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Rails-with-Trails: Lessons Learned

SECTION III: RWT Development Process

Blackstone River Bikeway, Albion, RI

"As a general rule, bike trails should not be located along railroad rights-of-way...[we] should not encourage recreational use next to active [railroad] rights-of-way."


"The biggest driver was the realization that this was a historic transportation put another mode into this old corridor and reintroduce it to the people was a very exciting prospect."


The current RWT development process varies from location to location, although common elements exist. Trail advocacy groups and public agencies often initially 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.

When a public agency seeks approval of an RWT, the railroad 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 between three and ten years from concept to construction.

Overview of Recommendations

Based on the research conducted for this report, the following recommendations are made regarding RWT development processes:

  1. Local or regional bikeway or trail plans should include viable alternatives to any trail that is proposed within an active railroad corridor.

  2. Each proposed RWT project should undergo a comprehensive feasibility study. If required, the proposed project also should undergo an independent, comprehensive environmental review.

  3. Trail agencies must involve the railroad throughout the process and work to address their safety, capacity, and liability concerns.

  4. Trail agencies should coordinate with other stakeholders, such as abutting property owners, utility companies, law enforcement officials, and residents.

  5. The feasibility study and environmental analysis should incorporate extensive public review. Railroad officials should be invited to all public workshops, and encouraged to voice their concerns or suggestions.

  6. Railroad companies should consider developing an internal process for handling and providing a consistent response to proposed RWT projects.

  7. Railroad companies should assign a technical team to the project that includes, at a minimum, representatives from the real estate, legal, safety, and operations departments, to ensure that their needs and concerns are addressed.

  8. All parties involved in RWT development should maintain a log of all conversations and decisions.

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Current Practice

Cottonbelt Trail,
Grapevine, TX

"What a railroad corridor is today does not mean it will be the same tomorrow... I would have liked to have been involved earlier in the planning process."


"We did not realize how formal the railroad industry is. Make sure in all situations that the railroad company is involved."


In August 2000, researchers for this report conducted a telephone survey of officials of all the Class I U.S. railroad companies and Class I equivalent Canadian railroad companies. In response to a question about the company's position or policy on RWTs, many offered statements such as:

Most railroad companies emphasize consideration of future expansion needs, safety impacts, trespassing, liability, and future changes to adjacent land uses as reasons for opposing RWTs. Railroads often expect an increase in future business and would prefer to retain the right-of-way for expansion. They are reluctant to sell or lease the property for trail use because of the difficulty of returning the property to private use later. Possible reversion of the railroad land to adjoining landowners also may deter railroads from considering sale or lease of their land for non-railroad purposes. Railroad companies also protest that trail planners do not understand railroad operations and seem to promote the trail over safety and common sense. At the same time, most Class I railroads have at least one example of a trail near or in their corridors (see Table 5.1, page 59).

Many advocates, on the other hand, do not understand the railroads' concerns. They struggle to understand company structure and even to determine which railroad company to contact about a proposed trail, since railroad companies often lease the tracks to another company. Furthermore, transit authorities, Amtrak, and railroad companies are governed and regulated by different laws and administrations. The trail project manager must become acquainted with the regulations and governing authorities of the specific rail line and cannot assume that all rail line corridors are governed and regulated uniformly.

Many RWT planning processes are quite contentious. In most cases, railroad companies are involved in some stage of the planning, although often not early enough.

Railroad companies may be willing to consider an RWT proposal if certain conditions are met. For example, a Class I railroad company official said, "The only instances where we are presently willing to cooperate in proposals to establish new trails on or adjacent to active rail lines are:

  1. where we determine we have sufficient title and width of right-of-way that we can sell the subject property to the trail operator/sponsor, in other words, so that when all's said and done, it's not on our right-of-way;
  2. the trail operator/sponsor agrees to erect and maintain in perpetuity a substantial fence between our common rights-of-way to preclude or substantially discourage trespassing, typically in the form of a covenant in the conveyance document;
  3. that it does not include or require any new at-grade crossings; and
  4. if any existing crossings are involved, that they will be equipped with appropriate crossing warning devices at the project sponsor's expense."

Another Class I railroad company, the BNSF, has developed specific design requirements for acceptable projects, but stresses that each project will be analyzed on its own merits, with trespass history a major consideration.

The Wheeling Corporation's report, Rails with Trails (Wait, 1998), offers the perspective of a smaller, regional company. "We at the Wheeling Corporation see many benefits of rails-with-trails within some of the communities we serve, both in economic development and enhancing the beauty of the area. With properly patrolled trails, these areas could see a dramatic decrease in trespassing, vandalism, and sabotage. And hopefully, through it all, the public will become more informed about our industry and the economic benefits of the rail carrier serving their area."

However, the Wheeling Corporation is very clear that it does not support all RWT proposals. Rather they offer a stringent set of guidelines for considering an RWT, including the following:

"The trail has reduced, maybe eliminated, illegal dumping that occurred before the trail designation."


The Canadian Pacific Railway has developed a detailed internal process for handling requests for trails along its Canadian corridors (Canadian Pacific Railway, 2002). Acceptable trails will not hinder or risk railway operations.

It should be noted that some publicly owned railroad agencies allow, even encourage RWT projects on their properties. Examples include the State of Maine, Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), and Vermont Central Railway.

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Assessing Potential Benefits

Through the course of this study, railroad company officials, law enforcement officials, and trail managers identified numerous potential ways that RWTs may benefit railroad companies and adjacent communities. Identifying such benefits is crucial to developing a successful RWT. Such benefits may include the following:

A photo of a trodden path winding past a small fence toward railroad tracks occupied by a train.
Beaten path made by children crossing tracks.
  A photo of a curved paved trail adjacent to a creek.
New trail next to tracks leads to track undercrossing.
Oshawa Creek, Ontario, Canada

A photo of bicyclists riding along a paved trail with tall bushes and trees along one side of the trail and conventional chain link fencing with vegetative growth along the other side.
Living fence on the Waterfront Bikeway. Burlington, VT
Updated: 2/11/2014
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