The National Transportation Safety Board today began a two-day forum on the dangers of trespassing on railroad tracks – a timely issue in the wake of three recent filming-related deaths on train tracks. Art Miller, Hollywood’s go-to guy on railroad safety, told the forum that the industry finally might be getting the message that stealing shots on tracks is not only dangerous but could end your career or land you in jail, as it did with Midnight Rider director Randall Miller.
“As we’ve just seen, for the first time in history, a Hollywood director is in jail,” he told the forum. “Even though Randall Miller will do his time in a county jail, the Jesup, GA, lockup is still a jail. The old saying that ‘you’ll never work in this business again’ likely also applies to two other Midnight Rider production personnel.” Like Miller, the film’s first assistant director and unit production manager have been barred, as terms of their probation, from serving in any capacity overseeing the safety of fellow crewmembers for the next 10 years.
Miller, an instructor for the IATSE Rail Safety Awareness training program, said that despite the tragic death of camera assistant Sarah Jones on the Midnight Rider set, not everyone has gotten the message that filming on train tracks is dangerous. In the past three months, two others – fitness gurus Greg Plitt and Achilles Williams – have been hit and killed by trains while filming.
“Hopefully,” Miller said, “the Midnight Rider director’s jail sentence has even the most ardent guerrilla filmmakers rethinking how they’re going to get a ‘money shot.’ I believe low- and no-budget films, and those creating social media content, are likely to be the hardest to convince about the hazards and penalties of trespassing. But hopefully, even these stubborn ‘lone wolves’ – like [Plitt and Williams] – will eventually get the message that it’s no longer cool to take chances around a railroad track. It’s going to be up to the railroad industry and law enforcement agencies and the film production industry to work together to spread this message: Filming on railroad tracks without railroad permission is illegal, dangerous and can end your career.”
The Midnight Rider accident, he said, also has caused industry insurance rates to go up. “We’ve also seen the insurance industry tighten up underwriting requirements for all sorts of special business, not just railroad scenes,” he said. “And, naturally, rates have gone up concurrent with the headlines.”
Railroad accidents also affect railroad personnel who witness them. “Forgotten, almost, in the Midnight Rider event is the railroad crew, the conductor and engineer who had to experience this totally preventable event,” he said. “And we must not forget the dispatchers and supervisors who had to coordinate the emergency efforts after fielding the train crew’s anguish calls for help.”
Industry unions and state film commissioners, he said, hold the key to educating filmmakers about the dangers of working on railroad tracks. “Two of the largest Hollywood labor unions and the Association of Film Commissioners took the lead in railroad safety education in the wake of Sarah Jones’ death,” Miller said. “The quick moves by AFCI and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and the International Cinematographers Guild in organizing rail safety awareness courses for its membership can serve as a benchmark for other organizations to follow. The IATSE and ICG programs have been held in Atlanta and Nashville. The program was the creation of IA Local 479 Studio Mechanics in Atlanta and the ICG’s central region.”
Additional classes will be held in New Orleans, Chicago, New Mexico and in California locations later this spring and summer. These programs, he said, “Teach how to recognize a safe set and what preparations are necessary for a film production to legally and safely occupy railroad property. IATSE and guild representatives also use these classes to stress that their memberships have an obligation to look after each other and avoid unsafe situations.”