Plan, Design, Build
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 140 rails-with-trails in the United States, totaling more than 1,400 miles, and more are being built each year.
The two 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:
Rails-with-Trails: Design, Management, and Operating Characteristics of 61 Trails Along Active Rail Lines. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.
Rails-with-Trails: Lessons Learned. Alta Planning + Design and the U.S. Department of Transportation.
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 increase risk of accidents along the corridor. However, many successful rail-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 cost of acquisition or lease agreement, characteristics of train traffic, railroad companies and safety records, see Appendix A in RTC's Rails-with-Trails Report .
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 specific agreement language, see "Liability exposure reduction options" on p. 45 of Rails-with-Trails: Lessons Learned.
Large Class I railroads may be hesitant to enter into a 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.
Environmental contaminants may also be a concern and should be addressed when developing a feasibility study (see "Steps in Feasibility Study" p.32 of Rails-with-Trails: Lessons Learned).
RTC's Rail-with-Trail Report
- Longest Rail-with-Trail: 57 miles (Railroad Trail, Mich.)
- Shortest: 0.4 miles (Libba Cotton Bikepath, N.C.)
- Fastest Train: 150 mph (Southwest Corridor Park Trail, Mass.)
- Slowest Train: 5 mph (West Orange Trail, Fla.)
- Closest trail to tracks: 2 feet (Railroad Trail, Mich.)
- Most trains: 9 per hour (Illinois Prairie Path, Ill.)
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