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  © Josh Hooper
Trail users and trains safely coexist on a rail-with-trail section of the Great Allegheny Passage.


Rail-with-trail – Any shared-use path that is located on or directly adjacent to an active railroad or light-rail corridor

Recreational Use Statute (RUS) – State law (in all 50 states) designed to limit the liability of public organizations, easement donors, landowners and others who open their lands for public recreation use without charge.

Indemnification – Part of an agreement that provides for one party to bear the monetary costs, either directly or by reimbursement, for losses incurred by a second party.

Class I Railroads – As classified by operating revenue, the largest operating freight railroad companies.

Class II and III Railroads – Railroads with less operating revenue than the standards set for Class I railroads. Class II railroads are typically recognized as "regional railroads" by the American Association of Railroads. Class III railroads are usually considered local short line railroads.

Trails glossary and acronyms.


RTC Resources

2013 Report: America's Rails-with-Trails: A Resource for Planners, Agencies and Advocates on Trails Along Active Railroad Corridors

2000 Report: Rails-with-Trails: Design, Management, and Operating Characteristics of 61 Trails Along Active Rail Lines

2009 Report: California Rails-with-Trails: A Survey of Trails Along Active Rail Lines

2005 Report: Rails-with-Trails: A Preliminary Assessment of Safety and Grade Crossings

RTC Trail of the Month, September 2013: California's SMART Pathway

RTC Trail of the Month, August 2013: Tennessee Central Heritage Rail Trail

RTC Trail of the Month, June 2013: Iowa's Trolley Trail

RTC Trail of the Month, March 2008: New Mexico's Santa Fe Rail Trail

RTC Trail of the Month, August 2007: Oregon's Springwater Corridor

Ask Our Listserv: Learn about trail development from the experts! Join our listserv to be connected to more than 900 trail managers, advocates and builders across the country.

Go to RTC's Trails and Greenways Publication Library

For more information, please contact the appropriate regional or national office.


Additional Resources

Rails-with-Trails: Lessons Learned, Alta Planning + Design and the U.S. Department of Transportation, 2002, 156 pp.

Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities, 4th Edition, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), 2012, 200 pp.

"Trails and High-Speed Rail: Are they compatible?" National Center for Bicycling and Walking forum article, 2003.

American Trails: Rail-Trails (see rail-with-trail section)



RTC's rails-with-trails image library

John Luton's "Trail With Rail" photos on Flickr. John captures rail-with-trail development in Victoria, British Columbia.

American Trails: "Cool Trail Solutions" photos of rail-with-trail projects.


Project Examples

Atlanta BeltLine: A project rail-with-trail composed of 22 miles of trail and transit line that will ultimately be developed in Atlanta.

SMART Pathway: A proposed 70-mile commuter rail line and parallel pathway in Sonoma and Marin counties, Calif.

Railroad Park: A successful park in downtown Birmingham, Ala. that incorporates rail-with-trail.


Plan, Design, Build


Explore the latest resources on this topic:

Rail-with-Trail in RTC TrailBlog
Rail-with-Trail in the Library

Many people are familiar with the concept of rail-trails—multi-use trails developed on former railroad corridors. With the increasing popularity of rail-trails across the country, communities are looking for other innovative ways of securing land for safe, popular and effective trail development. An emerging answer is the rail-with-trail. Rails-with-trails are trails adjacent to or within an active railroad corridor. The rails-with-trails concept provides even more opportunities for the creation of trail systems that enhance local transportation systems, offering safe, attractive community connections.

Rails-with-trails can also provide a solution for rail companies and local governments concerned about safety risks posed by those who illegally cross rail lines. By providing a safe, attractive alternative for cyclists and pedestrians, often with fencing between the pathway and the railway, rails-with-trails can eliminate the previous incentive to use the tracks as a shortcut.

Currently, there are more than 160 rails-with-trails in the United States, totaling more than 1,300 miles, and more are being built each year.


The three most comprehensive resources on rails-with-trails were developed to address common concerns and highlight best practices used in this unique type of trail development. The reports include safety statistics, design guidelines, recommendations for acquisition methods and liability protection, sample legal agreements and case studies. Use these documents to learn more about successful rails-with-trails and to determine the best strategies for negotiating with the railroad or other managing agency:

America's Rails-with-Trails: A Resource for Planners, Agencies and Advocates on Trails Along Active Railroad Corridors. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. 2013.

Rails-with-Trails: Lessons Learned. Alta Planning + Design and the U.S. Department of Transportation. 2002.

Rails-with-Trails: Design, Management, and Operating Characteristics of 61 Trails Along Active Rail Lines. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. 2000.

A list of known rails-with-trails, examples of easements and lease agreements, a list of state Recreational Use Statutes, selected rail-with-trail feasibility studies and design guidelines and a rail-with-trail image library are also available in the online appendix for America's Rails-with-Trails.


Rail-trails are an excellent re-purposing of abandoned or former railroad corridors, often transforming once derelict properties into vibrant community assets. Rails-with-trails offer the same health, transportation and environmental benefits by utilizing existing resources when there may be limited appropriate space for multi-use trails. Rails-with-trails enhance local transportation networks by providing non-motorized local connections that are sometimes preferable to on-road bike lanes or sidewalks located on congested, dangerous roadways.

Rails-with-trails benefit railroads, too. In most cases, the trail manager purchases a use easement or license from the railroad, providing financial compensation and in some cases reducing liability responsibility and cost to the railroad. In some instances, a fully developed trail will also provide the railroad with improved access for maintenance vehicles.


Safety is probably the biggest concern when considering a rail-with-trail project. Both railroads and potential trail managers may be apprehensive about placing a public trail close to an active railroad track, fearing an increased risk of accidents along the corridor. However, many successful rails-with-trails across the country stand as a testament to the ability of trains and trails to coexist. For a list of several rails-with-trails and associated information such as characteristics of train traffic, safe design and exposure to risk and liability, see the Rail-with-Trail Survey Findings in Section IV of America's Rails-with-Trails.

The perception that large railroad companies have deep financial pockets forces the issues of trail insurance and liability to the forefront of negotiations with the railroad for trail development. Fortunately, various levels of protection are available to railroads and trail managers. State Recreational Use Statutes(RUS) provide landowners with special protection from liability. The State of Maine amended its Recreational Use Statute to include the same degree of protection to owners of railroad and utility corridors. Some railroads may require trail managers to accept full liability when negotiating a rail-with-trail agreement, also called indemnification. For a more comprehensive analysis of the safety and legal issues associated with rails-with-trails, see Section III of America's Rails-with-Trails.

Large Class I railroads may be hesitant to enter into rail-with-trail agreements because a trail would mean a loss of right-of-way width and a perceived potential for lawsuits. However, smaller railroad operations may be more willing to negotiate an agreement, especially transit or tourist trains that are typically owned and managed by governmental entities whose mission it is to serve the public interest. The Rail-with-Trail Case Studies found in Section V of America's Rails-with-Trails include specific information on three successful trails alongside excursion railroads. 

Environmental contaminants may also be a concern and should be addressed when developing a feasibility study (see "Steps in Feasibility Study" on p.32 of Rails-with-Trails: Lessons Learned).

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