Filming on railroad tracks can be dangerous; it’s taken two lives in the past year alone. And despite all the news reports about the death of Sarah Jones on the Midnight Rider set and the recent death of Greg Plitt while filming a commercial in Burbank, many myths remain about shooting on railroad tracks.
According to Art Miller, an instructor for the IATSE Rail Safety Awareness training program and one of the industry’s leading experts on railroad safety, there are six common myths about filming on railroad tracks.
There are abandoned tracks throughout the country that are available to filmmakers without permission and for free. “Every track has an owner,” he says, “and working on any track without permission is criminal trespass.”
Sending two production assistants with walkie-talkies out to warn of approaching trains is an effective safety measure. “Only qualified railroad employees assigned to train-control duties can legally control rail traffic,” he says. “Any other arrangement suggests criminal trespass.”
Train scenes can be done on the cheap. “Railroads have high fixed costs, and variable costs increase quickly when supervisors’ and operations rescheduling time is included,” he says.
Train scenes can be done at the last minute. In fact, he says, “Federal regulations, railroad staffing and customer contracts require long lead times for railroad scenes.”
Freight trains operate on schedules. Actually, he says, “Rail operations are scheduled on a day-to-day basis and are nothing like an airline schedule.”
A railroad location is just another location with a train running through it. This, Miller says, might be the most dangerous myth of all. “Equipment size and weight and unusual railroad location hazards mean that traditional film-industry workplace practices are a recipe for disaster.”
As part of his rail safety course, Miller also teaches 10 tactics for creating successful and safe railroad scenes.
– Start planning early
– Work with a film commission;
– Develop realistic budgets – bring enough money;
– Use a railroad coordinator for complex projects;
– Don’t fall in love with unavailable locations;
– Use in-service cars and locomotives;
– Select track capable of handling movie train speeds – track upgrades are expensive;
– Create and follow a safety plan;
– Provide rail safety training for the entire film crew;
– Set reasonable filming schedules – trains cannot be hurried.
“Think safety always,” Miller he advises filmmakers. “Safety is the No. 1 goal of the railroad industry. Just one Federal Railroad Administration ‘reportable’ can shut you down. Even minor mishaps are a big deal.”
Ironically, 10 months before Jones was killed on the Georgia set of Midnight Rider, the AMPTP Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee issued Safety Bulletin #28: Guidelines for Railroad Safety — an eerily prescient warning about the hazard of working on and around railroad trains and tracks. Read that bulletin can be seen here.
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