Researching a railroad right-of-way, or corridor, is a good place to begin when assessing its potential for trail development. First, determining the corridor status (active or abandoned) will help you decide on a suitable course of action. Later, as the trail project develops, it may be necessary to conduct an environmental assessment.
Start your research at the local and county tax assessors’ offices; the railroad probably pays 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.
Collect as much information on the trail corridor 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. Throughout the information gathering process, you should organize an inventory of trail resources, connections and community impacts, including: potential access points to the trail, the economic impact of the trail on the community, and any connections it will provide to/for schools, neighborhoods and other community activity centers.
Ownership of the Corridor
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.
Condition of the Corridor
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.
History of the Corridor
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 Surface Transportation Board (STB) for recent or upcoming abandonments, thoroughly review these filings on the STB website.