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Rails-with-Trails: Lessons Learned

SECTION III: RWT Development Process

Indian Head Trail: Maryland

DESCRIPTION: The Indian Head Trail is a proposed RWT that would extend 20 km (12.5 mi) along the U.S. Navy Railroad from Waldorf to Indian Head, Maryland. This trail has the potential to draw significant tourism revenues to Waldorf and Indian Head and serve as a key regional linkage along the evolving Potomac National Heritage Trail. The Charles County Board of Commissioners and Naval Surface Warfare Center are both in favor of the project.

The railroad is owned, and infrequently used by the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC), Indian Head Division, but also has been used for an occasional excursion train. The Commander of the NSWC has gained approval from the U.S. Navy to allow this dual use of the corridor, which has a 61 m (200 ft) right-of-way.

A photo of train tracks with a wetland area on the right.
Proposed site of Indian Head Trail adjacent to Naval Surface Warfare Center Railroad. Charles County, MD

DESIGN ISSUES: This railroad is very rarely used, and the poor condition of the tracks requires very slow train speed. In some areas, the rail corridor extends through wetland areas, creating a constrained amount of space for dual use. It is anticipated that boardwalks will be installed in these areas.

CONCLUSION: This is a feasible project. The extreme low frequency of train use in the corridor makes it a good candidate for an RWT. The NSWC is very interested in this project as part of their physical fitness program for Navy personnel, while providing a community amenity.

Stakeholders should be involved through a technical advisory committee or frequent communication via meetings, newsletters, phone calls, and e-mails.

Today, trail planners are more likely to run a more inclusive process than in years past, with most key agencies and companies reporting they were involved in various aspects. However, on many trails studied, railroad representatives complained that they were not involved early enough. Trail planners often echoed this sentiment.

Planning for Alternatives

A sketch of 2 bicyclists taking a break along a rail-trail next to a small pond.
Environmentally sensitive area on proposed Downeast Trail along the abandoned Calais Branch owned by the State of Maine. Trail either will be on boardwalks or divert to an adjacent road. Calais, ME

Bikeway and trail networks are mapped out on both publicly and privately owned corridors as part of local general plans or master plans. Frequently, privately owned railroad corridors appear as part of a local or regional bikeway or trail network before the railroad has been notified or with little to no railroad permission. However, RWT corridors should not be included on bikeway or trail plans unless the affected railroad is notified. If a proposed trail shown on a trail or bikeway plan is on private railroad property, this information must be noted on the plan. Trail planners should consider all reasonable alternatives to the RWT corridor.

Environmental Considerations

Railroad corridors often parallel or bisect wetlands, waterways, shorelines, or other environmentally-sensitive areas. Where physical constraints on an RWT would result in a proposed trail having to be located in such an area, the RWT may have to be designed as a boardwalk, relocated, or eliminated from consideration.

As part of or concurrent with a feasibility study, environmental concerns should be analyzed pursuant to local, State, and Federal environmental laws to determine environmental resources that might be impacted. This would include biological, cultural, hydrologic, geologic, and other physical resources, along with potential noise, light, traffic, safety, and other impacts. By identifying sensitive areas, any potential RWT alignment can be tested and then altered as needed to avoid significant impacts. Concurrent feasibility and environmental analyses are recommended to allow RWT planners and engineers to premitigate an RWT project or eliminate an unacceptable alignment early in the process.

Start with the State DOT or FRA Regional Office

The State Department of Transportation Railroad Coordination Section and/or FRA Regional Crossing and/or Trespass Program Manager may be able to recommend the best railroad official or department. Also, some of the private, Class I railroads have Government Affairs Department, which have people assigned to deal with government-sponsored projects.
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Talk to the Real Estate Group

Real Estate is usually in some sort of corporate services department. They usually have some knowledge of the people and staff that need to be involved. This department should have historical records and information on land ownership, titles, deeds, easements, etc. They could tell the RWT proponent who owns the property along the proposed trail route. They would need to be involved in right-of-way sales or granting of easements for a trail.

The Real Estate group can facilitate contacts in the legal and engineering departments.
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Talk to the Legal and Risk Management Departments

The legal department is usually under the corporate services department, although usually completely separate from the real estate group. The legal group would deal with the real estate department on issues like land sales and easements, as well as liability and insurance issues. The real estate people would likely facilitate dealing with the lawyers involved with any sales or easement issues. A trail manager would probably need to deal directly with the lawyers involved in liability issues.
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Involve the Engineering and Operations Departments

The engineering group is responsible for safety, design, and construction of new facilities. Engineering design staff should be involved early in the process. They are less likely to reject a RWT if they have had a legitimate opportunity to assist in the development of designs that minimize crossings and address historic problems.

The Operations Department is in charge of the day-to-day functions that keep trains running. This includes crewing and dispatching the trains, inspecting and maintaining the locomotives and railcars, and inspecting and maintaining the track. They have the best knowledge of specific problems and issues along their tracks that may need to be addressed in or otherwise affect the RWT design.

FIGURE 3.3 Involving railroad companies

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Involving the Stakeholders

"Get top (railroad) management to agree and give them a stake in the project."


Coordination between the trail manager, other related government agencies, and the affected railroad is critical for success. Involving the railroad and affected agencies early in the process is a common theme heard from surveys and interviews on existing RWTs around the country.

Stakeholders may include representatives from the following groups:

A good example of railroad involvement occurred during planning of the Schuylkill River Trail, Pennsylvania. According to the trail manager, "The trail itself was approved by the County Commissioners in 1974; however, the approval of Conrail was hard fought. In 1990, the Chairman of County Commissioners contacted a senior vice president of Conrail and the two of them worked out an agreement. The County's designers worked with Conrail designers to assure that their interests were addressed, concurrent to negotiation of the agreement. When the design was completed, Conrail and the County signed the easement agreement. The Agreement had a clause that the trail design would meet approval of Conrail engineers, and it did, since they were part of the design process. Bottom line: Get top management to agree and give them a stake in the project."

The feasibility study and trail development process should incorporate extensive public review via public workshops and other outreach methods. Railroad officials should be invited to all public workshops, and encouraged to voice their concerns or suggestions. Public workshop facilitators should work to focus the discussion on the RWT proposal only, rather than allowing diversion onto other railroad-related issues and practices.

Railroad Coordination

FRA Regional Crossing and Trespass Programs

Region I
(800) 724-5991

Region II
(800) 724-5992

Region III
(800) 724-5993

Region IV
(800) 724-5040

Region V
(800) 724-5995

Region VI
(800) 724-5996

Region VII
(800) 724-5997

Region VIII
(800) 724-5998

Once a railroad corridor is selected as a potential shared use path, one of the first steps prior to initiating a feasibility study or environmental review is the question of railroad coordination and access to the right-of-way. Early coordination with the railroad is an essential element of a successful RWT project. If the public agency is serious about the project, they should commit to developing the project into enough detail so that the true impacts, benefits, cost, and feasibility of the facility are known. Conversely, if a railroad company has absolutely no interest in allowing public access to a corridor, they should express those thoughts in clear terms to a public agency at the outset. As part of any planning, feasibility, environmental, or design work on an active railroad right-of-way, the RWT entity should obtain written permission and meet other requirements, such as using flaggers, prior to entering the railroad property.

However, trail planners usually find it very difficult to identify the appropriate person at a Class I or other non-local railroad to contact about a project. Large railroads can have thousands of employees in numerous States; few if any have a person who deals specifically with RWT projects. Since RWTs are not revenue-producing (unless the railroad is compensated for the right-of-way purchase or use) or even related to railroading at all, the company has little incentive to devote staff resources to an RWT project. The decision-making process, as in all large organizations, involves multiple departments and professionals in a variety of disciplines.

Class I national railroad companies and other railroad companies with significant land holdings should consider developing internal procedures for dealing with RWT proposals. Short-line and transit operators may have only one or few rail lines, so they may not need a standardized procedure. The procedure may follow the process outlined in Figure 3.3, setting forth a standardized point of initial contact in the real estate department. The real estate representative would assign a technical team to each RWT project to ensure that RWT concerns are adequately addressed.

Another potential starting point may be FRA's Regional Crossing and Trespass Program Managers, who likely will know or be able to help to determine the appropriate contacts at the railroad. These managers, located in each of FRA's eight regions, develop programs to respond to the unique needs of the States and local communities in their regions in relationship to the railroads and their safe operations. Some of the issues they address include assisting railroads and communities to close crossings, plan rail corridor programs, advance public education and awareness, and promote law enforcement.

State departments of transportation also have long established relationships with railroad company personnel. Thus, trail planners should consider contacting the Railroad Coordination Section of their State department of transportation for railroad company contact and coordination information.

Keeping Written Records

It is critical for the parties concerned to maintain written records of all aspects of an RWT project. This begins with the planning effort. Typically, the trail project manager or railroad representative will keep a log including a record of key phone conversations and copies of e-mails, transmittals, and meeting minutes. The written record may help defend parties against lawsuits. It also helps provide continuity through potential staff changes, since many RWT planning efforts last for several years. The written record provides documentation as to how and why decisions were made and which parties were involved.

Once the planning phase is complete, the project manager should continue maintaining the log through the construction, operations, and maintenance phases. He or she should write weekly reports documenting field conditions, key work items, and needed repairs. If requested in a court of law, these records will verify that the local agency diligently maintained the trail and proactively addressed safety issues and repairs.

Updated: 2/11/2014
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