Many people are familiar with the concept of rail-trails, which are 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 rails-with-trails, which are trails adjacent to or within an active railroad corridor. The rail-with-trail concept provides even more opportunities for the creation of trail systems that enhance local transportation systems, offering safe and 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.
As of 2019, there are more than 375 rails-with-trails in the United States, with the length located along active railroad corridors totaling more than 930 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 repurposing of 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 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 (RUSs) provide landowners with special protection from liability. The State of Maine amended its Recreational Use Statute to offer the same degree of protection to owners of railroad and utility corridors. Some railroads may require trail managers to accept full liability—also called indemnification—when negotiating a rail-with-trail agreement. 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.