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Rails-with-Trails: Lessons Learned


"Rail-with-trail" (RWT) describes any shared use path or other trail located on or directly adjacent to an active railroad corridor. Shared use paths are physically separated from motorized vehicular traffic by an open space or barrier. They may be used by multiple nonmotorized users (AASHTO Bike Guide, 1999, p. 3). The term "trail" will be used interchangeably with "shared use path" in this report.

About 65 RWTs encompass more than 385 km (239 mi) in 30 U.S. States today (see Figure 1.1). 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). Another 82 RWTs are proposed or planned; if all are built, there will be RWTs in 40 States. Hundreds of kilometers of RWTs traverse Western Australia, Canada, and European countries such as Switzerland, Denmark, and the Netherlands.

Drawing of a map showing the general locations of existing rails-with-trails in the United States.
FIGURE 1.1 Map of existing rails-with-trails

"Being on rail property is a very dangerous pastime which can and does result in injury and loss of life. Juries have and will continue to award multi-million dollar settlements to the families of those who have been hurt or killed while on railroad property despite all good efforts to protect and warn."


"Rail corridors can be attractive sites for trails because they often provide a direct connection between popular community locations... At a time when demand for trails is increasing, finding land for them can be difficult. Placing trails alongside active rails can be an excellent method of securing land for safe, popular, and effective trail development."


A photo of a train approaching head-on along the tracks at the left of the photo. There is a trail adjacent to the tracks on the right of the photo. A person on the trail is walking and looking at the train. There is a small setback and a chain link fence separating the tracks from the trail.
Traction Line Recreational Trail. Morristown, NJ

Communities interested in improving conditions for bicycling and walking see rail corridors as prime opportunities. Rail corridors often offer scenic, unbroken stretches along rivers or canals. The alternative is typically a busy roadway without bicycle lanes. Thus, communities and their representative public agencies increasingly look to utilize railroad corridors to provide safe, shared use paths.

The railroad industry serves as an efficient and important component of the passenger and goods movement business. Railroads possess strategic corridors through urban and suburban areas that are virtually irreplaceable in the utility they provide. Freight and passenger rail movement is growing rapidly, thus many States, railroad companies, and transit agencies are considering additional service.

Railroad companies continue to improve their technological safety, including active warning devices, train lighting, and video monitoring of tracks. The railroad industry created Operation Lifesaver to educate the public about the dangers of disregarding crossing safety equipment. Railroad labor unions also advocate safety improvements. Railroad companies and unions are concerned that the addition of new adjacent trails will erode safety by attracting thousands of people close to railroad operations.

RWT advocates and railroad industry representatives often offer contrasting viewpoints. Trail advocates argue that legal protections exist in all States, and that a litany of successful RWTs show that they can be safely designed and operated. Railroad company representatives respond to assurances of legal protection by noting that the court system has not yet tested the lease and/or use agreements for existing RWTs. Further, railroads have borne the burden of litigation for many incidents on their property, even for crashes with at-fault trespassers or automobile drivers who have blatantly ignored obvious warning systems. In addition, 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.

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. This situation gave rise to the need to study the issue of RWTs to determine where RWTs are appropriate, recommend design treatments and management strategies, find ways to reduce trail impacts on the railroad industry, and address other public interest considerations.

Updated: 2/11/2014
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