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Rails-with-Trails: Lessons Learned

Executive Summary

This report offers conclusions about the lessons learned in the development, construction, and operation of "rails-with-trails" so that railroad companies, trail developers, and others can benefit from the history of trails in existence today. "Rail-with-trail" (RWT) describes any shared use path or trail located on or directly adjacent to an active railroad corridor. About 65 RWTs encompass 385 km (239 mi) in 30 States today. These trails are located adjacent to active rail lines ranging from a few slow-moving short-haul freight trains weekly, to high-frequency Amtrak trains traveling as fast as 225 km/h (140 mi/h). Dozens of RWTs are proposed or planned. While most are located on public lands leased to private railroads, many are on privately owned railroad property. Hundreds of kilometers of RWTs traverse Western Australia, Canada, and Europe.

RWT advocates and railroad company representatives often offer contrasting viewpoints. Trail planners view railroad property, often located in scenic areas with favorable topography, as a better alternative than bike lanes on roadways. They note that legal protections of varying degrees exist in all States, and that a litany of successful RWTs should provide comfort.

A photo of a section of the Baltimore York Rail-trail corridor in Maryland. A sign on the left says, NORTHERN CENTRAL RAILWAY - Liberty Limited Dinner Train. On the right there is a train at the platform.
Baltimore York RWT, MD

Railroads generally oppose RWTs for the following business reasons: the trails are not related to railroad operations and generally do not generate revenue for the railroads; railroad rights-of-way may be needed for future enhancements to system capacity; poor design or maintenance of trails could lead to increased trespassing, with consequent increases in injuries and deaths; narrowing the railroad's portion of the right-of-way drives up the cost of maintaining track and structures (including complicating safety protection for roadway workers); and significant new populations of pedestrians close to the active track structure may result in additional stress on train crews seeking to ensure the safety of train movements. Railroad company representatives respond to assurances of legal protections by noting that the court system has not yet tested the lease and/or use agreements for existing RWTs. Railroads have borne the burden of litigation for many incidents on their property, even for crashes with at-fault trespassers or automobile drivers who ignored obvious warning systems. Further, they note that the railroad may be determined by civil courts to owe a higher duty of care to trail users than to trespassers, particularly at new, designated crossings.

Policy officials at the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) have shared the railroads' public safety concerns. They also have pointed out that, for certain main lines, creation of a trail, under circumstances that could foreclose adding additional main line tracks or passing sidings to increase capacity, could result in a constriction of future freight rail service across the Nation or dramatically increased cost as a result of less-than-optimum routing. Nationally, railroads carry the highest percentage of freight of any mode on a "tonnage times distance" basis, and-for the bulk commodities they are well suited to handle-they do so at lower cost than trucks in terms of transportation charges, fossil fuel use, and greenhouse emissions. Although most existing service railroads could never replace the flexibility of trucking, the railroads will remain an essential transportation provider as the economy continues to grow into the future.

In the meantime, public pressure is increasing for railroads to free up space adjacent to rail lines for trail usage, pitting the railroad industry's safety, capacity, and liability concerns against trail proponents' desires to create shared use paths and other trails. This situation gave rise to the need to study the issue of RWTs to determine where they are appropriate, recommend design treatments and management strategies, find ways to reduce liability impacts on the railroad industry, and address other public interest considerations.

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Data Collection and Analysis

The data collection and analysis for this study included the following:

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A photo of 3 people walking along train tracks where a trail is proposed; they are approaching a paved at-grade crossing.
The proposed Union Pacific RWT is feasible in parts

A photo of railroad tracks passing under a roadway bridge. There is very little horizontal clearance under the bridge.
and must be rerouted in others.
Cupertino, CA

A photo of 2 people walking along a trail with train tracks on the left.
The Reading and Northern Railroad Company found a reduction in illegal dumping after the trail went in. Lehigh River Gorge Trail, Jim Thorpe, PA

This report underwent extensive public review from 1999 to 2002. The input process included the following:

RWT Development Process

The current RWT development process varies from location to location, although common elements exist. Trail advocacy groups and public agencies often identify a desired RWT as part of a bikeway master plan. They then work to secure funding prior to initiating contact with the affected railroad.

The railroad agency or company typically lacks an established, accessible review and approval process. While some RWTs move forward quickly (typically those where the trail development agency owns the land), many more are outright rejected or involve a lengthy, contentious process. RWT processes typically take three to ten years from concept to construction.

Feasibility Review

Trail managers should undertake a comprehensive feasibility analysis of proposed RWTs. An RWT feasibility study should describe the setting, relationship to local planning documents, land ownership patterns, railroad activity, and other information necessary to determine feasibility. The study should identify and evaluate multiple alternative alignments, including at least one that is not on the railroad right-of-way, and determine a preferred alignment.

Assessing Potential Benefits

Identifying potential benefits to railroad companies is crucial to developing a successful RWT. Such benefits may include the following:

Involving the Stakeholders

Involving the railroad and affected agencies early in the process is a common theme heard from surveys and interviews on existing RWTs around the country.

Stakeholders may include:

Stakeholders should be involved through a technical advisory committee or frequent communication via meetings, newsletters, phone calls, and e-mails.

Capacity Constraints

A photo of a small section of a curved paved trail along a rail corridor. A metal fence separates the trail and the tracks where the trail curves (but not beyond the curve). A sign on the fence says DANGER with small print beneath.
Trail designers worked with Conrail designers to ensure that their interests were addressed, concurrent to negotiation of the RWT agreement. Schuylkill River Trail. Norristown, PA

Privately-owned Class I railroads (see Appendix A: Definitions) tend to be reluctant to grant non-rail usage of their rights-of-way because loss of right-of-way width at any given location could reduce the ability of the railroad to add main track and sidings necessary to provide increased capacity and serve customer needs across the breadth of their systems. Freight railroads spent the decades of the 1980s and 1990s reducing excess capacity in order to control costs and survive in a competitive marketplace. This has resulted in concentrating more traffic on fewer lines and reducing the options for reaching given markets from other locations (e.g., there are essentially three corridors to the west coast from the Mississippi).

State departments of transportation and area transit authorities may have long-term plans for new service that could be foreclosed by permanent trail improvements on the particular line. To the extent the full width of the right-of-way may be needed for these purposes (including responding to air quality nonattainment requirements), the significant investments that would be required for a trail to cohabit with an active rail line may not be warranted.

It should be noted that the property interest held by railroads at many locations is an easement or similar right subject to an express reversionary interest should the line cease to be used for rail service. In many cases, the purpose for which the railroads hold the easement is to provide for intrastate rail transportation. If a portion of the right-of-way is allocated for trail use, and if this restricts allocation for later railroad demands for increased capacity, that is inconsistent with the purpose of the easement.

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In the context of RWT, liability refers to the obligation of a trail manager or railroad to compensate a person who is harmed through some fault of the trail manager or railroad. Railroads have a number of liability concerns about the intentional location of a trail near or on an active railroad corridor:

The level of railroad company concern is dependent in part on the class of railroad and the type of operations they perform. The Class I railroads' perceived deep financial pockets make them a frequent target of lawsuits, and they see no financial benefits from RWTs that would offset any increased exposure. Transit and tourist train operators may support RWT projects because they often are quasi-governmental entities, with a mission of attracting people to their service. Finally, locally based short-line operators have less reason to be concerned about future track expansion, and may be inclined toward the potential financial rewards of permitting an RWT project along their rights-of-way.

Available Legal Protections

There is a range of options that can reduce railroad liability exposure. These include the following:

A photo of a train engine along a proposed rail-trail.
Portland's regional government, Metro, acquired the railroad property in the 1990s to allow for RWT development. Future Springwater Corridor Trail Extension, Portland, OR

The research team for this report was unable to find a history of crashes or claims on the existing RWTs. There is only one known case of a specific RWT claim (in Anchorage, Alaska). The railroad was held harmless from any liability for the accident through the terms of its indemnification agreement. Research on other relevant cases has found that the State RUSs and other statutes do hold up in court.

Updated: 2/11/2014
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