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The right to photograph trains?

Taking photos of places and objects that I find interesting is one of my favourite things to do. I have spent five years uploading over 14,000 photos to my Flickr account, most of which are available for anyone to use for free (with some small conditions).

Xtrapolis train running an Up service to Flinders Street at Cunningham Street level crossing, Northcote

As others will no doubt be aware, taking photos in public spaces sometimes provokes reactions from people. These range from curious bystanders asking a question to overzealous security guards attempting to intimidate you and force you to leave.

My main run ins have been on transport infrastructure. On one particularly memorable occasion, the Clifton Hill duty controller made an announcement across the entire Hurstbridge Line to specifically tell me to leave Fairfield Station as “photography is not permitted” (which is wrong). Several PSOs then came up to my platform, which I thought was quite unnecessary (NB: they were very friendly and after I asked them about my taking photos, they said that there was absolutely no problem with it and wished me the best of luck).

During my first few run-ins like this, I didn’t press the issue. I figured that immediately following any threatening authority’s instructions was the path of least resistance and that no photo of a signal box or train platform was worth getting fined or arrested for.

However, since educating myself on this topic more and continuing to find myself in these situations, I have begun pushing back when I can.

So what is the official line on what you can and cannot do?

The Metro Trains website used to clearly indicate that non-commercial photography does not require explicit permission or a permit. Unfortunately it has been recently updated and is now utterly confusing, but still seems to say the same thing (just with ten times the number of words).

Any photography on the network is subject to several conditions which also listed on their website – e.g. Southern Cross Station requires a special permit.

But some of these are quite silly when looked at in any contemporary context. For example, one of the directions is: “Any filming or photography on trains cannot be conducted during peak travel periods”, with a corresponding one stating that: “You cannot capture images on board a train without a Metro permit”. Taken at face value, this would mean that the thousands of people who take photos on their mobile phones to complain about late or congested trains on Twitter (including journalists and MPs) are subject to enforcement action.

That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be any standards at all – clearly a line has to be drawn somewhere for the safety and amenity of passengers and staff. But what seems to have happened is that random bits and pieces have been added and changed without much thought for the wider picture.

Photography prohibition signs on front of Melbourne Metro Tunnel construction site at Arden Station, North Melbourne

What should happen is a proper review of these guidelines across all transport infrastructure (Yarra Tram’s guidelines are simpler but include the same impractical clauses) in consultation with groups like the PTUA and hobby photographers to come up with a workable and reasonable solution.

Once this is done, proper training of staff should also take place. Most of the incidents in which I have been involved have been the result of staff misunderstanding or not knowing about the actual rights and obligations of non-commercial photographers.

Most recently I was taking photos of a plaque at Glenferrie Station with my phone. The Metro Trains employee at the the myki gates then approached me and said “you need a permit to take photos”.

I tried to explain to him that I did not need a permit as it was not commercial photography, but he wouldn’t have a bar of it. I ended up just going up to the platforms to catch my train as I didn’t want to have a confrontation.

I made a formal complaint to Metro Trains afterwards who replied:

You have advised that you were told by our staff member at Glenferrie station on that evening that you required to have a permit to take non–commercial photos at the station.

I’m sorry for your experience.

Whilst a permit is required to be obtained by professionals or students, a permit is no longer required for personal filming and photography. I have forwarded a copy of your feedback to our Passenger Service Manager for Glenferrie station to ensure our staff are aware of the current Filming and Photography requirements

The main point of all this is to outline some of the the ongoing problems caused to hobby photographers like myself who find themselves in unnecessarily confrontational situations. As I said, some people are reasonable and will leave you alone or even help you out. But those station staff, security guards, etc. who go in all guns blazing when they have no legal right to do so aren’t doing anyone any favours. There needs to be clarity and common sense when it comes to these issues.

If you’re interested in more information there is this excellent information page from the Arts Law Centre of Australia.

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