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Rails and trails: an idea whose time has come

Can we preserve railroad corridors for railroad use as well as trails?

By Michael Rowe, Boulder Rail Preservation Activist

graphic: Typical cross-section of a rail with trail project
Typical cross-section of a rail with trail project

I confess! I am a rail preservationist! Now, before all you tried-and-true trail folks run for your shotguns, I'd like you to pause and hear me out!

As of March, 1992, there are already some 5,000 miles of rail-trails for which nationwide rail-trail festivities are planned in October. That is a commendable accomplishment, except that it means 5,000 miles of rail have been lost from America's transportation infrastructure.

"I would like to suggest a new way to look at the preservation of rail corridors while opening them to trail construction, mass transit, and recreational use."

I doubt there is a single reader who doesn't deplore the proliferation of highways, autos, trucks, and air pollution. Yet, we have discarded 5,000 miles of useable rail corridor and also lost a corresponding opportunity to use clean, energy-efficient forms of transportation to help address our transportation problems.

I would like to suggest a new way to look at endangered rail corridors: the multiple-use concept which insures the preservation of rail corridors while opening them to trail construction, mass transit, and recreational use.

The average rail corridor is 100' wide. The rail system itself utilizes only about a dozen feet in the middle of that corridor. That leaves almost 90' of available right-of-way without use except to grow sunflowers. These corridors, ranging from a few hundred feet to a few hundred miles in length, connect communities and states all over America.

The economic realities of operating a modern railroad say that you must ship one freight car per week per mile of track to make a rail line economically viable. A variety of factors have made many secondary rail lines all over the country less than viable, as shippers have abandoned (often foolishly) rails in favor of trucks.

In the past, railroads tore up the rails and allowed ownership of the right of way to lapse into the hands of adjacent landowners. In some cases rail-trails were born. When this happens, on-line shippers who still rely on rail service suffer and economic development opportunities are lost.

Perhaps more critically, important potential transitways are lost as well. Witness Los Angeles County, which just paid over $450 million for under 150 miles of commercial rail lines for commuter rail service. Just 30 years ago they discarded the last remnants of the world's most fabulous light-rail system, the Pacific Electric, which had operated hundreds of miles of high-speed trolley and interurban lines in Los Angeles. Those rights of way were swallowed up by surrounding development or lost to freeways.

Fortunately, major railroads have come to realize that unprofitable rail lines have an inherent value and have begun to sell such lines with rail intact. Many go to "short line" operators who, unburdened with cumbersome union rules and lacking the high overhead of the major railroads, can turn a profit. Some lines are sold to local economic development agencies and others become part of local public transit systems. All of them represent an untapped opportunity for multiple use, including trail construction.

Forget building trails along a major railroad's principle corridors! Major railroads are generally self-insured and are naturally slightly paranoid about liability implications of a public trail running along their corridors. Not so the short line operators, economic development agencies, and public transportation operations who must use commercial insurance providers. It is relatively easy (and cheap) to add a "rider" to an insurance policy to cover the additional liability exposure that a trail in a rail corridor would present. Of course, the public entity building the trail would have to pay for that coverage. If the corridor is owned/operated by a government entity there is already limited liability exposure.

Freight trains can be run at night when trails are not used if there are concerns about the dangers of mixing freight trains with human and equestrian traffic. If the rail corridor is used for high-speed transit purposes, access can be limited by a combination of fencing and landscaping. But a trail along a heavily-used, fast rail line should still be safer than walking on a sidewalk next to automobiles speeding by dozens of times an hour, much less bicycling in the street.

December 2000

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