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Railroad rail: should it be preserved on rail trails?

The myth of preserving "historic" railroad rail debunked.

Opinion by Craig Della Penna

Map of Texas

In some instances when the rails are left in place, and paved over for roads, it is because of laziness or institutional inertia-- dating from the 1930s. I estimate that as recently as 1985, there were over 100 miles of roads where former trolley tracks and in some cases, steam railroad tracks were still in place in Massachusetts. Of course the washboard soon develops, but that adds to our New England quaintness-- right?

In some places, and I know of four where this is the case, the argument for keeping the tracks in place, but buried is usually based on specious arguments like "historic preservation."

The argument is usually brought forth in this fashion; "The trail is a great idea, but preserving the historic rail infrastructure underneath it, (so the railroad might one day come back) takes precedence over the trail idea." "If we take out the rail, it will never be able to come back." "However, we'll let you bury it for a trail--until we need the corridor for something important again--like a railroad."

I know this argument was used in NJ and I think LA too.

Here's a couple of givens.

1. There is no such thing as historic rail anymore. The REALLY historic stuff was the iron straps bolted onto Chestnut or Oak beams and that hasn't been around since before the civil war. At the joint between two sections of rail will be the weight of the rail (per 3 foot increments-- usually 78-105 lbs for branchline steam RR corridors) and a date of manufacture. Sometimes the name of the manufacturer or the original owning RR is evident too.

2. Burying a rail corridor WILL expedite the deterioration and failure of both the ties and the rail making the rebuild of the trail a necessity earlier than a normal trail.

3. The rebuild of rail infrastructure to a relatively high speed (60 mph) with modern signals and stations for a commuter rail is averaging around $6 million a mile in southern New England with one unusual situation where the buildout is coming in around $20+ million a mile. In no place does it make a bit of difference if the rail was there or not. EVERYTHING is replaced. Soup to nuts.

4 In a true market-- not influenced by nonsensical specious arguments, the cost of scrap will immediately dictate who takes out the rails. If the price of scrap is low, usually the trail group or government takes out the rails. (a cash negative experience) If the price of scrap is high, then the railroad takes out the rails. (a cash positive experience)

5. I don't think any trail planned to be finished to high degree using TE funds AND envisions burying the rail, can pass the muster of probably the state DOT overseers and most certainly the FHWA oversight process. If you are planning to use local funds, then you might be able to get it done.

6. Projects that make it through the planning process alive with this sort of idea still in place only get that far because no one speaks up to compellingly address the true absurdity of the situation.

Craig Della Penna, Innkeeper

Sugar Maple Trailside Inn

62 Chestnut Street

Northampton, MA 01062

Home office: 413-585-8559

E mail:


September 2004

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