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Rails-with-Trails: Lessons Learned


Trestles and Bridges

As part of the feasibility analysis, the presence of trestles and bridges will loom large as major constraints to the overall feasibility of a project. Virtually all railroad corridors will have at least some minor bridges or culverts either as part of the local drainage system, or the local network of streams and creeks. In some cases, there will be longer trestles and bridges over roadways, highways, rivers, and canyons. In almost all cases, the railroad structures are not designed to accommodate pedestrians at all, let alone bicycles, and represent a real safety hazard (and attraction) to trespassers.

Simple prefabricated bridges over small streams, culverts, and other waterways are not expensive items. However, they may impact a project's feasibility from an environmental perspective. A new bridge over a highway or on a long trestle may have enormous costs, and may, in some cases, represent the single greatest cost on the project.

A photo of a steel truss bridge over a river. Trains use tracks on one half of the bridge width, and pedestrians use a walkway on the other half of the bridge width. There is a fence between the pedestrian walkway and the train tracks.
Harpers Ferry Bridge. Harpers Ferry, VA
  A photo of the Steel Bridge Riverwalk crossing the Willamette River.
Steel Bridge Riverwalk. Portland, OR

RWT bridges constructed over existing roadways or over corridors with existing trails or bikeways pose a special problem. Neighboring residents will want access to the RWT. Since these connections will need to meet ADA gradient standards, they may involve the construction of an expensive series of ramps.

This graphic shows cross section of a Trestle option. This representation shows a train on one of two tracks and 2 options for trail placement. The track roadbed is on a 'Concrete Structure.' There are 2 tracks on this structure and 2 examples of RWT locations; 'A' and 'B'. Trail 'A' is '10 ft' below the 'Concrete Structure' which supports the track roadbed. The width of trail 'A' should be '8ft min' and there is a 'Potential wetlands impact.' A barrier of some type needs to be placed on the outsides of the trail at a height of '4ft min.' This should provide 'Maximum protection from trains.' The distance between the Centerline of the track closest to trail option 'B' is '8 ft 6in min.' The width of trail 'B' should be '8 ft min.' Since this trail is adjacent to the tracks, 'Noise protection [is] required, i.e. solid material such as a 'Caltrans type barrier.' Trail 'B' is an 'extension of existing platform' with a 'Truss to support deck addition.'

This graphic shows cross section of a Trestle option. This representation shows 2 additional placement options; 'C' and 'D'. Trail 'C' is directly under the 'Wood Trestle' which the track is on. Trail option C 'Will require partial reconstruction of existing structure and civil/structural engineering.' Option 'D' is also below the trailbed but is offset so it sits next to the 'Wood Trestle' rather than directly underneath it. There is a 'Potential wetlands impact' and should be '8 ft min' in width.
FIGURE 5.41 Trestle options

Engineers can design solutions to virtually any challenge (see Figure 5.41). Any trail facility that is to be appended to or otherwise incorporated into a bridge must maintain full and unimpeded bridge maintenance and inspection access. Some of the prototype solutions for RWTs on corridors with bridges and trestles include:

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A photo of a single railroad track at an underpass. There is a lot of vegetation overgrowth along the corridor.
Single track tunnel on Lake Oswego Trolley Line.
Lake Oswego, OR

The presence of a single track tunnel on a railroad corridor typically signifies that an RWT is not feasible, at least on the segment where the tunnel is located. There is one known case of a shared rail-with-trail single track tunnel: the York County Heritage Trail, Pennsylvania, which is along an active tourist rail line. Trail users are required to wait when a train is in the tunnel. Usually, tunnels are constructed where the topography dictates the need for going through -- rather than around -- terrain, meaning that an RWT would have a difficult time traversing over or around the obstacle to avoid a tunnel.

In some cases, there is a roadway or even an abandoned railroad roadbed that could be used by an RWT to circumvent the tunnel. If the terrain is not too steep, an RWT could go over the tunnel hill. While multi-track tunnels with one or more abandoned tracks could conceivably serve dual usages, no known examples exist, and they should be avoided.

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Environmental Constraints

A photo of a bird perched atop a shrub branch.

A photo of a small pond surrounded by thick grasses and small trees.
RWT designs must take endangered species
into consideration. Victorville, CA

If necessary, a full environmental assessment per State and Federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) law should be included as part of the RWT feasibility study. Environmental impacts are not relegated simply to riparian zones, but include impacts to:

  1. public safety
  2. public expenditures
  3. light and glare
  4. geology, soils, and hydrology
  5. biological resources
  6. land use
  7. cultural resources
  8. aesthetics
  9. transportation and circulation
  10. economics
  11. parks and recreation
  12. noise levels

The environmental analysis should be conducted simultaneously with feasibility study to allow for the RWT design team to minimize or avoid significant environmental impacts. The environmental analysis also provides a good forum for public input and political approvals, and usually is a required activity if the project is to receive Federal funding. In some cases, the environmental impacts of a proposed RWT will be so great as to make the project unfeasible. In other cases, the RWT enhances a previously damaged site. Thus, the impacts may be offset by proposed mitigation and/or by the benefits accrued from the project.

Updated: 2/11/2014
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