Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
The map, created by a self-professed rail geek, plots geotagged train-related Flickr images.
Nick Benson is a self-professed train geek. He has chased trains around the Midwest. When he "catches" them, he takes their picture and shares them with other train enthusiasts online. One day he hopes to photograph trains in other parts of the world—in countries such as Switzerland, Chile, and Australia.
"It might seem a bit strange to someone who doesn't groove on trains," says Benson via email. "It's an interesting hobby and subculture."
To nudge along his dream of chasing trains, Benson created an online atlas of railway photography called the "railfan atlas" in 2014. The atlas plots geotagged Flickr rail images onto a world map so train-related pictures are in one, easily accessible place. It displays thumbnails of the most popular images based on the number of Flickr favorites and comments. The atlas also creates a heat map to give a sense of where train photos are taken most frequently.
Here are train photography hotspots in and around Philadelphia:
And here's a picture of a freight train raging through a blizzard in Philadelphia, taken in the winter of 2010, shown on the map as a thumbnail:
When planning a trip in search of a fresh and not-yet-photographed train, Benson and other "railfans" can look at the maps and get an idea of what they're getting into. "I wanted a tool that would allow me to find cool spots to take train photos in new places," he says. Benson says railway buffs are fascinated by an array of train features: tiny details such as the rivets (the grooves on the side of the car), or the entire locomotive.
"Some people are producing images that can stand on their own as fine art," he says.
Currently, the atlas has 450,000 images in its database—a lot of them by fellow "railfans" who keep the site going. "While traffic to the site has been more of a steady trickle than a torrent, the people who do visit are spending a lot of time exploring," says Benson.