A rail trail is the conversion of a disused railway track into a
multi-use path, typically for walking, cycling and sometimes horse
riding and snowmobiling. The characteristics of abandoned
railways—flat, long, frequently running through historical
areas—are appealing for various developments. The term sometimes
also covers trails running alongside working railways; these are
called "rails with trails". Some shared trails are segregated, with
the segregation achieved with or without separation. Many rail trails
are long-distance trails.
A rail trail may still include rails, such as light rail or streetcar.
By virtue of their characteristic shape (long and flat), some shorter
rail trails are known as greenways and linear parks.
Rail trails around the world
1.1.3 United States
1.2.2 United Kingdom
1.3.2 New Zealand
2 Urban rail trail parks
3 Conversion issues
3.1 Trails to rails
4 Typical features
5.1 In the United States
5.2 In the United Kingdom
6 See also
9 External Links
Rail trails around the world
The only carrier to exist in
Bermuda folded in 1948 and was converted
to a rail trail in 1984. Some of the former right of way has been
converted for automobile traffic, but 18 miles are reserved for
pedestrian use and bicycles on paved portions. The rail bed spans
the length of the island, and connected Hamilton to St. George's and
several villages, though several bridges are derelict, causing the
trail to be fragmented.
Main article: List of trails in Canada
Kettle Valley Rail Trail
Kettle Valley Rail Trail in
British Columbia uses a rail corridor
that was originally built for the now-abandoned Kettle Valley Railway.
The trail was developed during the 1990s after the Canadian Pacific
Railway abandoned train service.
The longest rail trail in Canada is the
Newfoundland T'Railway that
covers a distance of 883 km (549 mi)). Protected as a linear
park under the provincial park system, the T'Railway consists of the
railbed of the historic
Newfoundland Railway as transferred from its
most recent owner, Canadian National Railway, to the provincial
government after rail service was abandoned on the island of
Newfoundland in 1988. The rail corridor stretches from Channel-Port
aux Basques in the west to St. John's in the east with branches to
Stephenville, Lewisporte, Bonavista, Placentia and Carbonear.
Following the abandonment of the
Prince Edward Island Railway
Prince Edward Island Railway in 1989,
the government of Prince Edward Island purchased the right-of-way to
the entire railway system. The
Confederation Trail was developed as a
tip-to-tip walking/cycling gravel rail trail which doubles as a
monitored and groomed snowmobile trail during the winter months,
operated by the PEI Snowmobile Association.
Bill Thorpe Walking Bridge in Fredericton
Le P'tit Train du Nord
Le P'tit Train du Nord runs 200 km (120 mi) from
Saint-Jérôme to Mont-Laurier.
In Toronto, there are two rail trails, the
Beltline Trail and the West
In central Ontario, the former
Victoria Railway line, which runs 89
kilometres (55 mi) from the town of
Lindsay, Ontario north to the
village of Haliburton, in Haliburton County, serves as a public
recreation trail. It can be used for cross country skiing, walking,
and snowmobiling in the winter months, and walking, cycling, and horse
riding from spring to autumn. The majority of the rail trail passes
through sparsely populated areas of the Canadian Shield, with historic
trestle bridges crossing several rivers.
The old Sarnia Bridge in
St. Marys, Ontario
St. Marys, Ontario was re-purposed as part of
the Grand Trunk Trail. The former
Grand Trunk Railway
Grand Trunk Railway viaduct was
Canadian National Railway
Canadian National Railway in 1995. The Grand Trunk
Trail was opened in 1998 with over 3 km (1.9 mi) of paved,
accessible trail. In 2012, The Re-purposing of the Sarnia Bridge was
inducted into the North America Railway Hall of Fame.
A railroad between Gateway Road and Raleigh Street in Winnipeg,
Manitoba was turned into a 7 km (4.3 mi) asphalt trail in
2007. It is called the Northeast Pioneers Greenway, and has plans for
expansion into East St. Paul, and eventually to Birds Hill Park.
A considerable part of the
Trans Canada Trail
Trans Canada Trail are repurposed defunct
rail lines donated to provincial governments by CP and CN rail rebuilt
as walking trails. The main section runs along the southern areas of
Canada connecting most of Canada's major cities and most populous
areas. There is also a long northern arm which runs through Alberta to
Edmonton and then up through northern
British Columbia to Yukon. The
Trail is multi-use and depending on the section may allow hikers,
bicyclists, horseback riders, cross country skiers and snowmobilers.
List of rail trails in the United States
A rail trail in southern Rhode Island
In North America, the decades-long consolidation of the rail industry
led to the closure of a number of uneconomical branch lines and
redundant mainlines. Some were maintained as short line railways, but
many others were abandoned. The Hot Springs Branch is one example of
this. It is being developed into the Jackson River Scenic Trail in the
Alleghany County area of Virginia.
By the 1970s, even main lines were being sold or abandoned. This was
especially true when regional rail lines merged and streamlined their
operations. As both the supply of potential trails increased and
awareness of the possibilities rose, state governments,
municipalities, conservation authorities, and private organizations
bought the rail corridors to create, expand or link green spaces. The
first abandoned rail corridor in the
United States converted into a
recreational trail was the
Elroy-Sparta State Trail
Elroy-Sparta State Trail in Wisconsin,
which opened in 1967. The following year the Illinois Prairie Path
opened. The longest developed rail trail is currently the 240 miles
(390 km) Katy Trail in Missouri. When complete, the Cowboy
Nebraska will become the longest, extending for 321 miles
The Beltline, in Atlanta, Georgia, is currently under construction. In
2030, its anticipated year of completion, it will be one of the
longest continuous trails. The
BeltLine is a sustainable
redevelopment project that will provide a network of public parks,
multi-use trails and transit along a historic 22-mile railroad
corridor circling downtown and connecting many neighborhoods directly
to each other.
The conversion of rails to trails hastened with the federal government
passing legislation promoting the use of railbanking for abandoned
railroad corridors in 1983 which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court
in 1990. This process preserves rail corridors for possible future
rail use with interim use as a trail.
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is a nationwide nonprofit group that
advocates for rail trails and has many documents and advice on
building a rail trail. Per their records, the U.S. currently has
22,107 miles of rail trail complete. Michigan has the most total
mileage (2,381) of any state, as of 2015.
A "rail to trail" in Germany
Germany has the largest number of rail trails in Europe, with 677
rail trails with a total length of 5,020 kilometres (3,120 mi)
(as at February 2015). 80 more projects are being planned or under
construction. Some of the longest rail trails are in the state of
Rhineland-Palatinate. These are the Maare-Mosel-Radweg with 39
kilometres (24 mi) on the old rail track, the
Ruwer-Hochwald-Radweg with 44 kilometres (27 mi) on the old rail
track and the Schinderhannes-Radweg with 36 kilometres (22 mi) on
the old track of the Hunsrück Railway.
List of rail trails in the United Kingdom
Part of the
Milton Keynes redway system
Milton Keynes redway system runs along the disused track
bed of the former Wolverton to Newport Pagnell Line.
With almost 150 tracks in use, the
United Kingdom has the
second-largest network of rail trails in Europe after Germany. The
development of rail trails in the
United Kingdom grew after a major
programme of railway line closures in the 1960s known as the Beeching
cuts. The scheme, named after the then chairman of British Railways
Dr. Richard Beeching, decommissioned approximately 5,000 miles
(8,000 km) of railway lines all over Great Britain. Many rural
and suburban lines were closed along with selected main line trunk
routes. Since then, approximately 1,200–2,200 miles
(1,900–3,500 km) of disused railway lines in Britain have been
converted to public leisure purposes, and today the majority of rail
trails are maintained by either the local authority or charitable
organisations such as Sustrans, the Railway Ramblers or Railway
Many of these former railway lines form part of the British National
Cycle Network, connecting with long-distance paths and towpaths along
Britain's extensive network of canals. For example, the Milton Keynes
redway system runs throughout
Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire,
England, in parts using the former trackbed of the defunct Wolverton
to Newport Pagnell Line (closed 1962) and the Grand Union Canal
towpath. Together, these paths form part of the long-distance National
Cycle Network Route 6 and Route 51. Other urban and suburban rail
trails include the
Fallowfield Loop Line
Fallowfield Loop Line in Manchester, the Middlewood
Cheshire and the
Ebury Way in Watford. Notable rural rail
trails include the Dava Way, running along the route of the former
Highland Railway between
Forres in the Scottish
Highlands, and the
High Peak Trail
High Peak Trail in the English Peak District. In
London, a more unusual scheme has been proposed to convert some
London Underground tunnels into subterranean rail trails under
the city, but this scheme has not been officially approved.
Historic viaduct over river Guadiana, along the Vía Verde de las
Guadiana y las Villuercas rail track in Spain.
With more than 2,500 kilometers of rail trails (Via Verde) in a
network of 117 cycling and walking itineraries,
Spain ranks high in
the European greenways scene. The trails are managed or coordinated by
the Spanish Railways Foundation, and institution created in 1985. Many
of the converted tracks were originally built for the mining industry,
connecting remote mountain sites with port locations on the coast, now
offering picturesque rides from wild interior landscapes to the
Cuts to Ireland's once expansive rail network in the mid 20th century
left Ireland with a vast network of disused railways. While many lines
were ripped up and the sections of the land acquired by private
owners, a number of former railways do exist intact, thus providing
the option for the development of many rail trails in the future.
The rail-trail on the former Westport to
Achill Island line, known as
the Great Western Greenway, was completed in 2011. Much progress has
been made on the development of a rail-trail on the former
Fenit line, in the form of the Great Southern Trail. As of
2013, a 36-kilometre (22 mi) section from
Rathkeale to Abbeyfeale
has been completed.
Planning permission has been granted to redevelop the former
Clifden railway into a greenway, but negotiations are still
underway with landowners regarding its routing. A section of the
Limerick and Western Railway railway line, from Claremorris
Collooney has been touted for redevelopment as a greenway, but has
met with some recent opposition from groups wishing for the
redevelopment of the former railway itself.
A former railway tunnel, near Houyet, Belgium, now converted to
pedestrian and bicycle use
The RAVeL network in
Belgium combines converted tracks, byways and
towpaths, adding up to a total of 1,200 km (750 mi) , a
significant figure considering the size of the country. The gradient
is never more than six per cent, and the tracks are open to all forms
of non-motorised travellers, including cyclists, horse-riders, hikers
and even roller-bladers.
Great Victorian Rail Trail
Great Victorian Rail Trail bridge at Bonnie Doon, Victoria.
The development of rail trails in southeastern
Australia can be traced
to the gold rushes of the second half of the 19th century. Dozens of
rail lines sprang up, aided by the overly enthusiastic "Octopus Act",
but soon became unprofitable as the gold ran out, leading to a
decreased demand for timber in turn. Decades later, these easements
found a new use as tourist drawcards, once converted to rail trails.
Dozens exist in some form, like the 37-kilometre (23 mi) Port
Fairy to Warrnambool Rail Trail, but only a few — such as the
95-kilometre (59 mi)
Murray to the Mountains Rail Trail
Murray to the Mountains Rail Trail — have
been fully developed. Progress is frequently hampered by trestle
bridges in unsafe condition, easements that have been sold off to
farmers, and lack of funds. Funding is typically contributed in
roughly equal parts from federal, state, and local governments, with
voluntary labour and in kind donations contributed by local
groups. The latest addition to the Rail Trail scene in Victoria is
Great Victorian Rail Trail
Great Victorian Rail Trail which is the longest rail trail in
Victoria covering 134 km (83 mi). It has become popular with
tourists as it meanders through steep valleys and open farm country.
A number of rail trails have been established through New Zealand; the
best known are the
Hauraki Rail Trail
Hauraki Rail Trail (linking Thames, Paeroa, Te
Aroha and Waikino/Waihi),
Otago Central Rail Trail
Otago Central Rail Trail and the Little
River Rail Trail. The
New Zealand Cycle Trail
New Zealand Cycle Trail project, a
Government-led initiative, will greatly accelerate the establishment
of new trails. The first seven projects (not all of them rail trails,
though) were announced in July 2009 and will receive NZ$9 million in
funding of the total project budget of NZ$50 million.
On 24 May 2010, the Singapore and Malaysia governments agreed to
move the Singapore terminus of the
Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad
Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad (KTMB)
from the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station in southern Singapore to
Woodlands in northern Singapore. This resulted in the railway lines in
Singapore becoming surplus as the Woodland terminus is just over the
border from Malaysia. Government agencies such as the Urban
Redevelopment Authority (URA) and the
Singapore Land Authority
Singapore Land Authority (SLA)
have taken responsibility for developing and implementing ideas and
activities for the former rail lands. The URA has a dedicated web site
on Rail Corridor. An example of activities permitted include
Street Art on a section of the disused railway, supported by the SLA,
Land Transport Authority
Land Transport Authority and the National Arts Council
The disused railway consists of the main line from the Tanjong Pagar
Railway Station to Woodlands, extending either 24 km
(15 mi) or 26 km (16 mi) , depending on the
source. There is also the Jurong spur line, 14 km (8.7 mi)
in length. The area occupied by the railways is at least
80 ha (200 acres), and up to 173.7 ha (429 acres) when the
land around the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and other nodes are
included. Given the location of the railway lands in land scarce
Singapore, there was concern that the lands would be developed.
Organisations such as the Nature Society Singapore developed
comprehensive plans to maintain the rail lands for nature-related
pursuits. The Green Corridor web site is a campaign website
dedicated to preserving its natural form.
Urban rail trail parks
In a number of cities disused rail tracks have been converted into
linear parks. One example is the
High Line (also known as "High Line
Park"), a 1.45-mile-long (2.33 km) elevated linear park created
on an elevated section of a disused New York Central Railroad.
Inspired by the 3-mile-long (4.8 km) Promenade plantée
(tree-lined walkway), a similar project in
Paris completed in 1993,
High Line has been redesigned and planted as an aerial greenway
and rails-to-trails park.
Cyclists and joggers on the
Arkansas River Trail
Arkansas River Trail in Little Rock,
Rail trail conversions can be complex for legal, social, and economic
reasons. Railroads in North America were often built
with a mix of purchased land, government land grants, and easements.
The land deeds can be over a hundred years old, land grants might be
conditional upon continuous operation of the line, and easements may
have expired, all expensive and difficult issues to determine at law.
Railroad property rights have often been poorly defined and
sporadically enforced, with neighboring property owners intentionally
or accidentally using land they do not own. Such encroachers often
later oppose a rail to trail conversion. Even residents who are not
encroaching on railway lands may oppose conversion on the grounds of
increased traffic in the area and the possibility of a decline in
personal security. Because linear corridors of land are only valuable
if they are intact, special laws regulate the abandonment of a
railroad corridor. In the United States, the Surface Transportation
Board (STB) regulates railroads, and can allow a corridor to be "rail
banked" or placed on hold for possible conversion back to active
status when or if future need demands.
While many rail trails have been built, other proposals have been
cancelled by community opposition. The stature of the conversion
organization, community involvement, and government willingness are
On the other hand, there are a growing number of cases where existing
rails and infrastructure, in service or not, are being called to be
torn up for trails. Two cases of this are in New York State, against
Catskill Mountain Railroad
Catskill Mountain Railroad in Kingston, New York, and the
Adirondack Scenic Railroad
Adirondack Scenic Railroad in Old Forge, New York. In Connecticut,
the not-in-service section of track on the Valley Railroad has been
proposed by locals to be converted to trail. Though perceived by
residents to be, as it has not carried a train since the 1960s, the
railroad has never been formally abandoned. The
of Energy and Environmental Protection acquired the line from Penn
Central in 1969, and subsequently signed a long-term lease with the
railroad. The railroad has been continually working to bring this
section of the line back into service. Both Departments strongly
support the preservation of the line, and have provided support to the
railroad with property encroachment from abutters and the provision of
railroad ties. All three of these examples are heritage railroads,
which serve to protect the history of the railroad. Their primary
revenue is tourist operations, so rail traffic is seasonal; though all
three have been granted rights to carry freight, should customers show
Trails to rails
Though rare, there are several cases in which trails convert back to
active railroads. One example occurred in 2012 in Clarence,
Pennsylvania, where the R.J. Corman Railroad Company received
permission to rebuild 20 miles (32 km) to serve a landfill.
Conrail had abandoned the line in 1990, and 10 miles (16 km) had
since been conveyed to the Snow Shoe Rails to Trails.
Bicyclist on the
Conotton Creek Trail
Conotton Creek Trail in Ohio
Most original rail lines were surveyed for ease of transport and
gentle (often less than 2%) grades. Therefore, the rail trails that
succeeded them are often fairly straight and ideally suited to
overcome steep or awkward terrain such as hills, escarpments, rivers,
Rail trails often share space with linear utilities such
as pipelines, electrical transmission wires, and telephone lines.
Hiker on the
Pine Creek Rail Trail
Pine Creek Rail Trail in Pennsylvania
The Katy Trail crosses a creek on a preserved rail bridge in Missouri.
Most purchase of railway land is dictated by the free market value of
the land, so that land in urban and industrial cores is often
impractical to purchase and convert. Therefore, rail trails may end on
the fringes of urban areas or near industrial areas and resume later,
as discontinuous portions of the same rail line, separated by
unaffordable or inappropriate land.
A railroad right-of-way (easement) width varies based on the terrain,
with a 100 feet (30 m) width being ample enough where little
surface grading is required. The initial 705 miles (1,135 km)
stretch of the
Illinois Central Railroad
Illinois Central Railroad is the most liberal in the
world with a width of 200 feet (61 m) along the whole length of
Rail trails are often graded and covered in gravel or
crushed stone, although some are paved with asphalt and others are
left as dirt. Where rail bridges are incorporated into the trail, the
only alterations (if any) tend to be adding solid walking areas on top
of ties or trestles, though bridges in poorer condition do receive new
guardrails, paint, and reinforcement. If paved, they are especially
suitable for people who use wheelchairs.
Where applicable, the same trails used in the summer for walking,
jogging, and inline skating can be used in the winter for Nordic
skiing, snowshoeing, and sometimes snowmobiling.
Railbanking is preserving railroad rights-of-way for possible future
use. Railbanking leaves the tracks, bridges, and other infrastructure
intact, relieving the railroad operating company from responsibility
of maintenance and taxation. Often the tracks are put in custody of a
state transportation agency, who then seeks a new operator for
possible rehab or reactivation. This helps ensure the possibility of
future restored rail service when new economic conditions may warrant
In the United States
In places with many environmental laws and other governmental
regulations as the United States, it is very difficult to restore an
abandoned line, but it is easier with a railbanked line than one that
has undergone a "total abandonment", as the Federal government
guarantees the railroad the full rights to reactivate it. A railbanked
line can be reopened within a year's time while an abandoned corridor
could take years to be reactivated, if it was even possible. In
railbanking, the government helps fund the line's rebuild. 14,184
miles (22,827 km) of railroad have been abandoned in the 25-year
period from 1983 to 2008. Of that, 8,056.5 miles
(12,965.7 km), representing 56.8% of the lines abandoned in the
past 25 years, were originally negotiated for railbanking
21% of those railbanking agreements failed; that is, they were
ultimately abandoned. 5,079 miles (8,174 km) of those originally
negotiated 8,056.5 miles (12,965.7 km) actually reached a
railbanking agreement, representing 35.8% of the lines abandoned
during the 25-year period. The remaining 43.2% of the lines,
representing 6,127.5 miles (9,861.3 km), were lines that
railroads never considered trying to have railbanked, and were
abandoned in their entirety. In total, 9,105 miles (14,653 km) of
the 14,184 miles (22,827 km) abandoned during the 25-year period
were not railbanked (64.2%). Some railroads refuse to railbank
lines, and instead sell the land in parcels to the surrounding
Since railbanking began in 1983, nine railbanked corridors have been
approved for reactivation by the STB. Some of these reactivated
corridors had only short sections reactivated, while others had the
entire corridor reactivated. Two of these approved have not yet been
reopened, though both are in the process (as of March 2010).
Railbanked corridors are usually utilized as multi-use recreational
trails for cyclists, walkers, joggers, snowmobiling, cross country
skiing, and horseback riding.
The land over which railways pass may have many owners—private, rail
operator, or governmental—and, depending on the terms under which it
was originally acquired, the type of operating rights may also vary.
Without rail banking, on closure, some parts of a railway's route
might otherwise revert to the former owner. The owner could reuse them
for any purpose, or modify the ground conditions, potentially
prejudicing the line's future reuse if required. However, the
landowner must agree to keep the infrastructure such as bridges and
Approximately 85% of the railroad rights-of-way in the United
States were acquired by easement from the then-abutting property
owners. Normally, when the use for an easement is abandoned, the
easement is extinguished and the land is not burdened by this adverse
use. In 1983, Congress passed what is now known as the federal
Rails-To-Trails law codified as 16 U.S.C. 1247(d). The federal law
took the property rights of property owners throughout the United
States for rail trails. Several property owners sued the government as
the law took property without compensation. In 1990, the United States
Supreme Court ruled that the property owners were entitled to
compensation for the land taken for these rail trails. In 1996,
the plaintiff was awarded $1.5 million as compensation for the land
taken for a trail through his property (see Preseault v. U.S., 100 F3d
1525, Fed. Cir. ).
The state of
Connecticut has taken a proactive approach to preserving
railway right-of-ways. Since the 1970s,
Connecticut Department of
Transportation policy has been to acquire abandoned rail lines for
preservation. This has contributed to the majority of railroad mileage
Connecticut to be publicly owned, between the state and Amtrak.
Today, this policy continues; the State will purchase any RoW that
shows future potential for transportation, when the property becomes
available. CDOT has subsequently transferred 60 miles of RoW to
Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection for
use in rail trails, and CDEEP itself has independently obtained
another 50 miles (22 of which are used for the Valley Railroad). A
provision of this transfer is that CDOT is allowed to retake ownership
of a right-of-way when needed for transportation purposes. Because
Connecticut is one of the only states where railbanked
corridors have a reasonable chance of reactivation (should there be a
need to), where elsewhere local opposition from trail users and
property abutters would be able to directly influence a
Often, most of or all infrastructure is removed regardless to future
use. Laws have been passed to remove infrastructure, in some case. For
example, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a law was made to remove
all unused railroad overpasses. Another example is a natural
disaster. If a flood washes away a railbanked railroad bridge, that is
beyond the owner's control. The local, state, and Federal governments
could give some financial help for the railroad to rebuild any
infrastructure that may have been damaged or destroyed during the time
that it was unused.
This causeway once carried the
Rutland Railroad over portions of
Vermont's largest lake, Lake Champlain
A single section of a route changed in this way could have serious
consequences for the viability of a restoration of a service, with the
costs of repurchasing the land or right-of-way or of restoring the
site to its former condition outweighing the economic benefit. Over
the full length of a railway's route with many different owners, the
reopening costs could be considerable.
By designating the route as railbanked, these complications are
avoided and the costs of maintaining a right-of-way are removed from
the railway operator. In the United States, land transferred to rail
banks is held by the state or federal governments and many rail banks
have been reused as rail trails.
In the United Kingdom
In the United Kingdom, thousands of miles (kilometers) of railway were
closed under the
Beeching Axe cuts in the 1960s and while several of
these routes have subsequently been reopened, none were formally
treated as land banks in the US manner. The Beeching closures were
driven by the government's desire to reduce expenditure on railways,
and so most lines were offered for sale to the highest bidder, a
process which frequently led to great fragmentation in the ownership
of former UK railway lines.
Outline of cycling
List of rail trails
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC)
Rails with trails
Rails with trails (along a working line)
Segregated cycle facilities
Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States
EuroVelo, a network of long-distance cycling routes across Europe
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