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How railroad abandonments work

Standards and procedures governing abandonments from the agency responsible for railroad legal issues and rail corridors, the Surface Transportation Board.

From the Surface Transportation Board, Washington DC
Download full docuent (pdf 124 kb): OVERVIEW: Abandonments and Alternatives to Abandonments, 1997

By the mid-1970's, our nation's rail transportation system was in dire financial condition. Rail carriers were faced with increased competition from other modes of transportation (especially trucking), rising labor, fuel and maintenance expenses, and pervasive regulation that made it difficult for rail carriers to get rid of unprofitable lines. These conditions had contributed to the bankruptcy of several prominent rail carriers.

Against this background, Congress enacted a series of new laws, most notably the Staggers Rail Act of 1980 (Staggers Act). Together with the implementing regulations issued by the Interstate Commerce Commission, the STB's predecessor, this legislation sought to increase the role of the marketplace, rather than government regulation, in shaping rail transportation. In essence, the Staggers Act gave railroads more flexibility to set prices and adjust service as the market requires and thus enabled them to act more competitively. At the same time, the necessity for some regulatory protection was recognized because rail carriers still have significant market power in particular situations and because rail transportation is sometimes vital to the public. The current regulatory scheme governing abandonments and acquisitions to preserve service seeks to balance these competing considerations.

Where the market has spoken clearly and regulation is found to be unnecessary, a rail carrier may usually abandon a line, subject to appropriate labor protection and environmental conditions. Indeed, lines over which no local traffic has moved for two years without any formal complaint have been exempted from traditional regulatory scrutiny and can be abandoned simply by filing a notice with the STB.

Under the more detailed abandonment application process for active lines, the Board balances the economic burden of continued operation against the public's need for the service. Permission usually will be given to abandon lines on which there are significant operating losses. On the other hand, the carrier's ability to earn more money by disinvesting from a line and reinvesting its assets elsewhere usually is not sufficient to allow abandonment in the face of a strong public need for service.

Although it may be easier for carriers to abandon unprofitable rail lines, it is also now much easier for States and private parties to preserve rail service. The Feeder Railroad Development Program enables any financially responsible person to force a rail carrier to sell a line that has been designated for possible abandonment, even though no abandonment application has been filed. Similarly, once an abandonment application is filed for a line, financially responsible parties can offer to subsidize the carrier's service or force the railroad to sell them the line for continued rail service. To encourage entrepreneurs and the States to operate these lines, the Board has frequently exempted them from many regulatory requirements. Also, they can often avoid expensive labor protective conditions.

With this general background, we will first set out the standards and procedures that govern formal applications to abandon a line (Part II). We will then discuss exemptions, a widely used alternative to the more detailed abandonment application process (Part III). Several alternative ways of preserving rail service will be reviewed (Part IV), including the purchase or subsidy of lines slated for abandonment. The role labor plays in these cases will be examined (Part V). Finally, we explore alternative means of preserving rail rights-of-way through rail banking (Part VI).

In 1995, Congress enacted the "ICC Termination Act" which abolished the Interstate Commerce Commission and established the Surface Transportation Board to handle rail abandonments, inter alia. The new statutory reference is 49 U.S.C. 10903. The new rules are codified at 49 CFR Parts 1105 and 1152. A quick summary of the changes to 49 CFR 1152, which became effective on January 23, 1997, is included at Appendix I. The full text of the new rule is at Appendix IV.


Under the ICC Termination Act of 1995 (Act), a railroad may abandon a line only with the STB's permission. The Board must determine whether the "present or future public convenience and necessity require or permit" the abandonment. In making this determination, the Board balances two competing factors. The first is the need of local communities and shippers for continued service. That need is balanced against the broader public interest in freeing railroads from financial burdens that are a drain on their overall financial health and lessen their ability to operate economically elsewhere.

The railroad first must show how continued operation of the line would be a burden to it. If it cannot establish this, the abandonment will be denied. However, the railroad does not have to show an actual operating loss. It may also calculate its "opportunity costs" for the line. These are the costs of tying up the railroad's assets in the line when those assets could earn more money elsewhere.

If the railroad does demonstrate a burden, then evidence of the public's need for continued service is examined. The effect on local businesses, surrounding communities, the local economy, and the environment may be considered. Parties opposing abandonment should present that evidence and should also challenge the railroad's financial data.

Download full docuent (pdf 124 kb): OVERVIEW: Abandonments and Alternatives to Abandonments, 1997

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