History of Railbanking
In 1916, at the peak of the United States' construction and development of rail lines, more than 275,000 miles of track crisscrossed the country, carrying freight and passengers and fueling the economy and growth of the nation. But by the 1950s and 1960s, railroads faced increasing competition from trucking companies, and costly federal regulations made it even more difficult for the railroads to compete. Nearly a quarter of the nation's railroad lines were operating under bankruptcy, in fact, by the early 1970s.
The Staggers Rail Act, passed in 1980, deregulated the railroads and made it easier for them to abandon lines. Although railroads were then able to streamline their operations and diversify successfully, this deregulation also triggered a mass wave of rail line abandonments. Before deregulation, 38,000 miles of track were abandoned in the 45 years from 1930 to 1975. Yet in the next 15 years until 1990, railroads abandoned nearly double that amount—65,000 miles—in only a third of the time.
In the early 1980s Congress became concerned about the dramatic decline in the nation's railroad infrastructure. With so many railroads abandoning corridors, it became apparent to Congress that something needed to be done to preserve the nation's rail system for future transportation uses. So in 1983 Congress amended Section 8(d) of the National Trails System Act to create a program to preserve rail corridors with a program called "railbanking," a method by which corridors that would otherwise be abandoned can be preserved for future rail use by converting them to interim trails. The old inactive railroad route survives but is repurposed for other—potentially temporary—trail uses.
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