Rail trail

Rail trail

Rail trail is a term for a trail that makes use of a railroad right-of-way (ROW). A rail trail can be either a "rail to trail", created in a right-of-way where the railway has been discontinued, or a "rail with trail", created in a right-of-way where the railway remains in use.

Most rail trails are "multi-use" or "shared" (see Trail), permitting at least pedestrian and bicycle uses [ [http://www.in.gov/dnr/trailsplan/pdf/trailsplan.pdf (PDF) Final Draft July, 2006 The Indiana State Trails, Greenways and Bikeways Plan] at Indiana Trails Plan (DNR)] , and often other uses as well. Some of these shared trails are segregated, with the segregation achieved with or without separation. Many rail trails are long distance trails.

A rail to trail may still include rails, such as light rail or streetcar. By virtue of their characteristic shape (long and flat), some shorter rails to trails are known as greenways and linear parks.


In North America, the decades-long consolidation of the rail industry led to the closure of a number of now-uneconomical branch lines in the 1960s. Some were maintained as short line railways, but many others were simply abandoned.Fact|date=June 2008

Beginning with a few lines in the Midwestern United States,Fact|date=June 2008 these disused industrial relics were turned into ecological areas functioning as linear parks or community space, but mainly as non-motorized transportation or recreation corridors for walking, hiking, bicycling, horse riding, birdwatching, etc.

By the 1970s, even main lines were being sold or abandoned. This was especially true when regional rail lines merged and streamlined their operations. As both the supply of potential trails increased and awareness of the possibilities rose, state governments, municipalities, conservation authorities and private organizations bought the rail corridors to create, expand or link greenspaces. The first abandoned rail corridor in the United States converted into a recreational trail was the Elroy-Sparta State Trail in Wisconsin, which opened in 1965. The following year the Illinois Prairie Path opened. The longest developed rail trail is currently the 225-mile Katy Trail in Missouri; when complete, the Cowboy Trail in Nebraska will extend for 321 miles.Fact|date=June 2008

Gradually, the movement acquired the name "rail trails" and created organizations to promote its ideas.Fact|date=June 2008 Currently, there are tens of thousands of miles and thousands of rail trails in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and many other countries. The main factor restricting the potential scope of the movement is the lack of abandoned or surplus rail lines in continental Europe, though abandoned canal towpaths are readily available and used for similar purposes.

Conversion issues

Rail trail conversions can be quite complex for a variety of legal, social and economic reasons. Railroads in North America were often built with a mix of purchased land, government land grants, and easements. The land deeds can be over a hundred years old, land grants might be conditional upon continuous operation of the line and easements may have expired, all expensive and difficult issues to determine at law.

Railroad property rights have often been poorly defined and sporadically enforced, with neighboring property owners intentionally or accidentally using land they do not own. Such encroachers often later oppose a rail to trail conversion. Even residents who are not encroaching on railway lands may oppose conversion on the grounds of increased foot traffic in the area and its perceived decline of personal security.

Because linear corridors of land are only valuable if they are intact, special laws regulate the abandonment of a railroad corridor. In the United States, the Surface Transportation Board regulates railroads, and can allow a corridor to be "rail banked" or placed on hold for possible conversion back to active status when or if future need demands.

While many rail trails have been built, many more potential trails have been squashed by community opposition. The stature of the conversion organization, the quality of involvement of the local community, and government willingness are all keys factor in the successful acceptance of a trail.

Typical features

Most original rail lines were surveyed for ease of transport and gentle (often less than 2%) grades. Therefore, the rail trails that succeeded them are often fairly straight and ideally suited to overcome steep or awkward terrain such as hills, escarpments, rivers, swamps, etc. Rail trails often share space with linear utilities such as pipelines, electrical transmission wires and telephone lines.

Most purchase of railway land is dictated by the free market value of the land, so that land in urban and industrial cores is often impractical to purchase and convert. Therefore, rail trails may end on the fringes of urban areas or near industrial areas and resume later, as discontinuous portions of the same rail line, separated by unaffordable or inappropriate land.

A Railroad right of way (easement) width varies based on the terrain, with 30 m or 100 ft being amply wide enough where little surface grading is required.cite book | last = Raymond | first = William Galt | title = The Elements of Railroad Engineering | publisher = Chapman & Hall, Ltd. | date = 1917 | location = | pages = Page 310 | url = http://books.google.com/books?id=XtXCm4RgYIMC&pg=RA1-PA310&dq=railroad+width+of+%22Right+of+way%22+-wikipedia&as_brr=1#PRA1-PA310,M1 | doi = | id = ] The initial 1135 km or 705 mile stretch of the Illinois Central Railroad is the most liberal in the world with a width of 60 m or 200 ft along whole length of the line. cite book | last = Ackerman | first = William K. | title = Historical Sketch of the Illinois-Central Railroad: Together with a Brief Biographical Record of... | publisher = Fergus Printing Company | date = 1890 | location = | pages = Page 96 | url = http://books.google.com/books?id=hkP2Im5y4IsC&pg=PA96&dq=railroad+width+of+%22Right+of+way%22+-wikipedia&as_brr=1#PPA96,M1 | doi = | id = ] Rail trails are often graded and covered in gravel or crushed stone, although some are paved with asphalt and others are left as dirt. Where rail bridges have been directly incorporated into the trail, the only alterations (if any) tend to be adding solid walking areas on top of ties or trestles. If paved, they are especially suitable for people in wheelchairs.

Where applicable, the same trails used in the summer for walking, jogging and inline skating can be used in the winter for Nordic skiing, snowshoeing and sometimes snowmobiling.


Railbanking is the practice of preserving railroad rights-of-way for possible future use. One such means to accomplish this is by using them as multi-use trails. In the United States, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) is a nonprofit organization, headquartered in Washington, D.C., which promotes railbanking.

Many railroads are not built on land that is actually owned by the railroad company, but is simply an easement. The terms of the easement often require that the land continue to be used for transportation, or it will revert to the property owner; railbanking often satisfies these conditions, keeping the corridor around if future conditions ever promote the conversion back to rails. However, conversion back to an active railroad can face considerable community opposition due to local attachment to a multi-use trail. As a result modern railroads are often hesitant to railbank a line as a rail trail.

RTC was founded in 1986 and has currently more than 100,000 members. The organization does not build trails, but promotes policy at the national and state levels to create the conditions that make trail building possible by local groups. RTC helps to keep the federal Transportation Enhancements program, which is the largest source of funding for trail development.

The land over which railways pass may often have many different owners — private, rail operator or governmental — and, depending on the terms under which it was originally acquired, the type of operating rights may also vary. Without Rail Banking, on closure, some parts of a railway's route might otherwise revert to the former owner. The owner could reuse them for whatever purpose he chose (for example, for building) or modify the ground conditions (remove embankments or fill-in cuttings), potentially prejudicing the line's future reuse if required.

A single section of a route changed in this way could have serious consequences for the viability of a restoration of a service, with the costs of repurchasing the land or right-of-way or of restoring the site to its former condition outweighting the economic benefit. Over the full length of a railway's route with many different owners the reopening costs could be considerable.

By designating the route as a Rail Bank, these complications are avoided and the cost of maintaining a right-of-way are removed from the railway operator. In the United States land transferred to Rail Banks is held by the state or Federal governments and many Rail Banks have been reused as Rail Trails.

In the United Kingdom, many thousands of miles of railway were closed under the Beeching Axe cuts in the 1960s and whilst a few of these routes have subsequently been reopened none were formally treated as Land Banks in the US manner. The Beeching closures were driven by the government's desire to reduce expenditure on railways, and so most lines were offered for sale to the highest bidder, a process which frequently led to great fragmentation in the ownership of former UK railway lines.

List of rail trails completed and proposed

This features an extensive list of completed, proposed, and those under construction.

See also

* Bustitution
* List of rail trails
* Segregated cycle facilities
* Sustrans
* Multi-modal


* [http://www.norfolk.gov.uk/consumption/groups/public/documents/article/ncc037183.pdf "Safeguarding Transport Routes & Protection of Disused Railway Trackbeds", Proposals for a Rail Bank, in Norfolk, England]
* [http://mobikefed.org/2006/01/katy-bridge-at-boonville-withdrawals.php "Katy Bridge at Boonville: Withdrawals from the railbank", article on proposals to dismantle a bridge included in a Missouri Rail Bank]

External links

United States

* [http://www.americantrails.org/resources/railtrails/index.html American Trails] : Rail trail resources.
* [http://www.railserve.com/Rails-to-Trails/ RailServe.com] : U.S. directory of trails.
* [http://www.railtrails.org Rails-to-Trails Conservancy]
* [http://www.TrailLink.com Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's TrailLink.com] : U.S. directory of trails.
* [http://www.stb.dot.gov/ Surface Transportation Board]
* [http://www.trailsfromrails.com Trails from Rails] :U.S. directory of trails.
* [http://www.railstotrails.us RailsToTrails.us] : U.S. directory of trails.


* [http://www.tctrail.ca Trans Canada Trail]
* [http://www.bonjourquebec.com/qc-en/fiches/en/attraits/7978313.html Parc Linéaire Le P'tit Train du Nord]
* [http://www.laurentides.com/parclineaire/default.asp?langue=an Parc Lineaire Le P'Tit Train Du Nord official site]


* [http://www.aevv-egwa.org/site/hp_en.asp European Greenways Association]
* [http://www.railwayramblers.org.uk/ Railway Ramblers UK]
* [http://www.viasverdes-ffe.com/ viasverdes.com Fundación de los Ferrocarriles Españoles] (Spanish rail trails association)


* [http://www.railtrails.org.au Railtrails Australia]
* [http://www.capitalrailtrails.org Capital Rail Trails Project] : A fledging Canberra group aiming to attract support and funding to convert many of the Canberra region's abandoned railway lines into bicycle and walking trails.

New Zealand

* [http://www.centralotagorailtrail.co.nz/ Central Otago Rail Trail] The official website for the Otago Central Rail Trail. The 150km Otago Central Rail Trail thrusts deep into the heart of Central Otago, the only region in New Zealand with a continental climate; a magical stage for amazing performances by all four seasons.

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