Is BNSF clamping down on photographers?

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, October 21, 2011

I am sympathetic with the fix railroads are in. The feds are all over them to find saboteurs under every rock. I am also sympathetic with the dilemma facing people who love trains and love to photograph them. Your right to do this is as unfettered as ever, perhaps, but you just have to expect to be bothered — some would say harassed — as you go about your business. A recent episode alongside BNSF Railway, and my follow-up with the railroad, puts the issue in stark relief.

Bud Bulgrin is a 72-year-old BNSF retiree living in Brooklyn Park, Minn., who worked as a railroader for 40 years. Does he fit your profile of a terrorist on a research mission? His companion on a recent train-watching trip is Dave Williams, 51, a train driver (locomotive engineer) in Great Britain who comes to the U.S. three times a year to see and photograph American railroads. In other words, here are two mature men, one of them in the geezer category (sorry, Bud).

This autumn they spend two weeks covering railroads in Nebraska. Toward the end occurs a bizarre incident. They are photographing trains on the Sand Hills Subdivision between Alliance and Lincoln, Neb., standing on the roadside a good distance from the tracks, when a white Suburban pulls up and out come two uniformed policemen wearing BNSF insignia. Bud and Dave are asked to give the cops photo IDs. They do, and also hand over their Citizens for Rail Security cards issued by BNSF. The policemen seem not to notice the CRS cards, Bud reports. To every question, the taller policeman who appears to be the senior officer replies, “We’re doing a security check.” He retires to the Suburban and appears to be talking on a cell phone.

While this is going on a BNSF office car train goes by. The short, stout cop says BNSF chief executive Matt Rose is aboard. Both Bud and Dave are deflated that the charade they are being forced to go through prevents them from photographing this train. Of course, it occurs to me, reading about this incident, that this is precisely why they were targeted, to prevent Matt Rose’s train from being photographed.

With the office car train gone, the two policemen seem to lose interest in Bud and Dave and drive away in haste, perhaps to catch up with the train and disturb the peace of other roadside photographers.

End of incident. Except that in reading their account, I feel that it’s unfair to them and to the rest of us to just let something like this happen and forget that it did. Nobody is arrested, but two people doing nothing unlawful or even suspicious are bothered by railroad police. In some respects, it’s like walking down State Street in Chicago and suddenly being asked by two cops to show identification, except that scenes like this don’t occur without provocation on State Street.

So I contacted BNSF and asked four questions. Back came replies from Steve Forsberg, head of media relations for the railroad. Rather than paraphrase or summarize, I’ll quote Steve in full:

1. If we are looking out for BNSF, what courtesy does BNSF owe us? Photographers should expect casual and courteous conversations from our officers who have the thankless and endless task of helping Homeland Security protect against the needle in the haystack, the terrorist who may be posing as a rail fan to conduct pre-operational surveillance. Our police team is reinforcing that with officers in the field so that continues to be the case. As for what BNSF police and our other employees are looking out for, it is far more than BNSF. It is also for all of the communities, freight shippers and rail passengers that depend on those trains operating safely.

2. What business is it of BNSF police if I am photographing BNSF trains from public property? We recognize it is perfectly legal to photograph anything from public property. 9-11, however,made infrastructure security every citizen’s business. BNSF’s Police team was the first in the industry to recognize that which is why they started the Citizens for Rail Security program. And thousands of rail fan photographershave agreed that they have a role to play in that effort by joining the CRS program.

3. How should I respond when stopped by BNSF police on public property? With the same basic courtesy you expect from the officers. Understand that they are simply checking for basic information as part of an effort to protect the very thing the photographers also love. Like the public police officers who try to protect the communities we live in, they are not the enemy. As neighborhood watch groups have demonstrated for decades, our neighborhoods (and our railroads) are much safer when we work together with law enforcement to protect them. Many of the things our officers have checked into have been a direct result of information provided to them by members of the CRS program. The more cooperatively rail photographers and police work together, the better they know each other and the safer the rail neighborhood is.

4. Have I the right to tell them to take a hike? If the issue here is the courtesy any human being owes another, then the sentiment expressed in the question should grant the same level of simple courtesy and respect it demands.

You can make of this what you will. I have no argument with Steve. I am still tempted to believe the real motivation for stopping Bud and Dave — a geezer and geezer-to-be — was to prevent their photographing the business car train that one policeman said carried the railroad’s CEO. If that’s the case, the kind of behavior these two men experienced won’t often be repeated; Matt Rose does not ride every BNSF train, obviously. But if stopping two men with cameras on public property for a ten-minute “security check” is the new standard operating procedure of BNSF police, then we have entered a new phase of post-9/11 life.

I also want to say one other thing. We all get really upset when we see aged women, leaning on walkers, or small children get patted down in airport security lines, in the name of national security. I feel the same way when it happens to two mature men on a highway shoulder. You might call it smart policing. I call it plain silliness. What we'd all appreciate, I think, is a little bit less Keystone Kops and a little bit more common sense. — Fred W. Frailey

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