The New Rules of Railfanning: Don't Trespass, Be Alert, Report Issues

It wouldn’t take you long to find a post or a story, from any of the numerous rail-related websites on the web, that detail some railfan’s run-in with security personnel.  There has been a very discernible change in the attitudes towards railfans and the number of contacts of late and I wanted to find out why.

I gleaned, from one such site, that a Special Agent, from the Union Pacific Railroad, was going to be a guest speaker at the San Bernardino’s National Forest Association’s Off Highway Vehicles Program’s January monthly meeting. (Boy, that’s a mouthful!).

This was interesting to me for two reasons in particular.  The first reason is that a “Special Agent” for a railroad is, in fact, a full-blown police officer and is employed directly by the railroads as opposed to the contract “security” personnel that most railfans encounter.  And the second reason is that THIS particular Special Agent, Mark Youngblood, is one of the agents local to the Southern California area.  Not only is the southwest region “his beat,” but Agent Youngblood has approached many railfans recently, particularly in the Cajon Pass region.

I was told that he was going to give a presentation on Cajon Pass and railroad police work in general.  Not ever having any contact with railroad police officers in the past this was the perfect opportunity to find out what their issues are, from THEIR perspective, and, hopefully, share my thoughts.  (Something I am known to do!)

I made it to the January 13, 2010, meeting, which fortunately, was open to the public, with minutes to spare.  It was being held in a banquet room of a local restaurant.  The place was packed.  I ordered some dinner and waited for Agent Youngblood to take the podium.  Eventually he did just that.  I would like to summarize Agent Youngblood’s presentation so that we all can benefit from him taking his time to meet with us.

My Summation of Union Pacific Railroad Special Agent Mark Youngblood’s Presentation

As you would expect, Agent Youngblood began his presentation by touching on the high points of the celebrated history of the Union Pacific Railroad which is one of the two railroads that built the transcontinental railroad in the 1860’s.

He explained the duties of a railroad special agent and described their powers.  Here are the more salient points:

  • Railroad special agents are police officers and are commissioned by one or more states’ agencies as law enforcement officers.  Here in California, at the request of the railroad1, the Governor may grant these officers the powers of a peace officer as dictated in Penal Code 830.33(e).  Also, in California, this authority of these railroad police officers extends throughout the state.
  • The UP special agents work a myriad of cases and duties primarily involving trespassing abatement and enforcement, burglaries, train escort details, accident investigations, grade crossing enforcement, and vandalism.
  • Special Agent Youngblood define the term right-of-way as:  the furthest extent of service roads on either side of the railroad tracks, to include those cases where they need to go around a rise or cut.  It is not a set distance from the tracks per se.  He indicated that sometimes this may be as few as 20’ wide to 20 miles wide.  (This does present a problem to railfans as the delineation is not always marked.)
  • He explained how since the events of September 11, 2001, the railroads began to step-up ensuring that their infrastructure was as protected as possible.  This means a 100% enforcement of trespassing laws.
  • Railroad police officers are allowed to “police” the property and lines of any railroads that their employing railroads has track right agreements with.  So that means, here in Southern California, that BNSF and UP special agents can enforce laws on each other’s lines.
  • He explain that the most common reason for trespassing that he hears when encountering railfans is “we have been coming here for many years…”  Things are different today.  This isn’t the railroad of your childhood.
  • Liability issues and personal safety are also prime motivations to enforce the railroad’s property lines.  He cited several cases where railfans, and the public, had gotten too close to the tracks and a passing train and bad things have happened.  One incident involved a load on lumber on a flat car.  One of the he banding straps that hold the load together had sheared apart and was know hanging about 7 feet off of the train.  As the train passed a fan, the banding nearly cut the man in two!  He cited enough reasons for one to make sure they are far enough away from the tracks to prevent injuries or death; shifted loads and trailers, banding, derailed cars and more.

After his speech, he opened it up to questions.  The audience, all forest volunteers except me and Debra, asked a volume of questions relating to the vehicles the UP Police use to specific case that they were familiar about.  At one point someone has a question about railfans, “are they much of a problem?”  Special Agent Youngblood made an inaudible comment and sneered.  Then he acknowledged that they in fact were.  I saw this as my opportunity to introduce myself to him and the audience.

I raised my hand and he fielded this statement from me:  “Hi, I am Joe Perry.  I am one of those railfans that you are referring to.  Based on the fact that the Union Pacific has such few agents covering such vast areas, my hope would be that the railroad would take a more positive approach towards us railfans because we are out there track side watching what is happening.  In many respects we are another pair of eyes for you guys.  Are you familiar with the BNSF’s Citizens for Rail Security Program?”

He nodded in agreement yet his comment, which unfortunately escapes me, did not reflect that he understood the question.  I decided to let it be since I felt as an outsider and didn’t want to bogart the meeting.  For the uninitiated, here is an excerpt from a BNSF press release that outlines the program:

News Release

BNSF Railway Asks Rail Fans for Cooperation To Keep America’s Rail System Safe

FORT WORTH, TEXAS, June 7, 2006:

BNSF Railway Company (BNSF) is recruiting rail fans to help keep BNSF properties safe by reporting suspicious activities and to help prevent possible security breaches.

“Keeping America’s rail transportation network safe from crime and terrorist activity is a high priority for the railroad industry,” says William Heileman, BNSF general director, Police and Protection Solutions. “Every day across the country, rail fans photograph and watch trains as they pass through communities. It seems natural to harness their interest to help keep America’s rail system safe.”

Rail fans can register for the program by going to the Citizens United for Rail Security (CRS) Web site ( CRS participants will receive an official identification card along with access to news and information on the BNSF CRS Web site.
To report suspicious activity, CRS members and the public can call (800) 832-5452. The information will be taken by a BNSF representative and routed for appropriate response.

I wasn’t aware if the Union Pacific Railroad had a similar program or adopted this insight at a public level or not.  My hope was that Special Agent Youngblood would advise me if railfans were an acknowledged positive part of the Union Pacific Railroad’s strategy to keep their infrastructure safe and not viewed as a thorn in it’s side.  

This answer was to remain unknown.  I had to leave the meeting earlier so I didn’t get a chance to personally talk with Special Agent Youngblood privately,  something I regret.  I am sure our paths will cross sometime soon again.

I want to thank the Union Pacific Railroad and Special Agent Mark Youngblood for participating in this meeting and taking time to help enlighten the public as to the challenges and effort required to keeping a core element of America’s infrastructure safe.

I also want to thank BNSF for their Citizen’s for Rail Security program and publicly acknowledging that everyone, railfans included, are part of this overall effort.  However, program or no program I am out there watching and I will report anything I see.  The photos and stories will be reported here.  The unusual events, activities, and persons, I will report to the railroads and the authorities.

I have taken away a renewed respsect for railroad police officers and more knowledge which should help me to stay off of railroad property, as we all should, and do my part.  I have included a link to a helpful document called The Photographer’s Rights prepared by Bert P. Krages II, Attorney At Law, which delineates the rights of us photographers.  I recommend everyone read it.




8226.  The Governor of the state may, upon the application of any 
railroad company, appoint and commission during his or her pleasure
one or more persons designated by the company, to serve at the
expense of the company, as police officers, who shall have the powers
and authority of peace officers listed in Section 830.33 of the
Penal Code, after being duly sworn. The company designating these
persons shall be responsible civilly for any abuse of their

8227. Every peace officer designated under Section 8226 shall, when
in uniform, wear in plain view a shield bearing the words "railroad
police," and the name of the company for which he or she is
commissioned. When on duty, but not in uniform, the peace officer
shall carry the shield upon his or her person and present it upon

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Reader Comments (11)

My major issues are two: 1. the extremely selective enforcement done by railroad police. I can be sitting in a place and see a railroad cop drive by and he just waves at me. Two weeks later, for example, I'm sitting in the same place and he stops and asks what I'm doing and tells me I'm on railroad property and threatens to cite me for trespassing.. 2. As a related issue, how I can be chased from a specific location, yet, day after day, I see other people using that same location and railroad personnel just ignore them including the railroad cops.

January 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLon

The Canadian Pacific Police is one of the oldest Police Services in Canada. It was actually created by Canada's first Prime Minister, John A. MacDonald in 1881.
That makes them unique -- sworn Police Officers with a history as old as Canada, but what are essentially a private company asset.

January 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDarryl

(This was originally posted to the guestbook but the content is very relevant to this post so I am reposting it here to make sure that others reading this post see this excellent comment. - Joe)

Railroading has been a major interest of mine since I was seven years old. A conductor hopped off the engine, while switching cars on a local, in my hometown (northern NJ) and “showed me the ropes”. I was basically hooked from then on forward. Like you, my interest regarding the rails has always been photography. I suppose I would describe myself as an amateur photographer who happens to want to photograph the railroad transportation industry. I have also developed quite an interest in railroad history, and as an electronic engineer, railroad technology, over the years as well.

Unfortunately, I find that I can longer get trackside for any appreciable amount of time before being asked to leave by various RR personnel. I would like to add that I never go near the tracks or equipment, I always keep my senses about me, and I always report suspicious objects or activities to the RR authorities. As your article about the UP special agent points out, I am often in the dubious position of trying to determine whether or not I am trespassing. The railroads seem to have taken the point of view that, if they can see me, I am a trespasser. I guess I have been fooling myself these recent years about my “role” as a helper to the railroads, I know that I’m not on their payroll, but it now appears that they would rather not have the interest of the public than otherwise. The last time that I encountered any railroad personnel who cared to ‘shoot the breeze’, or for that matter even one who asked me to leave in a civil tone and without expletives, has been at least 5 years ago.

By the time I scout new locations with Google Earth, charge my camera batteries, put on my Army boots and the rest of my outdoor gear and drive 30 or 45 minutes to a location, it’s just not worth it to be there 10-15 mins before being asked to leave. I’ve decided to throw in the towel, rail photography for me will be something I’ll have to enjoy in my memories and vicariously through the efforts of others, and my hat is off to all those who soldier on. Best of luck, Great shots, by the way.

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterC_Woods


Thanks for enjoying my work and especially for sharing you experience with the rest of us. It sure sounds like we are very similar in interest and experiences! ( I don't wear Army boots today but I was in the Army!)

I know exactly how feel you feel about the "fanning" experience and the sense of frustration of late that encompasses the way things have changed. I do add one more step to the "planning" process now to help alleviate issues - I plan my routes and locations using public lands maps such as though from the BLM. That way I know that it won't turn out bad for me. I let them try to chase me away and then pull out my map!

I respect their property and the liability issues that they deal with, not to mention the cost associated with enforcement and public education programs, but I do think that they are using too broad of a brush in their efforts. If you are going to press the issue (meaning the RRs) then you better make sure you are right and more often than not the "employees" aren't. They don't know the property lines anymore than the public does.

At the very least, everyone should be treated with respect and leave the enforcement to the police, railroad or local.

March 5, 2010 | Registered CommenterJoe Perry

@Joe Perry

Thanks for the advice, Joe. I really do appreciate it, and I apologize for ranting a little in my initial post, I don't really have many people to talk to regarding my hobby. I will check out the land maps from the BLM, and I wasn't even aware that there are such tools out there.

I would also just like to mention (I don't feel that I made a strong enough assertion last time) that I absolutely, under no circumstances, feel that I have a right to trespass. What I have come to realize recently is that my own ethical dilemma regarding breaking the law is really what has keep me from being trackside as of late. There is such a tenuous and odd relationship between railroads and fans. Fans can be very helpful, they can also be dangerous to themselves and RR employees, they can be obstructive, abusive, demanding and so on. However, if it weren't for the fans, I don't know whether there would be any public support for railroads at all. Also, if it weren't for fans with cameras, how many historical photos of railroading would we have? Just the promotional photos taken by pro photographers under contract from the railroads themselves. So in a sense, I see photographers, videographers and audiographers as biographers, unfortunately, in many cases law-breaking biographers.

Anyway, I'm ranting again and I'm here to enjoy the photos. I am particularly enjoying the b&w shots which I rarely see anymore. I like the night time Needles Sub negative look-a-like photo. I agree that the unplanned and inspirational shots can be extremely satisfying (when they work out). I am also glad that you were able to catch "the Monster Train".

March 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterC_Woods


No need to apologize at all. That's what we all are here for.

I agree 100% with your assessment of the value and risk of fans, to both themselves and the railroads. However, as you pointed out, there is tremendous value in having a portion of the population on your side and providing the historical record of all that is railroading in the US. We are the ones who share the value and worth of rail transportation with those around us and in our communities so that initiatives like high-speed rail are given an opportunity to succeed.

Feel free to drop me a email with your contact info and I will be happy to listen to all that you have to say.

Thanks again for participating and bringing value to the discussion.

March 6, 2010 | Registered CommenterJoe Perry

I used to love visiting the United States from England prior to 9/11 to photograph trackside the Union Pacific locomotives. I would contact Omaha and advise when I was planning to visit. I would be granted a permit and basically had a free hand to do and visit whatever I wanted. Many happy hours were spent in the East Yard Los Angeles depot where the staff were warm and friendly. Everything changed after 9/11 when the shutters came down. Even people that I had got to know no longer wished to have contact. From an English perspective, many feel that the United States has become a very insular nation, and as a result one could well argue that those individuals who wish to destabilise the world, have actually won their battle!
Whilst the current attitude towards railfans persists, I certainly have no intention of re-visiting the United States. I shall stay with Canada where commonsense still prevails thank goodness!

February 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDerek George Lawman

I couldn't agree with you more Derek. It does seem if we have lost so much since that dark day. I continue to deal with "issues" while plying my pursuits and it often removes much of the joy there once was.

Hopefully things will improve, someday. It sure doesn't feel like anytime soon though.

February 20, 2013 | Registered CommenterJoe Perry

Does anyone have contact information for Special Agent Young blood?

April 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRobin McAlpine

Before 2010, I had a run in with one of the BNSF policeman. I (60 yr old) was naked except for a pair of shorts on this hot day, so I was not carrying. The officer put his hand on his gun, which is legally an assault under the circumstances. I was polite, as I always am with any man with a gun. Later I wrote an appropriate letter to the Angeles National Forest ranger about the crime committed by the BNSF policeman in our National Forest. They had monthly meetings with the BNSF at the time, because the railroad was illegally keeping people from crossing the tracks at the dirt road crossings with are NF roads that have a legal right to cross the tracts. My complaint went to the head of the BNSF police and they promised to give their officer the career killing "more training". I did not see him around the area anymore. He was probably transferred to the ports. He was young and an eager beaver, his skills can be better used confronting the gangsters by the ports.

I am also a poster on the BNSF board, posting about RR right away from a legal standpoint. They like my posts. As a practical matter, I suggest to stay at least 25 feet from the tracks for safety reasons, such as a brake part flying off. In the city, such as Burbank, the side walk can be as little as 8 feet away from trains traveling 60mh. Safety first.

March 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJohn, the lawyer

Yes we have the same problem here in Modeto, Calif. UP rail has been issuing citations for tresspass when people cross the tracks. At first it was not signed as no tresspass. Now they have a small signage on the side of the rails where the cop was lurking to make his living. According to the Calif. penal code 602, the signage must be placed at least every 1760 feet. I believe there is also a right of way passage that allows access over the tracks if a street is blocked off by the tracks and another street is accessible on the immediate other side of the tracks. Also I believe the Union Pacific has a bunch of bored cops! The Public has a right to access the other side of the tracks without having to walk 2 miles to go around the obstacle. Railroads may have the right of way to passage, but they do not have the right to block safe passage by pedestrian traffic, no matter where they cross!

August 4, 2015 | Unregistered Commentericdcow1

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