About every three hours, a person or vehicle is hit by a train — many of them teens, many of them using the railroad tracks as a picturesque backdrop in a photo shoot.

Three teens in Utah, posing for a selfie.

A high school student in Maryland, posing for a school photo project with his girlfriend, to be taken by a friend.

And last week, Fredzania Thompson, a 19-year-old who dreamed of a career in modeling. It would be her last photo shoot. As she stood between two sets of tracks last week in Texas, she moved out of the way of an oncoming train, only to be hit and killed by a second train coming from the opposite direction.

According to statistics from the Federal Railroad Administration, 994 pedestrian rail trespass casualties (fatalities and injuries) occurred in 2016.

“Our message to the public is that train tracks are never a good place to take videos of your family or for a school project; what seems innocent can quickly turn to tragedy,” said Karl Alexy, director, FRA office of safety analysis. “Trespassing on private railroad tracks and property is always illegal and often fatal, because trains can’t stop quickly to avoid hitting someone on the tracks. Always expect a train on any track, in either direction, at any time.”

Rail-related trespass deaths rose 19.8 percent from January through August 2016 compared to the same period in 2015, and injuries rose 12 percent.

Watco joins Operation Lifesaver, the nonprofit rail safety education organization, in urging professional photographers to refrain from taking photos of high school seniors, wedding parties, and other subjects on train tracks or trestles.

“Americans have always had a bit of a love affair with the railroad. Because of that, many see the railroad as  a natural backdrop,” said Watco Senior Vice President of Safety and Training, Travis Herod. “Unfortunately each year, many people are killed and injured engaging in this activity.”

Herod said it’s important Team members and Customers spread the word: taking photos without permission and protection on a railroad right of way is trespassing and can be deadly.

We ask photographers and those taking photos to consider this:

  • Trains can’t stop quickly to avoid people or vehicles on the tracks.
  • An optical illusion makes it hard to determine a train’s distance from you and its speed.
  • The average train overhangs the track by at least three feet.
  • Railroad tracks, trestles, yards, and rights-of-way are private property.
  • No tracks should be assumed to be abandoned or inactive.
  • People mimic your behavior when they see your photos on the web and social media.

The only legal, safe place to cross tracks is at designated pedestrian or roadway crossings.

“These kinds of tragedies affect more than just the person injured. The lives of their families and friends, and the train crew and emergency responders is also changed forever,” Herod said. “Please, stay off, stay away, stay alive!”