Like the Midnight Rider tragedy that took the life of Sarah Jones, Saturday’s railroad-filming accident in Burbank that killed actor and fitness guru Greg Plitt involved an attempt to steal a shot without a film permit or permission from the railroad company. “We require film permits if you’re outdoors, but there was no permit on file,” a spokesman for the Burbank Police Department said.
Plitt, whose website features several photos and videos of him working out on railroad tracks, appears to have been filming a workout video when he was struck by a southbound Metrolink train. Burbank police said a preliminary investigation “revealed Mr. Plitt was accompanied by two other men, one of whom was filming Mr. Plitt on the train tracks. The conductor of the southbound train saw Mr. Plitt on the tracks, attempted to stop the train, and sounded the train’s horn. However, Mr. Plitt remained on the train tracks and was struck by the train. Investigators seized the camera as evidence.”
He didn’t have permission from Metrolink to be filming on its tracks, either. “There are no reports of a railroad company officer being present to provide roadway worker protections or to implement other track safety protocol,” said Arthur J. Miller, one of the industry’s top experts in railroad safety. “Everything I’ve heard is that they were trying to steal a shot. It’s pretty clear that they were trespassing. Sadly, we are once again reminded that unauthorized access to railroad property and trains is a criminal act that can end in tragedy. You would think the lessons learned from the Midnight Rider tragedy would have worked to prevent this event.”
Stealing shots on railroad tracks remains a common industry practice, even in the wake of the Midnight Rider disaster. “Reliable reports of shot-stealing have become quite numerous,” said Miller, the System Director of Safety and Regulatory Compliance for the Western Group, a consortium of Western railroad companies. “Some of it is spur-of-the-moment trespass, but there are a substantial number of instances where the trespass is premeditated and planned. Since the Sarah Jones tragedy, the number of reports I’ve personally received about film crews straying onto railroad properties has roughly quadrupled. This is a particular problem with small- and micro-budget projects.”
Special precautions have to be taken when working on or around railroad tracks, said Miller, an instructor for the IATSE Rail Safety Awareness training program that was established after Jones’ death. “You can’t take normal film -production workplace processes and safety rules onto a railroad location,” he said. “The laws of gravity and inertia are not repealed for film crews when they’re working on a railroad. Railroad tracks are busy and dangerous, and they’re not recreation areas.”
Working on or around trains also can be pricey, which is the main reason so many low-budget film projects try to steal shots on tracks. “Railroad filming is quite expensive,” Miller said. “Sometimes it can be cost-prohibitive.”
Miller, who has been the railroad coordinator and railroad locations scout on more than 60 film and TV projects, including Unstoppable and The Expendables, said he worries that the deaths of Jones and Plitt might make railroad companies more skittish about cooperating with filmmakers in the future. “We try to drive home the value of railroads as story-settings,” he said, “and that only by working safely can you obtain access to this wonderful resource.”
The AMPTP Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee issued guidelines for Railroad Safety 10 months before Sarah Jones was killed. Unfortunately, those guidelines continue to be ignored.