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Rails-with-Trails: Lessons Learned


Constrained Areas

A photo of a paved trail with chain link fencing on both sides of the trail and a commuter train passing on the left.
Setback (4.5m/15ft) and fencing along the Showgrounds Pathway RWT. Perth, Australia

Pie chart. Percentage of existing RWTs with barrier. Yes - 70%, No - 28%, and Unknown - 2%.

NOTE: A "Yes" response does not necessarily indicate the presence of a full barrier. It includes some partial barriers and one instance of where a barrier is planned to be removed.

Source: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

FIGURE 5.14 Percentage of existing RWTs with barrier

Bar chart. Barrier type, by percentage of existing RWTs. Concrete wall - 3.3%, Ditch - 11.5%, Grade Separation - 16.4%, Vegetation - 21.3%, and Fence (all types) - 34.4%.
FIGURE 5.15 Barrier type, by percentage of existing RWTs

A head-on drawing of train engine adjacent to a figure of a bicyclist on a paved cross section of trail. The distance, indicated by red lines, between the centerline of the train and the edge of a 3m wide buffer zone is '4.6m (15ft)'. The buffer zone consists of 'Barrier plantings to reduce lateral traffic. Plant selections will be drought tolerant with low maintenance requirements.' The minimum buffer zone should be '0.6m (2ft)' wide. The trail corridor is '3m (10ft)' wide.
FIGURE 5.17 Trail separation example - using vegetation as a separation technique

A photo of a bicyclist riding on a paved trail alongside a raised railbed.
Grade separation along Schuylkill River Trail. Norristown, PA

Many types of terrain pose challenges to an RWT design. While a railroad corridor may be 30 m (100 ft) wide or greater, the track section may be within a narrow cut or on a fill section, making the placement of an RWT very difficult. RWTs in very steep or rugged terrain or with numerous bridges and trestles simply may not be feasible given the need to keep a minimal setback from the tracks, meet ADA requirements, allow railroad maintenance access, and still have a reasonable construction budget. Exceptions may exist where the RWT is accompanied by a solid barrier, vertical separation, or ditch (see "Separation" section, page 66), in the case of very low speed/frequency railroad operations, or for very short distances (see Figures 5.12 and 5.13). The railroad company or agency should review the proposal to ensure that they will have adequate maintenance and emergency access to the tracks.

Type of Rail Service

Lower speed and frequency train operations pose fewer hazards than higher speed and frequency trains. Numerous low speed line RWTs exist or are planned with relatively narrow setback distances. For example, Portland's Springwater-OMSI Trail, along the 32 km/h (20 mi/h) Oregon Pacific Railroad, is designed 3.2 m (10.5 ft) from the centerline to edge of trail, with a fence 0.6 m (2 ft) from the train edge the entire length. The narrower setbacks may be acceptable depending on feasibility analysis, engineering judgment, the rail-road's future needs and plans, and liability assessment.

Areas of Existing High Trespassing

While trespassing on private railroad property is a common occurrence in virtually all settings, in some locations the historic pattern of trespassing has triggered legitimate concerns about the health, safety, and welfare of nearby residents. Research indicates that RWTs may be an effective tool to manage trespassing on corridors where it is physically difficult or impossible to keep trespassers off the railroad tracks. In these cases, the feasibility analysis may show that the risks of a narrower setback distance may be offset by the gains in trespassing reduction through trespasser channelization, using design features such as fencing or other barriers.

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Over 70 percent of existing RWTs utilize fencing and other barriers such as vegetation for separation from adjacent active railroads and other properties (see Figures 5.14 and 5.15). Barriers include fencing (34 percent), vegetation (21 percent), vertical grade (16 percent), and drainage ditch (12 percent). The fencing style varies considerably, from chain link to wire, wrought iron, vinyl, steel picket, and wooden rail (see Figure 5.16). Fencing height ranges from 0.8 m (3 ft) to 1.8 m (6 ft), although typical height is 0.8 to 1.2 m (3 to 4 ft).

Most railroad companies require RWTs to provide fencing. Some railroad companies specify a requirement of 1.8 m (6 ft) high fencing, no matter what the setback distance is. Fencing may not be required where a significant deterrent to trespass is provided or exists. Examples include water bodies, severe grade differentials, or dense vegetation.

Other barrier types such as vegetation, ditches, or berms are often used to provide separation (see Figure 5.17), especially where an RWT is located further than 7.6 m (25 ft) from the edge of the trail to the centerline of the closest track, or where the vertical separation is greater than 3 m (10 ft). In constrained areas, using a combination of separation techniques may allow narrower acceptable setback distances.

When on railroad property, RWT planners must adhere to the request or requirements for fencing by the railroad company or agency. When not on railroad property, RWT planners still should coordinate with the railroad to determine appropriate fencing. On all existing RWTs, the trail authority is responsible for barrier installation and maintenance.

Vertical Separation

Fencing styles

Fencing Styles

Vertical or grade separation achieves many of the same benefits as horizontal separation, and is very common where an RWT is located along numerous cut and fill locations. For example, on a steep-fill section, the RWT may be located 6.1 m (20 ft) or more below the tracks (see Figure 5.12 on page 65). In a case such as this, the setback becomes less important than the amount of vertical separation, which effectively addresses the elements of debris and wind. In cases with vertical separation of greater than 3 m (10 ft), the danger from falling objects may increase. A fence or barrier at the top of the slope may help prevent injuries on the trail below.

Vegetation and Ditches

Whether natural or planted, vegetation can serve as both a visual and physical barrier between a track and a trail (see Figure 5.17). The density and species of plants in a vegetative barrier determine how effective the barrier can be in deterring potential trespassers. A dense thicket can be, in some cases, just as effective as a fence (if not more so) in keeping trail users off the tracks. Even tall grasses can discourage trail users from venturing across to the tracks, although less effectively than trees and shrubs. Planted barriers typically take a few years before they become effective barriers. Separation between the trail and the track may need to be augmented with other temporary barriers until planted trees and hedges have sufficiently matured. Neither vegetation nor fencing should block the public's view of an approaching train at highway-rail crossings.

Many rail corridors contain drainage ditches that run adjacent to the tracks. The deeper and wider these ditches, the more difficult they are to cross on foot, and thus the greater deterrent to trespassing they provide. The presence of water in the ditch also will act as a deterrent. Trail and track drainage needs must be considered in the design process.

Fences and Walls

Fences and walls are the most common type of physical barrier used in RWT corridors (see Figure 5.16). Most railroads will require or request fencing, for which the trail management agency will be responsible. The height and type of material used on these barriers determines their effectiveness in discouraging trespassing and the resulting impact on required setback distance. A tall wall or fence constructed with materials that are difficult to climb should deter all but the most determined trespasser.

From the trail manager's perspective, fencing is a mixed blessing. Installing and maintaining fencing is expensive. Improperly maintained fencing is a higher liability risk than no fencing at all. In all but the most heavily-constructed fencing, vandals find ways to cut, climb, or otherwise overcome fences to reach their destinations. Fencing also detracts from the aesthetic quality of a trail.

A photo of a paved trail at an at-grade track crossing. A signal stands at the crossing to warn trail users of approaching trains.
At-grade crossing. Dixon, CA

The visual quality of fencing materials can have an impact on illegal activities along RWTs. For example, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) Police Service has had dramatic results in reducing crime and trespassing through RWT designs that improved the aesthetic quality of an area. Their approach relies on the concept of "Crime Prevention through Environmental Design" (CPTED), meaning, "the proper design and effective use of the built environment can lead to a reduction in the incidence and fear of crime...." (Canadian Pacific Police Services, 2000)

Particularly for an urban trail in an area with crime problems, it may be important to maintain visual access to the trail corridor from adjacent land uses, so that portions of the trail do not become isolated from public view. Fence design in these instances should not block visual access to the trail corridor. Tall fences that block views can cause sight distance problems at intersections with roadways--both for motorists who must be able to view approaching trains, and for trail users who need adequate sight lines to view traffic conditions.

This is an overhead view of a 'Rail-with-Trail' with a 'Railway Maintenance Road' which runs parallel and between the 2-track rail corridor and the trail. There is a 'Fence' which separates the tracks and the 'Railway Maintenance Road' from the trail. Starting from the left; a red arrow indicates the distance between the Centerline of the track closest to the trail and the edge of the trail is '4.5m (15ft)'. 'In constrained areas (less than 7.6m (25ft) setback railway maintenance access provided either on 3m (10ft) Rail-with-Trail, or on opposite side of track. Trail to be closed as necessary for rail maintenance. In transition zone, gates will be provided to allow access to railway maintenance road.' An arrow points to a 'Sliding Gate'. In areas with greater than 7.6m (25ft) setback, railway maintenance is on separated roadway.' Ending on the right; a red arrow indicates the distance between the Centerline of the track closest to the trail and the edge of the trail is '7.6m (25ft)'.
FIGURE 5.18 Sample maintenance access transitions

Railroad maintenance vehicles and/or emergency vehicles may need fence gates in certain areas to facilitate access to the track and/or trail (see Figure 5.18). Fence design should be coordinated with railroad maintenance personnel, as well as representatives from local utilities that extend along the corridor. Where trespassing is an issue, the fence should be at least 1.8 m (6 ft) tall, and constructed of a sturdy material that is difficult to vandalize.

Updated: 02/11/2014
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