Why It Makes Sense to Add Biking and Walking Routes Along Active Rail Lines

Despite high train frequency, southeastern Pennsylvania's Schuylkill River Trail -- 60 miles long and about to double in length -- provides a stress-free biking and walking experience. All photos from ##http://www.railstotrails.org/ourWork/reports/railwithtrail/report.html##RTC##
Despite high train frequency, southeastern Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill River Trail — 60 miles long and about to double in length — provides a stress-free biking and walking experience. All photos from RTC

This post is part of a series featuring stories and research that will be presented at the Pro-Walk/Pro-Bike/Pro-Place conference September 8-11 in Pittsburgh.

You’ve heard of rail-trails — abandoned rail lines that have been turned into multi-use paths for biking and walking. There are more than 21,000 miles of rail-trails across the country, in urban, suburban, and rural areas.

But these trails don’t need to be built on the graves of defunct rail lines. A growing number of them, in fact, are constructed next to active rail lines. In 1996, there were slightly less than 300 miles of these trails. Today there are about 1,400 miles.

Railroads tend to be skittish about approving walking and biking routes because they fear liability if someone gets injured. Even so, 43 percent of rails-with-trails, as they’re known, are located wholly within railroad rights-of-way, while another 12 percent have some segments inside the right-of-way. So negotiating with railroads — from Class I freight railroads to urban light rail operators — is possible, if you know how to approach them.

At the Pro-Walk Pro-Bike conference in Pittsburgh next month, Kelly Pack of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy will be joined by Thomas Baxter of Pittsburgh’s Friends of the Riverfront and Jerry Walls, who chairs the board of the SEDA-COG joint rail authority in central Pennsylvania, to give tips on how to create new rails-with-trails.

While railroads are wary of opening up space near tracks to people walking and biking, there are ways to get through to them. And if advocates in your area aren’t convinced that walking and biking alongside a noisy railroad track is such a great idea, there are arguments to address their perspective, too. Here are eight great things about rails-with-trails.

Most trails, like the West Rail Line Bike Path in Colorado, have fences or another physical barrier for safety.
Most trails, like the West Rail Line Bike Path in Colorado, have fences or another physical barrier for safety.

They help railroads reduce one of their most vexing safety problems: trespassing. By planning for mobility along and even across railroad tracks, railroads can help prevent some of the 430 fatalities that occur each year when people cross tracks where they shouldn’t. In its comprehensive study of rails-with-trails, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy found only one record of a fatality (and two injuries) on such facilities in 20 years:

This suggests that providing a well-designed pathway dedicated for cyclists and pedestrians provides a safe travel alternative and reduces the incentive to trespass or use the tracks as a shortcut. Such pathways often include some form of barrier between the trail and the active railway, and carefully-planned intersections if the trail crosses the tracks.

Rather than fear the liability associated with permitting a trail along an active rail corridor, railroads should embrace them as a safety measure, as they help control crossings, making them safer and more predictable. “That is the biggest selling point for railroads,” said Jerry Walls of SEDA-COG. Many railroads have prohibitions on new at-grade crossings that slow trains down and introduce the possibility of injury. Where trail managers can’t find a way to get a safe at-grade crossing approved, they can build grade-separated crossings. While costly, these create valuable connections for pedestrians and prevent headaches for the railroads.

They’re perfect places to walk and bike. These rights-of-way have gentle grades that are easy and accessible for all trail users, says Kelly Pack of RTC. They also tend to be contiguous and uninterrupted, with fewer street crossings than normal trails or on-road facilities. And though nearly 60 percent of existing trails are within 30 feet of the tracks, at least 70 percent of them have physical barriers separating them from the tracks.

They’re natural transportation connections, ideally suited to both recreational and utilitarian biking and walking. By following a railroad corridor, rail-trails add a mobility option to an established route between destinations that have grown up around the rail line. Thomas Baxter says the Three Rivers Trail in Pittsburgh was initially mostly used for recreational biking, but more and more commuters are on the trail.

I have the chance to walk San Clemente, California's rail-trail
The San Clemente, California, rail-trail (which I get to walk every time I visit my in-laws).

They enhance transit by improving access. “As more cities and communities develop their transit infrastructure, trails often go hand in hand with light rail,” said Kelly Pack of RTC, “so you have the ability to get people to transit hubs and stations by bike or by foot. Increasing the multimodal network is a goal of many communities.”

They can be simpler to build than other trails. As Walls noted, “It is a whole lot easier to work with one property owner that controls the entire length of what you’re trying to develop as a trail than to work with hundreds of property owners.” Even when that one owner is a nervous freight railroad.

In many places, there aren’t a lot of trains going by. About 40 percent of these trails see no more than five trains pass per day, and in some cases the frequency is no more than one per week.

In some places, there are lots of trains going by. “You get to experience from close up the magic of transport,” Pack said. “A lot of times we see kids out there with their parents, and when the trains come by they stop and stare. It’s an exciting thing to see a train up that close.” Walls agrees. “I’ve watched people line up where there’s good vantage points to watch for trains while they’re on a bicycle,” he said.

They utilize antiquated infrastructure. Many rail-trails — including the C&O Canal Towpath that stretches from the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC, to Cumberland, Maryland, 185 miles away — are built on the towpaths of old canals. Those are paths where oxen would walk, pulling barges behind them. Suffice it to say, transportation has advanced since those days and the oxen are out of work. Railroads often took over those canal corridors. Jerry Walls said SEDA-COG is in the process of conveying their towpath to the North Branch Canal Trail. “We don’t need that,” he said. “But we’re going to keep the canal bed itself as a safety barrier adjacent to our railroad.” Asking just for the towpath and not the canal is a good approach to take with railroads, he counsels.

RTC’s report on rails-with-trails is an excellent resource for communities interested in how to acquire the right-of-way for a trail along an active rail corridor, complete with case studies of some of the country’s successful rail-trails.

26 thoughts on Why It Makes Sense to Add Biking and Walking Routes Along Active Rail Lines

  1. Bikeways along passenger railways are a great way to increase accessibility to stations.


    The Ohlone Greenway is a walking/biking path that follows BART’s ROW through several East Bay cities but due to relatively infrequent stations some points of the ROW are over a mile from the nearest actual station. Add in a residence a quarter or half mile from the ROW itself and it starts getting a bit long for many to walk. Yet biking the distance is easy and fast, especially due to the separated bikeway.

    At least as far as passenger rail is concerned bike infrastructure alongside can be a crucial ridership booster.

  2. Just today I was thinking that the space between the LIRR Babylon Branch and Sunrise Highway would make an excellent multi-use path. In a couple of places there’s even abandoned overpasses that are a little more than one track wide, ideal for crossing difficult intersections.

  3. Great article! A lot of towns were founded on railroad corridors in the past century which, in turn, could be featured by interpretive history signage along a proposed Rail-“With”-Trail (RWT) route creating civic pride and increased tourism. Check out a RWT concept that I visioned in my home parish in Louisiana, “The Tangi Trail,” that is gaining ground:

  4. This sounds like a great idea to me. Flat, easy to navigate, and doesn’t require lots of new infrastructure or disturbance of old infrastructure.

  5. Yes! Another wonderful benefit of railway corridors is that they rarely intersect with roads, which means these bike trails don’t set you up for intersection conflicts like cycletracks and bike lanes do.

    I learned how to bike on a rail-trail and found it safe and pleasant. They’re good for recreational and transportation cycling alike.

  6. Terrific article but I don’t think oxen pulled many canal boats. It was mules that did that work (“I’ve got a mule and her name is Sal…”).

  7. The photo brings back memories of a train excursion to Ojai in Oct. 1968–good timing, because the track was washed out in 1969 and never rebuilt.

  8. “….not rails with trails and I would much rather ride on a rails-to-trails……” I think she was referring this as “rail-trails”. As stated above, “You’ve heard of rail-trails — abandoned rail lines that have been turned into multi-use paths for biking and walking.” Clearly still incorrect but maybe a little less so?

    And props to Rails to Trails Conservancy! They were rolling a heck of a long time earlier than the blogosphere (’86) and still going strong I might add! Oh and since I’m on this correction roll, I might add that it’s 23,000 miles.

    (And sorry for any of my grammatical errors ~;^))

  9. No, “Rails-“With”-Trails is correct, as what this article is referring- a trail within an “active” railroad corridor. Rails-“To”-Trails are trails along “abandoned” railroad corridors, aka, the railroad line is not present.

  10. Fantastic article, Streetsblog! Here in Albany, NY we’re engaged in an advocacy effort to ensure bike and pedestrian access is preserved when the Livingston Avenue Rail Bridge, across the Hudson River, is rebuilt as part of New York’s High Speed Rail Plan. The bridge was built with a walkway (it closed due to neglect decades ago) and a coalition of 40 organizations is asking state DOT, Federal Rail, Amtrak, and CSX to support bike and pedestrian connections across the replacement bridge. Folks can read more at our website. http://livingstonavebridge.com/

  11. I would personally rather use a path next to a RR than a freeway, or even a busy arterial street. An occasional train can be a welcome distraction as opposed to the constant drone and whine of traffic.

  12. Yup! On the Ohlone Greenway pictured above sometimes a train speeding by above can be a bit startling for a moment but it’s definitely nothing like a freeway.

    In the grand scheme of things an occasional train isn’t that big a deal. An example from a high-speed intercity railside bikeway in the Netherlands:

  13. Rail-to-trails and rails-with-trails are great at times but I find them too damned flat and boring! My butt gets so sore riding in the same gear at 16mph in the same position for hours at a time. I’d much rather ride on a quite or not so quite road with some topographical variety than a rail-trail for long stretches.

    I’m not against them but lets not forget about safe access to our public roadways as well.

  14. This is a very important project. This bridge can benefit both Amtrak service (currently 12 trains daily) and everyone who wants to cross the river…

    …including people getting off at Albany’s Amtrak station, which is on the far side of the river from Albany. The pedestrian / bike walkway is therefore a direct enhancement to passenger rail service, which is worth pointing out to Amtrak and NYSDOT.

  15. Looks like I now have a groupie.

    Now, that is entertaining – following me like a puppy and posting unrelated comments.

    Shucks, I’m honored.

  16. its because you are soooo interesting and fascinating. A sexist pig like you must have dozens of followers with your irreverent and witty retorts.

  17. Does it run continuously from Ventura to Ojai as a dedicated trail, or does it go on-road in sections?

  18. There’s maybe 200 yrds +/- in Ventura that you have to ride on the road but other then that it’s a dedicated trail. It does cross the roads in a few areas but that’s only in a handful of places.

  19. When in that meeting in Pittsburgh, push for a trail along the railroad tracks in Hyndman, PA that links to the the Great Allegheny Passage in Sand Patch, PA. That would help the small town of Hyndman.

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