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A rail trail is the conversion of a disused railway into a multi-use path, typically for walking, cycling and sometimes horse riding. The characteristics of former tracks—flat, long, frequently running through historical areas—are appealing for various developments. The term sometimes also covers trails running alongside working railways; these are called "rails with trails". Some shared trails are segregated, with the segregation achieved with or without separation. Many rail trails are long-distance trails.
- 1 History
- 2 Conversion issues
- 3 Typical features
- 4 Railbanking
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 Bibliography
- 8 External links
The development of rail trails in southeastern Australia can be traced to the gold rushes of the second half of the 19th century. Dozens of rail lines sprang up, aided by the overly enthusiastic "Octopus Act", but soon became unprofitable as the gold ran out, leading to a decreased demand for timber in turn. Decades later, these easements found a new use as tourist drawcards, once converted to rail trails. Dozens exist in some form, like the 37 kilometres (23 mi) Port Fairy to Warrnambool Rail Trail, but only a few — such as the 95 kilometres (59 mi) Murray to the Mountains Rail Trail — have been fully developed. Progress is frequently hampered by trestle bridges in unsafe condition, easements that have been sold off to farmers, and lack of funds. Funding is typically contributed in roughly equal parts from federal, state, and local governments, with voluntary labour and in kind donations contributed by local groups. The latest addition to the Rail Trail scene in victoria is The Great Victorian Rail Trail and is the longest rail trail in Victoria covering 134 km. It has become popular with tourists as it meanders through steep valleys and open farm country.
The Kettle Valley Rail Trail uses a rail corridor that was originally built for the now-abandoned Kettle Valley Railway. The trail was developed during the 1990s after the Canadian Pacific Railway abandoned train service.
Following the abandonment of the Prince Edward Island Railway in 1989, the government of Prince Edward Island purchased the right-of-way to the entire railway system. The Confederation Trail was developed as a tip-to-tip walking/cycling gravel rail trail which doubles as a monitored and groomed snowmobile trail during the winter months, operated by the PEI Snowmobile Association.
The old Sarnia Bridge in St. Marys, Ontario was re-purposed as part of the Grand Trunk Trail. The former Grand Trunk Railway viaduct was purchased from Canadian National Railway in 1995. The Grand Trunk Trail was opened in 1998 with over 3 km of paved, accessible trail. In 2012, The Re-purposing of the Sarnia Bridge was inducted into the North America Railway Hall of Fame.
Cuts to Ireland's once expansive rail network in the mid 21st century left Ireland with a vast network of disused railways. While many lines were ripped up and the sections of the land acquired by private owners, a number of former railways do exist intact, thus providing the option for the development of many rail trails in the future.
The rail-trail on the former Westport to Achill Island line, known as the Great Western Greenway, was completed in 2011. Much progress has been made on the development of a rail-trail on the former Limerick to Tralee/Fenit line, in the form of the Great Southern Trail. As of 2013, a 36 kilometres (22 mi) section from Rathkeale to Abbyfeale has been completed.
Planning permission has been granted to redevelop the former Galway to Clifden railway into a greenway, but negotiations are still underway with landowners regarding its routing. A section of the Waterford, Limerick and Western Railway railway line, from Claremorris to Collooney has been touted for redevelopment as a greenway, but has met with some recent opposition from groups wishing for the redevelopment of the former railway itself.
In Germany there are 613 rail trails with a total length of 4,400 kilometres (2,700 mi) (as at Sept. 2013). 80 more projects are being planned or under construction. Some of the longest rail trails are in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. These are the Maare-Mosel-Radweg with 39 kilometres (24 mi) on the old rail track, the Ruwer-Hochwald-Radweg with 44 kilometres (27 mi) on the old rail track and the Schinderhannes-Radweg with 36 kilometres (22 mi) on the old track of the Hunsrück Railway.
In North America, the decades-long consolidation of the rail industry led to the closure of a number of uneconomical branch lines in the 1960s. Some were maintained as short line railways, but many others were abandoned.
Beginning with a few lines in the Midwestern United States, such as the old Little Miami Railroad, now the Little Miami Scenic Trail, these disused industrial relics were turned into ecological areas functioning as linear parks or community space, but mainly as non-motorized transportation or recreation corridors for walking, hiking, bicycling, horse riding, birdwatching, etc.
By the 1970s, even main lines were being sold or abandoned. This was especially true when regional rail lines merged and streamlined their operations. As both the supply of potential trails increased and awareness of the possibilities rose, state governments, municipalities, conservation authorities, and private organizations bought the rail corridors to create, expand or link greenspaces. The first abandoned rail corridor in the United States converted into a recreational trail was the Elroy-Sparta State Trail in Wisconsin, which opened in 1965. The following year the Illinois Prairie Path opened. The longest developed rail trail is currently the 225 miles (362 km) Katy Trail in Missouri; when complete, the Cowboy Trail in Nebraska will extend for 321 miles (517 km).
The Beltline, in Atlanta, Georgia, is currently under construction. In 2030, its anticipated year of completion, it will be one of the longest continuous trails. The Atlanta BeltLine is a sustainable redevelopment project that will provide a network of public parks, multi-use trails and transit along a historic 22-mile railroad corridor circling downtown and connecting many neighborhoods directly to each other. 
The conversion of rails to trails hastened with the federal government passing legislation promoting the use of railbanking for abandoned railroad corridors in 1983 which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990. This process preserves rail corridors for possible future rail use with interim use as a trail.
The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is a nationwide nonprofit group that advocates for rail trails and has many documents and advice on building a rail trail.
A number of rail trails have been established through New Zealand; the best known are the Hauraki Rail Trail (linking Thames, Paeroa, Te Aroha and Waikino/Waihi), Otago Central Rail Trail and the Little River Rail Trail. The New Zealand Cycle Trail project, a Government-led initiative, will greatly accelerate the establishment of new trails. The first seven projects (not all of them rail trails, though) were announced in July 2009 and will receive NZ$9 million in funding of the total project budget of NZ$50 million.
There are tens of thousands of miles and thousands of rail trails in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and many other countries. The main factor restricting the potential scope of the movement is the lack of abandoned or surplus rail lines in continental Europe, though abandoned canal towpaths are readily available and used for similar purposes.
Rail trail conversions can be complex for legal, social, and economic reasons. Railroads in North America were often built with a mix of purchased land, government land grants, and easements. The land deeds can be over a hundred years old, land grants might be conditional upon continuous operation of the line, and easements may have expired, all expensive and difficult issues to determine at law.
Railroad property rights have often been poorly defined and sporadically enforced, with neighboring property owners intentionally or accidentally using land they do not own. Such encroachers often later oppose a rail to trail conversion. Even residents who are not encroaching on railway lands may oppose conversion on the grounds of increased traffic in the area and the possibility of a decline in personal security. Because linear corridors of land are only valuable if they are intact, special laws regulate the abandonment of a railroad corridor. In the United States, the Surface Transportation Board (STB) regulates railroads, and can allow a corridor to be "rail banked" or placed on hold for possible conversion back to active status when or if future need demands.
While many rail trails have been built, other proposals have been cancelled by community opposition. The stature of the conversion organization, community involvement, and government willingness are key factors.
Trails to Rails
Though rare, there are several cases in which trails convert back to active railroads. One instance occurred in Clarence, Pennsylvania in May 2012 after the Surface Transportation Board granted R.J. Corman Railroad Company permission to reclaim 20 miles (32 km) of track abandoned by Conrail in 1990, 10 miles (16 km) which had been converted into the Snow Shoe Rails to Trails.
Most original rail lines were surveyed for ease of transport and gentle (often less than 2%) grades. Therefore, the rail trails that succeeded them are often fairly straight and ideally suited to overcome steep or awkward terrain such as hills, escarpments, rivers, swamps, etc. Rail trails often share space with linear utilities such as pipelines, electrical transmission wires, and telephone lines.
Most purchase of railway land is dictated by the free market value of the land, so that land in urban and industrial cores is often impractical to purchase and convert. Therefore, rail trails may end on the fringes of urban areas or near industrial areas and resume later, as discontinuous portions of the same rail line, separated by unaffordable or inappropriate land.
A railroad right-of-way (easement) width varies based on the terrain, with a 100 feet (30 m) width being ample enough where little surface grading is required. The initial 705 miles (1,135 km) stretch of the Illinois Central Railroad is the most liberal in the world with a width of 200 feet (61 m) along the whole length of the line. Rail trails are often graded and covered in gravel or crushed stone, although some are paved with asphalt and others are left as dirt. Where rail bridges are incorporated into the trail, the only alterations (if any) tend to be adding solid walking areas on top of ties or trestles, though bridges in poorer condition do receive new guardrails, paint, and reinforcement. If paved, they are especially suitable for people in wheelchairs.
Railbanking is preserving railroad rights-of-way for possible future use. Railbanking leaves the tracks, bridges, and other infrastructure intact, relieving the railroad operating company from responsibility of maintenance and taxation. Often the tracks are put in custody of a state transportation agency, who then seeks a new operator for possible rehab or reactivation. This helps ensure the possibility of future restored rail service when new economic conditions may warrant resuming operation.
In the United States
In places with many environmental laws and other governmental regulations as the United States, it is very difficult to restore an abandoned line, but it is easier with a railbanked line than one that has undergone a "total abandonment", as the Federal government guarantees the railroad the full rights to reactivate it. A railbanked line can be reopened within a year's time while an abandoned corridor could take years to be reactivated, if it was even possible. In railbanking, the government helps fund the line's rebuild. 14,184 miles (22,827 km) of railroad have been abandoned in the 25-year period from 1983 to 2008. Of that, 8,056.5 miles (12,965.7 km), representing 56.8% of the lines abandoned in the past 25 years, were originally negotiated for railbanking agreements.
21% of those railbanking agreements failed; that is, they were ultimately abandoned. 5,079 miles (8,174 km) of those originally negotiated 8,056.5 miles (12,965.7 km) actually reached a railbanking agreement, representing 35.8% of the lines abandoned during the 25-year period. The remaining 43.2% of the lines, representing 6,127.5 miles (9,861.3 km), were lines that railroads never considered trying to have railbanked, and were abandoned in their entirety. In total, 9,105 miles (14,653 km) of the 14,184 miles (22,827 km) abandoned during the 25-year period were not railbanked (64.2%). Some railroads refuse to railbank lines, and instead sell the land in parcels to the surrounding landowners.
Since railbanking began in 1983, nine railbanked corridors have been approved for reactivation by the STB. Some of these reactivated corridors had only short sections reactivated, while others had the entire corridor reactivated. Two of these approved have not yet been reopened, though both are in the process (as of March 2010). Railbanked corridors are usually utilized as multi-use recreational trails for cyclists, walkers, joggers, snowmobiling, cross country skiing, and horseback riding.
The land over which railways pass may have many owners—private, rail operator, or governmental—and, depending on the terms under which it was originally acquired, the type of operating rights may also vary. Without rail banking, on closure, some parts of a railway's route might otherwise revert to the former owner. The owner could reuse them for whatever purpose he chose or modify the ground conditions, potentially prejudicing the line's future reuse if required. However, the landowner must agree to keep the infrastructure such as bridges and tunnels intact.
Approximately 85% of the railroad rights-of-way in the United States were acquired by easement from the then-abutting property owners. Normally, when the use for an easement is abandoned, the easement is extinguished and the land is not burdened by this adverse use. In 1983, Congress passed what is now known as the federal Rails-To-Trails law codified as 16 U.S.C. 1247(d). The federal law took the property rights of property owners throughout the United States for rail trails. Several property owners sued the government as the law took property without compensation. In 1990, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the property owners were entitled to compensation for the land taken for these rail trails. In 1996, the plaintiff was awarded $1.5 million as compensation for the land taken for a trail through his property (see Preseault v. U.S., 100 F3d 1525, Fed. Cir. ).
In some cases, the infrastructure is removed regardless. Laws have been passed to remove infrastructure, in some case. For example, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a law was made to remove all unused railroad overpasses. Another example is a natural disaster. If a flood washes away a railbanked railroad bridge, that is beyond the owner's control. The local, state, and Federal governments could give some financial help for the railroad to rebuild any infrastructure that may have been damaged or destroyed during the time that it was unused.
A single section of a route changed in this way could have serious consequences for the viability of a restoration of a service, with the costs of repurchasing the land or right-of-way or of restoring the site to its former condition outweighing the economic benefit. Over the full length of a railway's route with many different owners, the reopening costs could be considerable.
By designating the route as railbanked, these complications are avoided and the costs of maintaining a right-of-way are removed from the railway operator. In the United States, land transferred to rail banks is held by the state or federal governments and many rail banks have been reused as rail trails.
In the United Kingdom
In the United Kingdom, thousands of miles (kilometers) of railway were closed under the Beeching Axe cuts in the 1960s and while several of these routes have subsequently been reopened, none were formally treated as land banks in the US manner. The Beeching closures were driven by the government's desire to reduce expenditure on railways, and so most lines were offered for sale to the highest bidder, a process which frequently led to great fragmentation in the ownership of former UK railway lines.
- Port Fairy to Warrnambool Rail Trail, About us, accessed 5 June 2013
- Rail Trail Establishment Guidelines
- "Trail Information". SouthernTrail.net. Retrieved 21 October 2013.
- "RTE News". rte.ie. Retrieved 21 October 2013.
- "Connemara greenway negotiations". connachttribune.ie. Retrieved 21 October 2013.
- "Proposed Sligo-Mayo Greenway stalled over dispute and funding". Sligo Today News. Retrieved 21 October 2013.
- Trail of the Month: May 2009 Nebraska's Cowboy Trail
- "PM turns first sod on cycleway project". The New Zealand Herald. Newstalk ZB. 10 November 2009. Retrieved 30 October 2011.
- Snow Shoes Rails to Trails website
- White, Cliff (22 May 2012). "Railroad company gets OK to reclaim tracks; decision will eliminate half of Rails to Trails". Centre Daily Times. Retrieved 9 July 2012.
- Raymond, William Galt (1917). The Elements of Railroad Engineering. Chapman & Hall, Ltd. p. 310.
- Ackerman, William K. (1890). Historical Sketch of the Illinois-Central Railroad: Together with a Brief Biographical Record of.... Fergus Printing Company. p. 96.
- Fowler, Marianne. "Review of federal railbanking: successes, statistics, and landowner impacts". Americantrails.org. Retrieved 31 January 2011.
- From the Surface Transportation Board. "Surface Transportation Board hearing on rail banking abandoned railroad trail corridors". Americantrails.org. Retrieved 31 January 2011.
- "Story of Railbanking" (PDF). Retrieved 31 January 2011.
- "Railbanking is the essential legal tool for preserving abandoned railroad rights of way for Trails and Greenways, planning, railtrail corridor study, recreation path system, l". Americantrails.org. 17 March 2007. Retrieved 31 January 2011.
- "Rails-to-Trails Conservancy:: What We Do:: Trail Advocacy:: Railbanking::". Railstotrails.org. Retrieved 31 January 2011.
- National Association of Reversionary Property Owners
- "Preseault v. ICC". Supreme.justia.com. Retrieved 31 January 2011.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Rail trails.|
- "Safeguarding Transport Routes & Protection of Disused Railway Trackbeds", Proposals for a Rail Bank, in Norfolk, England
- "Katy Bridge at Boonville: Withdrawals from the railbank", article on proposals to dismantle a bridge included in a Missouri Rail Bank
- Trans Canada Trail
- Parc Linéaire Le P'tit Train du Nord
- Parc Lineaire Le P'Tit Train Du Nord official site
- European Greenways Association
- Railway Ramblers UK
- Fundación de los Ferrocarriles Españoles Spanish rail trails association
- Bahntrassenradeln European Rail trail directory
- American Trails: Rail trail resources.
- RailServe.com: U.S. directory of trails.
- Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
- Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's TrailLink.com: U.S. directory of trails.
- Surface Transportation Board
- Trails from Rails: U.S. directory of trails.
- RailsToTrails.us: U.S. directory of trails.
- Notes from the Field - Rails to Trails (Public television environmental history series episiode)
- A Citizens Guide to Rail Trail Conversion, Wyeth Ruthven, Palmetto Conservation Foundation
- Otago Central Rail Trail The official website for the 150 kilometres (93 mi) Otago Central Rail Trail.