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Rails-with-Trails: Lessons Learned

Introduction (cont.)

Trail Trends

Bar chart. This chart shows the relationship between how the number and length (in kilometers) of rail-trails has steadily increased from less than 200 trails (approx. 1000 km) in 1987 to over 1000 trails (17,750 km) in 2000. The biggest jumps are seen in 1991 and 1995.

Source: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, 2000

FIGURE 1.2 Number and kilometers of U.S. rail-trails*

Bar chart. This chart shows that the number and length of RWTs increased from 37 RWTs (246 km/152 mi) in 1996, to 49 (283 km/175 mi) in 1997, to over 60 (387 km/240 mi) in 2000.

Source: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, 2000

FIGURE 1.3 Number and kilometers of existing
U.S. rails-with-trails.

Bar chart. In 2000, the U.S. railroad industry experienced close to 900 trespassing casualties, including approximately 500 fatalities. This chart shows that those figure have remained fairly consistent over each year since 1991 to 2000.

Source: Federal Railroad Administration, 2000

FIGURE 1.4 Railroad trespassing casualties.

Bicycling and walking for transportation and recreation have increased over the past decade. This increase has been fueled to a large extent by a growing interest and concern about health and the environment. Since 1991, the Federal government has provided significant amounts of funding for shared use paths through the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) and the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21). Additionally, communities nationwide are converting abandoned railroad corridors to trails (rails-to-trails).

The number of shared use paths nationwide has grown dramatically over the last decade, with more than 1,000 of these paths in operation nationwide. These include about 17,750 km (11,029 mi) of rail-trails (see Figure 1.2), including trails on both active and abandoned railways. The number of RWTs alone increased from 37 RWTs (246 km/152 mi) in 1996, to 49 (283 km/175 mi) in 1997, to over 60 (387 km/240 mi) in 2000 (see Figure 1.3). The number of rail-trail and RWT users has increased to an estimated 4.5 million annually.

Railroad Trespassing and Safety Trends

A trespasser is someone who is on railroad property without permission. In 2000, the U.S. railroad industry experienced close to 900 trespassing casualties, including approximately 500 fatalities (see Figure 1.4). Research produces no singular profile of a trespasser, although regional differences in trespasser profiles do exist. Close to the borders, railroads report problems with undocumented aliens. In the East, youth trespassers dominate because of nearby schools and shopping centers. In other areas of the country, reported trespassers include substance abusers, the homeless, sportsmen, snowmobilers, and cyclists. Some trespassers intend suicide.

Because of this diversity, railroad companies use numerous measures, such as education programs and selective fencing, to help deter trespassing. The Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Company and Norfolk Southern Railway Company law enforcement departments have implemented comprehensive trespass abatement programs. While most States have trespassing laws for private property owners, only 32 States have trespassing laws with specific legal language for railroad property. Of those, only a handful prescribe a punishment for trespassing on railroad property and equipment. Enforcement of such laws is another problem. With this in mind, railroad companies are reluctant to support the idea of inviting thousands of people to walk and bicycle next to or on their property.

Background of the Report

This study is a direct result of numerous public agencies and nonprofit groups seeking to develop RWTs and the resulting frustration on both sides of the issue. In 1997, the Federal government approved funding for planning and conducting a feasibility analysis for a 71 km (44 mi) proposed shared use path along the San Diego Northern Railroad right-of-way between San Diego and Oceanside, California. The high speed railroad corridor carried more than 30 passenger trains and six freight trains per day under public agency ownership, the North County Transit District (NCTD). In the project feasibility process, NCTD raised specific questions about liability. A follow-up legal analysis concluded that, to limit liability, the shared use path should conform to accepted guidelines for RWT crossings, fencing, setbacks, and other items (Ferster and Jones, 1997). Unfortunately, no such guidelines exist.

Appeals to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) to provide guidelines came to the attention of the FRA, which held a meeting later in 1997 in Washington, D.C., to discuss the matter. Attendees of that meeting -- representatives from the railroad industry, Federal agencies, trail advocacy groups, and State and local agencies -- recommended a "best practices" study to review existing RWTs and draw conclusions from their operations.

The Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), relying on a voluntary committee of interested railroad and trail representatives, agreed to sponsor such a "Best Practices Informational Report" in 1998. However, due to lack of funds to develop hard data on subjects such as trespassing, participants pushed for a more in-depth study of the issue. In 1999, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), including the FRA, Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and Federal Transit Administration (FTA) joined forces to sponsor this Rails-with-Trails: Lessons Learned report.

A photo of a bicyclist on a trail approaching a paved railroad crossing.
Four thousand student bicycle commuters use
the Libba Cotton Trail daily. Chapel Hill, NC

A photo of a train on the tracks. There is a small setback, a chain link fence, and a small grassy area separating the tracks from the trail.
Elliot Bay Rail Trail. Seattle, WA

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Data Collection

The nationwide research team assembled for this report began with an analysis of existing literature, as summarized in Section I. The literature review focuses on RWT studies and projects, legal documents, and railroad safety experience.

Next, the research team selected 18 geographically diverse locations (see Figure 2.1, page 9) for focused case studies. They sought trails representing a variety of railroad and trail characteristics. Half the trails were in place at the outset of this study. The other half were planned to be complete by summer 2002 to allow for comparison of before and after conditions related to trespassing, accidents, vandalism, and other issues. Of these nine planned RWTs, only four were built in part by the conclusion of this study; the others experienced delays for various reasons.

For each trail, researchers conducted interviews with railroad officials, trail managers, and law enforcement officials. They also gathered data about before and after conditions related to safety, trespassing, vandalism, and conflicts. These case studies -- summarized in Section II -- offer guidance as to the best practices in developing and operating RWTs.

The ITE Rails-with-Trails Technical Committee draft paper, "Rails-with-Trails: A Best Practices Informational Report" (Jones, et al., 1999) also included case studies, which are included in Section II, bringing the number of case studies to 21. Furthermore, researchers used the information gathered by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) through surveys of trail managers. This information is contained in Rails-with-Trails: Design, Management, and Characteristics of 61 Trails along Active Rail Lines (Morris, 2000).

Finally, team members researched various other aspects of RWTs, including:


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


The intent of this report on RWTs is to summarize the lessons learned to date and offer conclusions regarding the development, construction, and operation of RWTs so that railroad companies, trail developers, and others can benefit from the history of trails in existence today. The research team strived to offer a neutral and balanced position that takes into consideration the perspectives of geographically diverse railroad officials, trail planners, law enforcement officials, and trail users. This report does not constitute a standard, specification, regulation, or endorsement of RWTs.


The report is divided into the following sections:

Updated: 2/11/2014
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