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A black and white close up of railroad tracks.

By the time we reach the driving age, most people are knowledgeable about road safety laws. All drivers need to be — understanding which actions are safe and which are illegal not only protects you as a driver, but it helps protect any other drivers and passengers on the road. 

What many of us don’t know by that age are laws about railroad tracks. There are over 400 railroad trespass fatalities each year — many of which are preventable by simply understanding the laws around railways. 

 In this FAQ guide, we’re going to break down some of the most popular questions surrounding railroad safety. 

1. Why Do Buses Stop At Railroad Tracks?

If you took the bus to school when you were younger, you’re familiar with school buses stopping at the tracks, but you probably don’t know why they do. Though the laws vary between states, federal laws about railroad tracks require all buses to stop at railroad tracks. 

This law was created after the deadliest bus crash in American history on December 1, 1938. One winter morning, a bus driver in Sandy, Utah was driving his normal route to school. When he reached the railroad tracks, he stopped and looked both ways like usual. 

On this particular morning, the blizzardy conditions made visibility difficult. The driver really could only see a few feet out each window, but he had driven the same route for over 3 years and never had to stop for a train. 

Both directions looked clear, so he began crossing the tracks. Just as he did, a train t-boned the bus, killing the driver and 25 of the children.

Since then, federal law has required all buses to stop, look, and listen before crossing railroad tracks. Failure to do so can be punishable by law.

Each state has different standards, but in PA, it is required that school bus drivers make mandatory stops with or without passengers on board. Bus drivers who fail to abide by the law can be charged with a fine of $200 to up to $500. 

2. Is It Illegal To Take Rocks From Railroad Tracks?

The rocks that cover the gaps in railway tracks aren’t just for show. These stones play a crucial role in supporting the track bed. The combination of crushed stones, rocks, and gravel is so important it even has a name: ballast

The track’s ballast helps: 

  • Prevent vegetation from growing and getting caught in trains.
  • Drain water to keep the tracks from flooding.
  • Provide stability, ultimately resulting in a smoother and safer ride. 

A close up of the rocks (also known as ballast) surrounding railroad beds.

According to the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), removing rocks from national historic sites is illegal. Most laws about railroad tracks are unclear about whether removing rocks from all tracks is illegal. 

However, since they play such an important role in keeping railways safe and it’s not always obvious if a track is considered a protected historic site, it’s best to assume it’s illegal to take rocks from any railroad tracks.

3. Can A Penny Derail A Train?

Though a penny or some other coin is extremely unlikely to derail an entire locomotive, the act of doing so is illegal. In fact, it’s illegal to place or throw any small or large object on a railroad track. 

Small objects that are left on a railroad track can become a “projectile” as the train passes it. Knowing the speed that trains travel, any small object that’s launched into the air could seriously hurt or even kill someone who is working or standing nearby. 

A no trespassing sign on the side of a railroad tracks building.

4. Are Railroad Tracks Public Property?

According to the Association of American Railroads (AAR), almost all freight railroads in America are privately owned and operated.

The only section owned by the federal government is Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor — a portion of tracks between D.C. and Boston. Any other railways operated under the name Amtrak do so through leasing agreements with the private railroad companies who own the tracks. 

5. Is It Illegal To Walk On Railroad Tracks?

Unless you are crossing at a designated pedestrian or roadway crossing, it is illegal to walk on railroad tracks. Walking, jogging, biking, or any other type of loitering by tracks is considered a criminal trespass by law because it’s extremely dangerous. 

Keep in mind that walking on land close to train tracks could still be considered trespassing. Most train stations own several feet of the land surrounding the tracks. For your safety, you should assume that any land within 25 or fewer feet of the railroad track is also illegal to walk. 

6. Is It Illegal To Take Photos On Railroad Tracks?

Yes! Just like walking on train tracks, it is illegal for pedestrians to take photos or videos on train tracks, and most states consider it a criminal trespass. 

Trains travel much faster than most of us realize. According to Union Pacific, it’s not always possible to hear an approaching train because most of the sound travels behind it. You might not hear the train until it’s too late.

This is exactly what happened to Essa Ricker and Kelsea and Savannah Webster in 2016. The girls were snapping photos on a train track facing the opposite direction of an ongoing train. The conductor blared his horn and pulled his emergency brakes, but it often takes locomotives over a mile to come to a complete stop.

By the time the girls noticed the train was approaching, they had no time to react. All three girls were hit and killed by the train.

If you want to take photos on railroad tracks, you must get the proper permissions. Written consent from the railroad company and proper permits from the city can ensure that all parties are legally permitted on the property at a time when trains are not active.  

Strasburg Rail Road offers a unique opportunity for guests to schedule a photoshoot on the tracks safely. In the past, we’ve offered up our location for senior portraits, graduations, weddings, and more.

Visit our site to learn how to schedule your session. 

A boy standing near a train for his senior portrait photo at Strasburg Rail Road.

Railroad Safety Tips

It’s important to know that laws about railroad tracks are put in place for one reason: safety. The sooner we start to understand which laws exist and why they were created, the better the chances we’ll see the annual death and injury count from trains decrease. 

Remember, you can protect yourself and the ones you love with these three tips:

1. Always expect a train. 

Even if the tracks look clear, a train could be approaching at any moment. Always assume a track is active and stay alert for oncoming trains.

2. Trains always have the right of way.

It takes trains the length of 18 football fields to come to a complete stop. They have the right of way 100% of the time because they can’t stop quickly enough to avoid collision. 

3. Never get caught on railroad tracks.

Whether you’re walking or driving, you should avoid crossing tracks unless you can clearly make it across. If you’re on foot, only pass over at designated crossings and never loiter on tracks. If you’re in a car, only cross if there’s room to completely make it across. 

If you’re interested in getting to see train tracks up close, do it safely at Strasburg Rail Road. Our interactive passenger railroad hosts several themed events and dining train rides throughout the year. 

Find your perfect steam experience at Strasburg Rail Road. Book tickets for one of our event trains today!