It's Flag Day as I type this on June 14, 2005. What better way to commemorate the occasion
than with a shot of one of Union Pacific's "flag" locomotives, which I took earlier this year
on my way home from a ski vacation in New Mexico?
The train is UP westbound INOLB, operating on the Union Pacific Valentine Subdivision, part of the former Southern Pacific "Sunset Route". The location is the east side of Paisano Pass. Located between the towns of Alpine and Marfa, Paisano Pass is the spot where the Sunset Route crosses the southern reaches of the Davis Mountains, one of the most scenic regions of Texas. Early in a day when I had over 600 miles to drive, this was one of the few sunny shots I got before storm clouds rolled in. After leaving Alpine, I drove through rain most of the way back to Fort Worth.
The previous day, a crew on a different train had reported me to their dispatcher as a "suspicious individual taking pictures" of their train. (I had been photographing from the shoulder of US Highway 90; at no time did I trespass on railroad property or interfere with railroad operations). I continued photographing, expecting a county sheriff's deputy to eventually arrive and question me... but no one ever did.
In the wake of 9/11, railroads are instructing their employees to be more watchful and vigilant for suspicious or unusual activities, and to report trespassers and other suspicious people. And since 9/11, many of us (railfans and railfan photographers) have had at least a few visits with law enforcement officers or railroad police. In most cases, the visits are inquisitive in nature and are conducted in a courteous and professional matter by the investigating officer(s). The visits usually last only a few minutes, and are merely a minor inconvenience for the fan in question while the officer(s) determine that he or she is not a bomb-toting terrorist. But in some cases, a subject might be detained for further, more detailed questioning, or be informed by mis-informed law enforcement personnel that photographing railroad operations (even from public property) is illegal due to "security reasons". And I have first-hand knowledge of one instance in which officers ridiculed and made fun of a subject for participating in such an unusual hobby. Thankfully, I have never experienced such treatment, and I hope that I never do.
When I saw flag on that Union Pacific locomotive that day, I was reminded of some of the things the flag stands for, like "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". Even if my "pursuit of happiness" involves something as silly as watching and photographing trains, it's still my right as an American to do so from public locations. And as long as the Stars and Stripes are flying over our schools and post offices, courthouses and state capitol buildings, and yes, on the sides of hundreds of Union Pacific locomotives, I will argue that it's the right of every American.
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