Skip to content U.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway AdministrationU.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway Administration
Office of Planning, Environment, & Realty (HEP)

Rails-with-Trails: Lessons Learned

SECTION III: RWT Development Process

A photo of a bicycle parking facility at a train station filled to overflowing.
Amtrak station bike parking being used to capacity. Davis, CA

Possible benefits to the community may include the following:

Pie Chart. Agency ownership of rail corridor, by percentage of trails. Full Ownership - 47%, None - 44%, Partial Ownership - 7%, and No answer - 2%.
NOTE: Partial ownership indicates that the trail manager owns parts of the trail and received an easement or unofficial permission for the remainder.

Source: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

FIGURE 3.1 Agency ownership of rail corridor, by percentage of trails

Introduction/Setting: Project history, background, setting, affected parties, relevant plans, and railroad operations.
down arrow
Needs Analysis: User groups and purposes, destinations, and projected usage. Key project benefits and costs.
Physical Setting Inventory
* measurements * constraints * connectivity * adjacent land uses * sight distances * safety conditions
down arrow
Alternatives Development Analysis:
Develop, map, and evaluate alternative alignments within and outside railroad corridor. Pros and cons of alternative corridor alignments. Proposed solutions to trouble spots, including off-railroad corridor alignments. Map proposed design, setback distance, separation technique, crossings, constrained areas, sidings, trestles, and other features.
  • available right-of-way
  • connections to residential areas, destinations, existing bikeways
  • setback and separation
  • preservation of maintenance access for railroad
  • development and maintenance costs
  • privacy and security of adjacent property owners
  • minimization of railroad grade crossings
  • liability exposure assessment
  • geological conditions and topography
  • protection of environmentally sensitive areas
  • permitting and property acquisition requirements

down arrow
Environmental Analysis

down arrow
Preferred Alignment: Recommended after careful evaluation of criteria on a decision matrix.

FIGURE 3.2 Steps in feasibility study

Return to TOC

Corridor Acquisition

Government agencies (usually States, counties, and cities) own about half the RWT corridors nationwide. In the remainder, the railroad retains ownership. For 80 percent of these, the trail management agency purchases a use easement or license from the railroad or transit authority, utility, private landowner, or other government agency (see Figure 3.1, RTC, 2000).

Many of the trail management agencies purchased the trail right-of-way, obtaining their funding through a variety of Federal, State, county, city, and private funds. Railroad companies also may choose to donate the land, gaining a tax deduction.

Transfer of ownership is seen as the cleanest way to reduce liability risks, although indemnification agreements can have a similar effect, as explained in Section IV. Financial compensation also helps gain railroad company support for projects.

Return to TOC

Process Flow

Feasibility Review
Trail managers should undertake a comprehensive feasibility analysis of the project. An RWT feasibility study will serve numerous purposes. It will summarize the goals of the agency seeking to build the project. It will clearly describe the setting, the relationship to local planning documents, the need for the project, land ownership patterns, railroad activity, and other information necessary to determine feasibility (see Figure 3.2). The feasibility study should identify and evaluate multiple alternative alignments, including at least one that is not on the railroad right-of-way, and identify a preferred alignment. Three RWT feasibility studies are profiled on the next two pages:

See References for additional examples.

Return to TOC

RWT Feasibility: Examples

Cupertino RWT

A photo of 3 people walking along train tracks where a trail is proposed; they are approaching a paved at-grade crossing.
Adequate space along parts of proposed RWT. Cupertino, CA

A photo of railroad tracks passing under a roadway bridge. There is very little horizontal clearance under the bridge.
Tunnel along proposed RWT. Trail will be re-routed in this section. Cupertino, CA

A photo of a trail alongside a set of train tracks with a vegetative buffer separating the tracks from the trail.
The Union Pacific Railroad planned track expansion led to a search for better alternatives. Davis, CA

DESCRIPTION: The California cities of Cupertino, Los Gatos, Campbell, and Saratoga are managing a feasibility study for this proposed 14 km (8.7 mi) RWT project that runs through the heart of California's Silicon Valley (Alta Transportation Consulting, 2001). Union Pacific Railroad (UP) owns the property. The Union Pacific services Hanson Permanente, a concrete plant, and runs approximately three freight trains per week. The trains move slowly, about 32 km/h (20 mi/h) and typically haul coal and cement products from Los Gatos to Cupertino.

DESIGN ISSUES: The right-of-way is 24 m (80 ft) wide in most spots but constrained in a few. A single set of tracks runs approximately 9.1 m (30 ft) offthe east right-of-way line, leaving about 15 m (50 ft) of right-of-way to the west of track centerline. For approximately 3.2 km (2 mi), a Pacific Gas and Electric right-of-way parallels the UP right-of-way, allowing an additional 26 m (85 ft) to the west of the tracks. Constrained points include a tunnel, several drainages, and portions that are paralleled by a sound wall.

The typical trail setback from track centerline will be 7.6 m (25 ft) with a 1.2 m (4 ft) high chain link fence. The RWT would cross 18 roadways and impact five creeks that provide habitat for protected species including the California spotted toad and steelhead trout. An existing privately permitted at-grade crossing serving vehicle access to the historic Hammond Snyder home is recommended to become a public crossing.

PROBLEM: At the corridor's north end, steep grades and a single track tunnel.

SOLUTION: Implementation of this segment should be postponed until the rail line is no longer in use.

PROBLEM: Narrow setback in several spots

SOLUTION: Trail will divert to an adjacent roadway with bicycle lanes. At bridge locations, the trail will utilize fencing, signage, and guardrails to keep trail users on the trail and off the tracks.

PROBLEM: Two major roadway crossings requiring grade separation.

SOLUTION: Three options: Construct overpasses, wait for abandonment of rail line and then make use of existing rail bridges, or divert to adjacent roadway.

PROBLEM: With addition of a barrier between the tracks and the trail, residents who currently trespass to use the corridor will not have good access to the trail.

SOLUTION: No easy solution. Trail developers would like to establish an at-grade crossing, while the UP representatives are opposed. An overcrossing would have an undesired impact on the community, while an underpass would not be environmentally feasible.

OTHER: Negotiations with the Union Pacific Railroad are underway as of this writing.

CONCLUSION Many parts of the project are feasible, while others are not. One end of the project will be delayed indefinitely, and some segments will divert to adjacent roadways.

Davis-Dixon RWT

DESCRIPTION: This 8 km (5 mi) long project linking the cities of Dixon and Davis was originally proposed in the 1994 Solano County Bicycle Plan. That plan identified an option along the Union Pacific Railroad mainline, which would provide a direct connection between the two communities.

PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS: Design challenges included the need to cross both the tracks and Putah Creek. More importantly, the Union Pacific Railroad was concerned that this was an extremely high-speed and high-frequency mainline, and that additional tracks would be needed in the future. While the safety and liability issues could be addressed, the need for a future track was a major obstacle.

CONCLUSION Since there were viable on-road albeit less direct alternatives, this option was dropped from consideration.

Updated: 2/11/2014
HEP Home Planning Environment Real Estate
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000