Right-of-way (transportation)

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Right of way drawing of U.S. Route 25E for widening project. 1981
Right of way highway marker in Athens, Georgia

A right-of-way (ROW) is a right to make a way over a piece of land,[1] usually to and from another piece of land. A right of way is a type of easement granted or reserved over the land for transportation purposes, such as a highway, public footpath, rail transport, canal, as well as electrical transmission lines, oil and gas pipelines.[2] A right-of-way can be used to build a bike trail. A right-of-way is reserved for the purposes of maintenance or expansion of existing services with the right-of-way. In the case of an easement, it may revert to its original owners if the facility is abandoned. This American English term is also used to denote the land itself.

Rail right-of-way[edit]

In the United States, railroad rights-of-way (ROW or R/O/W) are generally considered private property by the respective railroad owners and by applicable state laws. Most U.S. railroads employ their own police forces, who can arrest and prosecute trespassers found on their rights-of-way. Some railroad rights-of-way include recreational rail trails.

In Canada, railroad rights-of-way are regulated by federal law.

In the United Kingdom, railway companies received the right to resume land for a right-of-way by a private Act of Parliament.

Designations of railroad right of way[edit]

Right-of-way of the out-of-service Pacific Electric in Garden Grove, California from left middleground to right background

The various designations of railroad right of way are as follows:

  • Active track is any track that is used regularly or even only once in a while.
  • Out of service means the right of way is preserved, and the railroad retains the right to activate it. The line could be out of service for decades. Thus track or crossings that have been removed need to be replaced.
  • By an embargo the track is removed, but the right of way is preserved and usually is converted into a walking or cycling path or other such use.
  • An abandonment is a lengthy formal process by which the railroad gives up all rights to the line. In most cases the track is removed and sold for scrap and any grade crossings are redone. The line will never be active again. The right of way reverts to the adjoining property owners.

Rail rights-of-way uses other than rail transport[edit]

Julington-Durbin Peninsula Powerline Right of Way

Railroad rights-of-way need not be exclusively for railroad tracks and related equipment. Easements are frequently given to permit the laying of communication cables (such as optical fiber) or natural gas pipelines, or to run electric power transmission lines overhead, along a railroad.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ CSX Corporation. "Railroad Dictionary: R". Retrieved September 3, 2021.
  2. ^ Henry Campbell Black: Right-of-way. In: A law dictionary containing definitions of the terms and phrases of American and English jurisprudence, ancient and modern: and including the principal terms of international, constitutional, ecclesiastical, and commercial law, and medical jurisprudence, with a collection of legal maxims ... (West Publishing Co., 1910), pg. 1040.