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Rails-with-Trails: Lessons Learned

Executive Summary (cont.)


No national standards or guidelines dictate RWT facility design. Guidance must be pieced together from standards related to shared use paths, pedestrian facilities, railroad facilities, and/or roadway crossings of railroad rights-of-way. Useful documents include the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, the AASHTO Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities (1999), Americans with Disabilities Act publications for trails and pedestrian facilities, and numerous FRA documents regarding grade crossing safety and trespass prevention.

Trail designers should work closely with railroad operations and maintenance staff to achieve a suitable RWT design. The research in this report has shown that well-designed RWTs meet the operational needs of railroads, often providing benefits in the form of reduced trespassing and dumping. A poorly designed RWT will compromise safety and function for both trail users and the railroad.

Setback distance

A photo of a train coming down the tracks parallel to a rail-trail that has both a 25ft+ setback and a higher elevation.
Setback of 7.6 m (25 ft) or greater often is needed for higher speed train corridors. Stavich Trail, OH and PA

The term "setback" refers to the distance between the paved edge of an RWT and the centerline of the closest active railroad track. Although RWTs currently are operating along train corridors of varying types, speeds, and frequencies, there simply is no consensus on an appropriate setback recommendation. Thus, trail planners should incorporate into the feasibility study an analysis of technical factors relating to setback distance. These should include the following factors:

Another determining factor may be corridor ownership. Trails proposed for privately owned property, particularly on Class I railroad property, will have to comply with the railroad's own standards.

A photo of the double deck Steel Bridge Riverwalk crossing the Willamette River. A trail bridge was added alongside the main bridge on the lower level next to railroad tracks.
Narrower setback distances may be acceptable, as on this Union Pacific railroad bridge with slow-moving trains. Steel Bridge Riverwalk, Portland, OR

Trail planners need to be aware that the risk of injury should a train derail will be high, even for slow-moving trains. Discussions about liability assignment need to factor this into consideration. For example, an RWT in a constrained area along a low frequency and speed train could be located as close as 3 m (10 ft) from the track centerline assuming that (a) the agency indemnifies the railroad for all RWT-related incidents, (b) separation (e.g., fencing or a solid barrier) is provided, (c) the railroad has no plans for additional tracks or sidings that would be impacted by the RWT, and (d) the RWT is available to the railroad for routine and emergency access. In contrast, along a high speed line located on private property, the railroad may require 15.2 m (50 ft) or more setback or not allow the trail at all.

Because every case is different, the setback distance should be determined on a case-by-case basis after engineering analysis and liability assumption discussions. The minimum setback distance ranges from 3 m (10 ft) to 7.6 m (25 ft), depending on the circumstances. In many cases, additional setback distance may be recommended. The lower setback distances may be acceptable to the railroad company or agency, RWT agency, and design team in such cases as constrained areas, along relatively low speed and frequency lines, and in areas with a history of trespassing where a trail might help alleviate a current problem. The presence of vertical separation or techniques such as fencing or walls also may allow for a narrower setback.


This refers to the treatment of the space between an RWT and the closest active railroad tracks, including fences, vegetation, ditches, and other items. More than 70 percent of existing RWTs utilize fencing and other barriers (vegetation, vertical grade, walls, and/or drainage ditches) for separation from adjacent active railroads and other properties. Fencing style varies considerably from chain link to wire, wrought iron, vinyl, steel picket, and wooden rail.

From the trail manager's perspective, fencing is considered 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 may detract from the aesthetic quality of a trail.

To the extent possible, RWT planners should adhere to the railroad company's request or requirements for fencing.


The point at which trails cross active tracks is the area of greatest concern to railroads, trail planners, and trail users. When it is necessary to intersect a trail with an active railway, there are three options: an at-grade crossing, a below-grade (underpass) crossing, or an above-grade (overpass) crossing.

A photo of a section of the Mission City Trail. Railroad tracks are on the left, behind a wrought iron fence and low vegetation. A paved trail with decorative brick shoulders curves slightly toward the right. A sign on the right of the trail says, City of San Fernando, Mission City Trail.
Wrought iron fencing offers an aesthetically pleasing option. Mission City Rail Trail, San Fernando, CA

At-Grade Crossings

A photo of a paved section of trail crossing two sets of train tracks at a signed and signalized crossing.
Dual track grade crossing. Burlington, VT

With many railroads actively working to close existing at-grade roadway-track crossings, consistent with U.S. Department of Transportation policy, new at-grade crossings will be difficult to obtain. Each trail-rail intersection is unique; most locations will require engineering analysis and consultation with existing design standards and guidelines. Issues that should be considered include the following:

Grade-Separated Crossings

Overpasses and underpasses are expensive and typically are installed in limited circumstances, such as locations where an at-grade crossing would be extremely dangerous due to frequent and/or high speed trains, limited sight distances, or other conditions. However, grade-separated crossings eliminate conflicts at trail-rail crossings by completely separating the trail user from the active rail line.

Issues to consider include the following:

A photo of a paved section of trail passing under a railroad through a large culvert. There is a large bay in the background.
Undercrossing of Alaska Railroad Corporation tracks, Tony Knowles Coastal Rail Trail. Anchorage, AK
  A photo of a truss trail bridge crossing over a set of train tracks.
Overcrossing of Union Pacific tracks, Eastbank Esplanade. Portland, OR

Other Design Issues

A whole host of other issues that must be considered in RWT design include the following:

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Once a RWT is constructed, trail maintenance and operations should seek to minimize impacts on railroad companies and offer a safe and pleasant use experience. Representatives from railroad operating, track, and signal departments should be invited for technical discussions and advice in the feasibility analysis phase of an RWT.

RWT proponents should consider the maintenance and access needs of the railroad operator in the alignment and design of the RWT. In areas with narrower than 7.6 m (25 ft) setback, the trail likely will be used as a shared maintenance road. In all cases, the railroad should be provided adequate room and means for access to and maintenance of its tracks and other facilities. The feasibility study and easement/license agreement also should identify the designs and costs of any improvements that would become the responsibility of the RWT agency.

A photo of the Steel Bridge Riverwalk crossing the Willamette River.
Steel Bridge Riverwalk. Portland, OR

Trail managers should develop a phasing and management plan and program for the RWT. Trail managers should consult with railroad engineering and operating departments to determine the appropriate steps, approvals, permits, designs, and other requirements. They should ensure that the proposed RWT does not increase railroad employee stress or decrease their safety.

An education and outreach plan should be part of the trail plan. Trail managers should provide supplemental information through maps, bicycle rental and support services, trail user groups, and other avenues. Trail managers also should develop, in coordination with local law enforcement and the railroad, a security and enforcement plan, and develop and post RWT user regulations.

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Based on the lessons learned in this study, it is clear that well-designed RWTs can bring numerous benefits to communities and railroads alike. RWTs are not appropriate in every situation, and should be carefully studied through a feasibility analysis. Working closely with railroad companies and other stakeholders is crucial to a successful RWT. Trail proponents need to understand railroad concerns, expansion plans, and operating practices. They also need to assume the liability burden for projects proposed on private railroad property. Limiting new and/or eliminating at-grade trail-rail crossings, setting trails back as far as possible from tracks, and providing physical separation through fencing, vertical distance, vegetation, and/or drainage ditches can help create a well-designed trail. Trail planners need to work closely with railroad agencies and companies to develop strong maintenance and operations plans, and educate the public about the dangers of trespassing on tracks.

Railroad companies, for their part, need to understand the community desire to create safe walking and bicycling spaces. They may be able to derive many benefits from RWT projects in terms of reduced trespassing, dumping, and vandalism, as well as financial compensation. Together, trail proponents and railroad companies can help strengthen available legal protections, trespassing laws and enforcement, seek new sources of funding to improve railroad safety, and keep the railroad industry thriving and expanding in its services (freight and passenger).

Updated: 2/11/2014
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