’d taken precautions. Not visible in the photo was a road crossing, a few feet in front of the wheelchair. “If we hear anything, grab the kids and go,” she had told the family.
“Did you know it was illegal to be on the tracks?” the officer asked, according to Culver.
“No, I didn’t,” she said.
She listened to him explain the dangers, how fast trains can appear. She took the photos off her Web site and has since urged photographers online not to use tracks, she says.
“You can get the same safe effect from a fence line or a dirt road,” Culver said.
Two sets of tracks set out from Washington, head northwest into Montgomery County through Boyds and pass the historic Lander Lock House on the C&O Canal. Pepper Scotto is a docent at the lock house, and on Saturday, Sept. 12, she looked out to the tracks and saw a man getting ready to take pictures of four young children, including one no older than 3 who was picking up rocks and throwing them.
“You really need to get off the tracks,” Scotto recalled yelling.
The man ignored her. She walked closer to him, took out her phone and threatened to call the police. The man reluctantly left the tracks, leading the children to a small parking lot nearby.
Moments later, an Amtrak train flew by.
“That really goes a lot faster than I thought,” the man said.
It was about 15 miles away, in Boyds, that Sarah Crim, Natalie Crim and John DeReggi arrived on Monday, Sept. 14.
Earlier, in Sarah’s photography class, students had been asked to study a long quote from a marketing campaign by the computer company Apple highlighting famous geniuses willing to stand out and challenge the status quo: Bob Dylan, Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein and others.
“They change things,” Apple extolled. “They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.”
Sarah and her classmates were asked to create images that illustrated the quote.
She, her sister and John got to the tracks about 4:30 p.m. A commuter train passed, heading northwest. “Okay, I guess it’s clear for us to go now,” Natalie said.
Though just 16, she and John were very much in love. A year earlier, after they started dating, Natalie arrived home to flowers in her bedroom. John had given them to Sarah and asked her to put them there. “You seemed like you were having a bad day today,” a note he’d written said. “I hope this makes it better.”
The three walked toward the tracks, stopping for photos just before they got to them. John, as usual, was enjoying the moment. He seemed like someone, Natalie always thought, who woke up happy and spent the rest of his day that way.
They made their way to the tracks, starting to walk northwest as they took more photos. Above them the sky was a clear blue. Behind them, all around, were towering trees, some starting to change color but still thick with leaves that muffle sounds.
Natalie and Sarah paused, stepped off the tracks, and looked at the photos they’d taken. Suddenly, from behind, they heard a sound and turned around.
“Guys, there’s a train,” Natalie said.
She looked to the tracks. Saw her boyfriend — shocked, panicked, not immediately processing which way to jump.
“John!” she screamed.
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.