Researching a railroad right-of-way, or corridor, is a good place to begin when assessing its potential for trail development. The first step in your search is to determine the corridor status—does the Surface Transportation Board (STB) recognize the corridor as "active" or "abandoned?" Identifying the corridor status will help you decide on a suitable course of action for acquisition.
Active vs. Abandoned Corridors
A line can be active if:
- Trains are running, and the railroad is profitable—rail-with-trail may be an option
- Trains are running, but the line is not profitable—railbanking may be an option
- Trains are not running—railbanking may be an option
- The railroad is undergoing abandonment proceedings with the STB—act immediately for railbanking
A line is abandoned only when the railroad has applied to the STB for abandonment authorization, the STB has issued an order authorizing abandonment of the line, and the railroad has notified the STB that it has consummated the abandonment authorization. It is important to note that even a corridor lacking rail service and appearing derelict may still legally be active and subject to STB jurisdiction.
The STB posts information about railroad abandonments on its website. Their searchable database holds full text records of filings (submitted by railroads, independent buyers, trail groups, etc.) and subsequent decisions administered by the STB. To locate filings or decisions related to a specific corridor, visit the STB website and follow these steps:
- On the top menu bar, scroll over "E-Library," and choose "Filings" or "Decisions and Notices."
- You can view posted filings and decisions by date, or click on "Search" or "Enhanced Search" at the top of the screen to search by keywords.
- On the "Search" screen, choose "AB" from the first drop-down menu box to the right of "Docket #." This will limit your search solely to abandonment filings and decisions. In the "Complex Search" box, enter keywords that are relevant to the corridor you are researching; county and state names will usually yield appropriate results.
Abandoned Corridor Research
For corridors determined to be abandoned, research should continue at the local and county tax assessors’ offices; the railroad probably pays (or paid) local real estate taxes and complies with other local ordinances. These records are public and may provide clues to the ownership and valuation of the corridor. City planning departments may also be able to assist with property research, while your state trail coordinator can offer helpful information about other existing or previous trail development efforts for the corridor. Hiring a title company or real estate attorney experienced in railroad rights-of-way to conduct title research is usually a wise investment.
Collect as much information as possible; you can leverage this data to educate those working on the trail project, as well as adjacent landowners, community members and local leadership. Contact your local government or state rail authority (through your state department of transportation) to verify specific information on the corridor, such as that which is outlined below:
The railroad probably has only the original deeds under which it acquired the corridor, but all title information must be locally recorded. You can research that information in local land records, including any zoning ordinances, subdivision rules or other restrictions on the use of the property.
Valuation records and maps, created by railroads at the request of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) between 1915 and 1920, may also be on file with the abandoning railroad, or they may be available at your state's historical society or rail authority, or at the National Archives at College Park in Maryland. These records may also prove useful in revealing how the corridor was assembled (easements, federally granted right-of-way, etc.).
Even if the corridor is still owned by the railroad, it is highly likely that the railroad's representatives, who are responsible for hundreds or thousands of miles of track, have never actually seen it. It is also possible that the corridor has already been sold by the abandoning railroad or that the land has reverted to adjacent landowners. In any case, it's wise to obtain permission from the railroad or current owner(s) of the corridor to conduct your own accurate, on-the-ground inspection.
Does the corridor have any historically significant built structures like tunnels and bridges? Communities adjacent to the corridor can be good starting points to locate important historical and cultural resources relevant to the history of the corridor and railroad activity, which may have been central to commerce, tourism and growth. Likewise, state historic preservation officers often maintain this information, as well as sites that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Railroads are now required to identify historic bridges and tunnels within their abandonment filings to the STB; for recent or upcoming abandonments, thoroughly review these filings on the STB website.