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Rails-with-Trails: Lessons Learned


No national standards or guidelines dictate rail-with-trail facility design. Guidance must be pieced together from standards related to shared use paths, pedestrian facilities, railroad facilities, and/or roadway crossings of railroad rights-of-way. Trail designers should work closely with railroad operations and maintenance staff to achieve a suitable RWT design. Whenever possible, trail development should reflect standards set by adjacent railroads for crossings and other design elements. Ultimately, RWTs must be designed to meet both the operational needs of railroads and the safety of trail users. The challenge is to find ways of accommodating both types of uses without compromising safety or function.

The recommendations in this section are based on:

The design recommendations should be considered a toolkit, rather than standards or guidelines. More research will be needed to develop standards that can be incorporated into AASHTO's design guides and the MUTCD. Each RWT project is different; the design should be based on the specific conditions of the site, requirements of the railroad owner, completion of a feasibility study (as discussed in Section III), State and other regulatory requirements, and engineering judgment.

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Overview of Recommendations

A photo of people biking, walking, and inline skating along a rail-trail. About 2 m (6 ft) separate the edge of the trail from the nearest rail, with no buffer other than gravel, weeds, and grass.
Elliot Bay Trail. Seattle, WA
  1. RWT designers should maximize the setback between any RWT and active railroad track. The setback distance between a track centerline and the closest edge of the RWT should correlate to the type, speed, and frequency of train operations, as well as the topographic conditions and separation techniques.

  2. Subject to railroad and State and Federal guidelines and the advice of engineering and safety experts, exceptions to the recommended setbacks may include:
    1. Constrained areas (bridges, cut and fill areas)
    2. Low speed and low frequency train operations

    In these cases and in areas with a history of extensive trespassing, fencing or other separation technique is recommended.

  3. When on railroad property, RWT planners should adhere to the request or requirements for fencing by the railroad company. Fencing and/or other separation techniques should be a part of all RWT projects.

  4. Trail planners should minimize the number of at-grade crossings, examine all reasonable alternatives to new at-grade track crossings, and seek to close existing at-grade crossings as part of the project.

  5. RWT proposals should include a full review and incorporation of relevant utility requirements for existing and potential utilities in the railroad corridor.

  6. The feasibility process should clearly document the cost and environmental impact of new bridges and trestles.

  7. Trails should divert around railroad tunnels; if they need to go through a single-track railroad tunnel, they likely are not feasible.

  8. Where an RWT is proposed to bypass a railroad yard (such as in Seattle, Washington), adequate security fencing must be provided along with regular patrols by the RWT manager. High priority security areas may need additional protection.

  9. An environmental assessment should be conducted concurrent with, and usually independent from, the feasibility analysis, and should include project alternatives located off the railroad corridor, if at all possible.

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Rail Characteristics and Setting

Over half of the 65 existing trails run along Class I mainline or other freight railroad lines, with the remainder split between short lines and public transit (see Figure 5.1). Most of the RWTs are either adjacent to railroad property or on publicly-held land that is used or leased by freight or passenger railroad companies. At least 11 known RWTs (approximately 17 percent) are on privately held Class I railroad properties, and others are on privately-held Class II, shortline, or excursion lines (see Table 5.1). There is considerable variance in the frequency of train operation, from three to nine trains per hour (16 percent) to just a few trains a week (13 percent) (see Figure 5.2). In many cases, the peak hours of rail use correspond with peak trail use hours. The average maximum train speed is 51 km/h (32 mi/h), with a range of 8 to 225 km/h (5 to 140 mi/h). All but three trains in RWT corridors travel at speeds less than 97 km/h (60 mi/h). The three fastest trains are:

TABLE 5.1 Examples of Active RWTs by Corridor Type and Ownership
Trail Name Corridor Owner Railroad Operation Location

Class I Railroads      
Arboretum Trail* Norfolk Southern Unknown Pennsylvania
Cedar Lake Trail Burlington Northern Santa Fe Burlington Northern Minnesota
Celina/Coldwater Bike Trail* Norfolk Southern RJ Corman Ohio
Columbus Riverwalk* Norfolk Southern Railtex/GATX/Georgia Southwestern Railroad Company Georgia
Eastbank Esplanade/Steel Bridge Riverwalk Union Pacific Union Pacific, Amtrak Oregon
Elk River Trail* Norfolk Southern Norfolk Southern West Virginia
Gallup Park Trail* Norfolk Southern Norfolk Southern Michigan
Huffman Prairie Overlook Trail CSX CSX and Grand Trunk Western Ohio
Schuylkill River Trail* Norfolk Southern (3.2 km/2 mi Norfolk Southern Pennsylvania
Stavich Bicycle Trail CSX CSX Ohio and Pennsylvania
Union Pacific Trail Union Pacific Union Pacific Colorado
Zanesville Riverfront Bikepath* Norfolk Southern CSX and Norfolk Southern Ohio

Privately - owned, Class II or Other Freight
Blackstone River Bikeway Providence and Worcester Railroad Providence and Worcester Railroad Rhode Island
Central Ashland Bike Path Rail TEX Rail TEX Oregon
Clarion-Little Toby Creek Trail Buffalo to Pittsburgh Railroad Buffalo to Pittsburgh Railroad Pennsylvania
Heritage Trail Illinois Central Illinois Central Iowa
Lehigh Gorge River Trail Reading and Northern Railroad Company Reading and Northern Railroad Company Pennsylvania
Lower Yakima Valley Pathway Washington Central Washington Central Washington
MRK Trail Chicago & Northwestern Chicago & Northwestern Illinois
Railroad Trail Lake State Railroad Lake State RR Michigan
Rock River Recreation Path Chicago & Northwestern CNW, Union Pacific and Soo Line Illinois
Silver Creek Bike Trail Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Minnesota
Tony Knowles Coastal Bicycle Trail Alaska Railroad Corporation Alaska Railroad Corporation Alaska
Whistle Stop Park Cimarron Valley Railroad Cimarron Valley Railroad Kansas

Excursion/Short-Line, Publicly or Privately Owned Land
Animas River Greenway Trail Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Colorado
Cottonbelt Trail Dallas Area Rapid Transit Fort Worth and Western Railroad Texas
Eastern Promenade Trail Maine Department of Transportation Maine Narrow Gauge Maine
Heritage Rail Trail County Park York County Northern Central Railway Inc. Pennsylvania
Lowell Canal Trail National Park Service National Park Service Massachusetts
Santa Fe Rail Trail Santa Fe Southern Santa Fe Southern New Mexico

Publicly Owned Railroad Corridors, Passenger or Freight
Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Trail Orange County Transportation Authority Amtrak, Southern California Regional Rail California
Bugline Trail Waukesha County Union Pacific Wisconsin
Burlington Waterfront Bikeway Vermont Agency of Transportation Vermont Railway Company Vermont
Cascade Trail (SR 20) City of Burlington/Skagit County Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Washington
Duwamish Trail City and Port of Seattle Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Washington
Eastern Promenade Trail Maine Department of Transportation Maine Narrow Gauge Mane
Eliza Furnace Trail City of Pittsburgh CSX Pennsylvania
Folsom Parkway Rail-Trail Regional Transit Authority Regional Transit Authority California
Great Lakes Spine Trail Iowa Dept. of Natural Resources, Dickinson County, Cities Chicago Northwestern Transportation Company Iowa
Heritage Rail Trail County Park York County Northern Central Railway Inc. Pennsylvania
La Crosse River State Trail State of Wisconsin Canadian Pacific Railway, Amtrak Wisconsin
Levee Walking Trail City of Helena Arkansas Midland Montana
Myrtle Edwards Park Trail City and Port of Seattle Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Washington
Platte River Trail Regional Transit District Denver Rail Heritage Society Colorado
Porter Rockwell Trail Utah Transit Authority TRAX Utah
Rock Island Trail City of Colorado Springs Denver & Rio Grande Western Colorado
Rose Canyon Bike Path Metropolitan Transit District Board Amtrak and Santa Fe California
Seattle Waterfront Pathway City of Seattle METRO Transit Washington
Southwest Corridor Park Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority MBTA Commuter Rail and Amtrak Massachusetts
Three Rivers Heritage Trail City of Pittsburgh CSX Pennsylvania
Traction Line Recreation Trail New Jersey Transit Authority NJ Transit and Norfolk Southern New Jersey
Traverse Area Recreation Trail (TART) Michigan Department of Transportation Tuscola & Saginaw Bay RR Michigan
Watts Towers Crescent Greenway Metropolitan Transportation Authority Metropolitan Transportation Authority California
West Orange Trail Orange County Parks CSX California

*Properties acquired by Norfolk Southern from Conrail.

Bar chart. Type of railroad adjacent to existing RWTs. Mainline - approx. 23%, Industrial Spur - approx. 15%, Mass Transit Line - approx. 15%, Tourist/Recreational Trail/Excursion - approx. 13%, Freight - approx. 37%, Branch line - approx. 3%, Trolley/Light rail line - approx. 3%, Passenger - approx. 3%, and Shortline - approx. 2%.   Pie chart. Frequency of trains, by percentage of existing RWTs. 1-3 trains per day - 30%, 1-4 trains per week - 13%, Unkown - 7%, 3-9 trains per hour - 16%, 1-2 trains per hour - 10%, 9-16 trains per day - 8%, and 4-8 trains per day - 16%.
NOTE: Where a range of frequencies was given, the most frequent service was taken.
Source: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy   Source: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
FIGURE 5.1 Type of railroad adjacent to existing RWTs (Note: Railroads identified their function by a variety of names. Because more than one type of railroad may operate in a corridor, percentages add up to more than 100%.)   FIGURE 5.2 Frequency of trains, by percentage of existing RWTs

Bar chart. Type of terrain through which trails pass. Percentage of Trails by Terrain Type. Urban - approx. 50%, Suburban - approx. 37%, Residential - approx. 65%, Rural - approx. 30%, Commercial - approx. 40%, Nature Preserve - approx. 10%, Industrial - approx. 25%, Agricultural - approx. 20%.   Pie chart. Width of full corridor, by percentage of trails. Less than 9.1 m (0 to 30 ft) - 10%, 9.2 to 18.3 m (31 to 60 ft) - 20%, 18.6 to 30.4 m (61 to 100 ft) - 24%, 30.5 to 45.7 m (101 to 150 ft) - 7%, 45.8 to 61 m (151 - 200 ft) - 13%, Greater than 61 m (200 ft) - 5%, and Unkown - 21%.
(Total number of trails = 61)
Source: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy   Source: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
FIGURE 5.3 Type of terrain through which trails pass (Because trails pass through more than one type of terrain, percentages add up to more than 100%.)   FIGURE 5.4 Width of full corridor, by percentage of trails (Note: corridor widths often vary.)

The existing U.S. RWTs are located in 20 States, encompass 385 km (239 miles), and traverse a wide variety of terrain, including urban, suburban, residential, rural, commercial, nature preserve, industrial, and agricultural lands (see Figure 5.3).

The RWT corridor widths average 38 m (126 ft), while the trails are typically 2.4 to 3 m (8 to 10 ft) wide (see Figures 5.4 and 5.5).

Updated: 2/11/2014
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