Photo by Britt Thomas

Want to know more about how rail-trails get built and maintained in America? Check out our trail-building 101 FAQ below. Happy reading!

What Is a Rail-Trail?

Rail-trails are multi-purpose public paths created from former railroad corridors. They are most often flat or follow a gentle grade as they traverse urban, suburban and rural communities in America. Ideal for many uses, such as walking, bicycling, inline skating, cross-country skiing, and equestrian and wheelchair use, rail-trails are extremely popular for both transportation and recreation.

Trails add value to our lives in so many ways—increasing our mobility, improving our health, spurring economic development and job creation, protecting our environment and creating powerful connections within, to and across communities.

Read more about the benefits of trails.

What Is a Rail-with-Trail?

A rail-with-trail is a public pathway that runs parallel to an active rail line. Currently, there are more than 200 known rails-with-trails across the country.

The relationship between the trail and the rail varies depending on the community, and rails-with-trails operate under a wide variety of conditions. The rail and trail share an easement and are sometimes separated by extensive fencing. Some trails are adjacent to high-speed, high-frequency trains while others run alongside tourist railroads and slow-moving excursion trains. Rails-with-trails can also provide a unique opportunity for connecting non-motorized transportation with public transportation, such as when a trail leads to a train station.

What Is Railbanking?

Railbanking, enacted in 1983, is a provision of the original National Trails System Act of 1968. It is a voluntary agreement between a railroad company and a trail agency, which enables the agency to use an out-of-service rail corridor as a trail until a railroad might need the corridor again for rail service. Because a railbanked corridor is not considered abandoned, it can be sold, leased or donated to a trail manager without reverting to adjacent landowners.

Railbanking has been responsible for preserving thousands of miles of rail corridors across the country. To date, more than 350 rail corridors (43 states plus D.C.) have been railbanked, with more than 160 trails open partially or fully on railbanked corridors.

What Are the First Steps in Rail-Trail Conversion?

First, you must determine if the corridor is, or is in the process of, being abandoned. RTC monitors requests filed with the Surface Transportation Board (STB) and notifies communities—including trail advocates and public officials—of impending abandonments. This makes it possible for these individuals to file a railbanking request, in which case the corridor is not considered abandoned and can be sold, leased or donated to a trail manager without reverting to adjacent landowners.

A railroad corridor is abandoned when rail service is discontinued, STB officially approves the abandonment, tariffs (pay schedules) are canceled and the railroad files an abandonment consummation notice with STB. Status of abandonment can be determined through the rail office of your state department of transportation or by contacting the railroad company. In these cases, the potential trail builder will need to research the corridor and contact the railroad to determine ownership of the corridor and the steps required for acquisition.

Take a look at our Trail-Building Toolbox for comprehensive details on how to begin the process of, and manage, a rail-trail project.

Who Builds and Manages the Trail?

In most cases, the local, state or federal agency that buys the corridor builds the trail as well. The agency develops it using its own labor and equipment or hires an independent construction company. In a few cases, groups of citizen volunteers have constructed trails.

Trails are generally managed by public agencies, but some are operated by other types of organizations, such as nonprofit "friends of the trail" citizen groups, land trusts and community foundations.

Does Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Own Trails?

RTC has acquired more than 650 miles of corridor since 1993 through its trail conservancy program. It is never RTC's goal to be a long-term owner or manager of a trail, but in limited situations, RTC has purchased and held title of a valuable corridor until a public agency was available to take over the ownership and management of that corridor.

Where Are Rail-Trails Located?

RTC has identified more than 1,800 rail-trails, with at least one in every state. An additional 700+ are in the works, with new projects beginning each month.

For detailed online information, visit TrailLink.com or check out our selection of regional trail guidebooks.