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Based on the lessons learned in this study, it is clear that well-designed Rails-with-Trails projects can bring numerous benefits to communities and railroads alike.


Rails-with-Trails: Lessons Learned, Literature Review, Current Practices, Conclusions

photo of bikes on trail next to  railroad

Burlington Greenway adjacent active railroad with no barriers


This report offers conclusions about the lessons learned in the development, construction, and operation of "rails-with-trails" so that railroad companies, trail developers, and others can benefit from the history of trails in existence today. "Rail-with-trail" (RWT) describes any shared use path or trail located on or directly adjacent to an active railroad corridor. About 65 RWTs encompass 385 km (239 mi) in 30 U.S. States today. These trails are located adjacent to active rail lines ranging from a few slow-moving short-haul freight trains weekly, to high-frequency Amtrak trains traveling as fast as 225 km/h (140 mi/h). Dozens of RWTs are proposed or planned. While most are located on public lands leased to private railroads, many are on privately-owned railroad property. Hundreds of kilometers of RWTs traverse Western Australia, Canada, and Europe.

Advocates of RWTs and railroad companies offer contrasting viewpoints. Trail planners view railroad property, often located in scenic areas with favorable topography, as a better alternative than bike lanes on roadways. They note that legal protections exist in all States, and that a litany of successful RWTs should provide comfort. Railroad company representatives respond that the court system has not yet tested the lease and/or use agreements for existing RWTs. Railroads have borne the burden of litigation for many incidents on their property, even for crashes with atfault trespassers or automobile drivers who ignored obvious warning systems.

In the meantime, public pressure is increasing for railroads to free up space adjacent to rail lines for trail usage, pitting the railroad industry's safety, capacity, and liability concerns against trail proponents' desires to create shared use paths and other trails. This situation gave rise to the need to study the issue of RWTs to determine where they are appropriate, recommend design treatments and management strategies, and find ways to reduce liability impacts on the railroad industry.

photo of trail between tracks

Bicycle/pedestrian trail between light rail (left) and freight rail line
(Right) in downtown San Diego- photo by Stuart Macdonald



In the context of RWT, liability refers to the obligation of a trail manager or railroad to compensate a person who is harmed through some fault of the trail manager or railroad. Railroads have a number of liability concerns about the intentional location of a trail near or on an active railroad corridor:

The level of railroad company concern is dependent in part on the class of railroad and the type of operations they perform. Privately-owned Class I railroads (see Appendix A: Definitions) tend to be reluctant to grant non-rail usage of their rights-of-way because loss of right-of-way width at any given location could reduce the ability of the railroad to add main track and sidings necessary to provide increased capacity and serve customer needs. In addition, their perceived deep financial pockets make them a frequent target of lawsuits. Transit and tourist train operators may support RWT projects because they often are quasi-governmental entities, with a mission of attracting people to their service. Finally, locally-based shortline operators have less reason to be concerned about future track expansion, and may be inclined toward the potential financial rewards of permitting a RWT project along their rights-of-way.

Available Legal Protections
There are a range of options that can reduce railroad liability exposure. These include:

The research team for this report was unable to find a history of crashes or claims on the existing RWTs. There is only one known case of a specific RWT claim (in Anchorage, Alaska). The railroad was held harmless from any liability for the accident through the terms of its indemnification agreement. Research on other relevant cases has found that the State RUSs and other Statutes do hold up in court.

photo of bikes on trail next to  railroad

Recent trail along active railroad in San Clemente, CA

No national standards or guidelines dictate RWT facility design. Guidance must be pieced together from standards related to shared use paths, pedestrian facilities, railroad facilities, and/or roadway crossings of railroad rights-of-way. Useful documents include the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, the AASHTO Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities (1999), Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) publications for trails and pedestrian facilities, and numerous Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) documents.

Trail designers should work closely with railroad operations and maintenance staff to achieve a suitable RWT design. The research in this report has shown that well-designed RWTs meet the operational needs of railroads, often providing benefits in the form of reduced trespassing and dumping. A poorly designed RWT will compromise safety and function for both trail users and the railroad.

Setback distance
The term "setback" refers to the distance between the paved edge of a RWT and the centerline of the closest active railroad track. Although RWTs are currently operating along train corridors of varying types, speeds, and frequencies, there is simply no consensus on an appropriate setback recommendation. Thus, trail planners should incorporate into the feasibility study an analysis of technical factors relating to setback distance. These factors should include:

    • Type, speed, and frequency of trains in the corridor
    • Separation technique
    • Topography
    • Sight distance
    • Maintenance requirements
    • Historical problems.

Another determining factor may be corridor ownership. Trails proposed for privately-owned property, particularly on Class I railroad property, will have to comply with the railroad's own standards.

Trail planners need to be aware that the risk of injury should a train derail will be high, even for slow-moving trains. Discussions about liability assignment need to factor this into consideration. For example, a RWT in a constrained area along a low frequency and speed train could be located as close as 3 m (10 ft) from the track centerline assuming that (a) the agency indemnifies the railroad for all RWT-related incidents, (b) separation (e.g., fencing or solid barrier) is provided, (c) the railroad has no plans for additional tracks or sidings that would be impacted by the RWT, and (d) the RWT is available to the railroad for routine and emergency access. In contrast, along a high-speed line located on private property, the railroad may require 15.2 m (50 ft) or more setback or not allow the trail at all.

Because every case is different, the setback distance should be determined on a case-by-case basis after engineering analysis and liability assumption discussions. The minimum setback distance ranges from 3 m (10 ft) to 7.6 m (25 ft), depending on the circumstances. In many cases, additional setback distance may be recommended. The lower setback distances may be acceptable to the railroad company or agency, RWT agency, and design team in such cases as constrained areas, along relatively low speed and frequency lines, and in areas with a history of trespassing where a trail might help alleviate a current problem. The presence of vertical separation or techniques such as fencing or walls may also allow for narrower setback.

This refers to the treatment of the space between a RWT and the closest active railroad tracks, including fences, vegetation, ditches, and other items. Over 70 percent of existing RWTs utilize fencing and other barriers (vegetation, vertical grade, walls, and/or drainage ditches) for separation from adjacent active railroads and other properties. Fencing style varies considerably, from chain link to wire, wrought iron, vinyl, steel picket, and wooden rail.

From the trail manager perspective, fencing is considered a mixed blessing. Installing and maintaining fencing is expensive. Improperly maintained fencing is a higher liability risk than no fencing at all. In all but the most heavily-constructed fencing, vandals find ways to cut, climb, or otherwise overcome fences to reach their destinations. Fencing may detract from the aesthetic quality of a trail.

To the extent possible, RWT planners should adhere to railroad company's request or requirements for fencing. Except where a railroad company has requested something different, RWTs should be separated by a fence or other separation technique when less than 7.6 m (25 ft) exists between the trail and a track with moderate or high train speed and frequency.

The point at which trails cross active tracks is the area of greatest concern to railroads, trail planners, and trail users. When it is necessary to intersect a trail with an active railway, there are three options: an at-grade crossing, a below-grade (underpass) crossing, or an above-grade (overpass) crossing.

At-Grade Crossings

With many railroads actively working to close existing at-grade roadway-track crossings, consistent with U.S. Department of Transportation policy, new at-grade crossings will be difficult to obtain. Each trail-rail intersection is unique; most locations will require engineering analysis and consultation with existing design standards and guidelines. Issues that should be considered include:

    • Train frequency and speed
    • Location of the crossing
    • Specific geometrics of the site (angle of the crossing, approach grades, sight distance)
    • Crossing surface
    • Nighttime illumination
    • Types of warning devices (passive and/or active)

Grade-Separated Crossings

Overpasses and underpasses are expensive and typically are installed in limited circumstances, such as locations where an at-grade crossing would be extremely dangerous due to frequent and/or high speed trains, limited sight distances, or other conditions. However, grade-separated crossings eliminate conflicts at trail-rail crossings by completely separating the trail user from the active rail line.

Issues to consider include:

    • Existing and future railroad operations: Bridges and underpasses must be designed to meet the operational needs of the railroad both in present and future conditions. Trail bridges should be constructed to meet required minimum train clearances and the structural requirements of the rail corridor.
    • Safety and security of the facility: Dark, isolated underpasses that are hidden from public view can attract illegal activity. Underpasses should be designed to be as short as possible to increase the amount of light in the underpass.
    • Maintenance: The decision to install a bridge or underpass should be made in full consideration of the additional maintenance thes facilities require.

Other Design Issues

A whole host of other design issues that must be considered in RWT design include:

    • RWT-roadway crossings
    • Utilities
    • Future tracks and sidings
    • Trestles and bridges
    • Tunnels
    • Environmental constraints
    • Trailheads and parking areas
    • Landscaping
    • Drainage
    • Lighting
    • Signs and marking


Once a rail-with-trail is constructed, trail maintenance and operations should minimize impacts on railroad companies and offer a safe and pleasant use experience. Rail operation divisions, engineers, and signalmen should be invited for technical discussions and advice in the feasibility analysis phase of a RWT.

RWT proponents should consider the maintenance and access needs of the railroad operator in the alignment and design of the RWT. In areas with narrower than 7.6 m (25 ft) setback, the trail likely will be used as a shared maintenance road. In all cases, the railroad should be provided adequate room and means for access to and maintenance of its tracks and other facilities. The feasibility study and easement/license agreement also should identify the designs and costs of any improvements that would become the responsibility of the RWT agency.

Trail managers should develop a phasing and management plan and program for the RWT. Trail managers should consult with railroad engineering and operating departments to determine the appropriate steps, approvals, permits, designs, and other requirements. They should ensure that the proposed RWT does not increase railroad employee stress or decrease their safety. An education and outreach plan should be part of the trail plan.

Trail managers should provide supplemental information through maps, bicycle rental and support services, trail user groups, and other avenues. Trail managers should also develop, in coordination with local law enforcement and the railroad, a security and enforcement plan and develop and post RWT user regulations.

Based on the lessons learned in this study, it is clear that well-designed RWTs can bring numerous benefits to communities and railroads alike. RWTs are not appropriate in every situation, and should be carefully studied through a feasibility analysis. Working closely with railroad companies and other stakeholders is crucial to a successful RWT. Trail proponents need to understand railroad concerns, expansion plans, and operating practices. They also need to assume the liability burden for projects proposed on private railroad property. Limiting new and/or eliminating at-grade trail-rail crossings, setting trails back as far as possible from tracks, and providing physical separation through fencing, vertical distance, vegetation, and/or drainage ditches can help create a well-designed trail. Trail planners need to work closely with railroad agencies and companies to develop strong maintenance and operations plans, and educate the public about the dangers of trespassing on tracks.

Railroads companies, for their part, need to understand the community desire to create safe walking and bicycling spaces. They can derive many benefits from RWT projects in terms of reduced trespassing, dumping, and vandalism, as well as financial compensation. Together, trail proponents and railroad companies can help strengthen available legal protections, trespassing laws and enforcement, seek new sources of funding to improve railroad safety, and keep the railroad industry thriving and expanding in its freight and passenger service to this country.

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