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A "rail to trail" in Germany
A rail trail is the conversion of a disused railway easement into a multi-use path, typically for walking, cycling and sometimes horse riding. The characteristics of former tracks—flat, long, frequently running through historical areas—are appealing for various development. The term sometimes also covers trails running alongside working railways; these are called "rails with trails". Some shared trails are segregated, with the segregation achieved with or without separation. Many rail trails are long distance trails.

A rail to trail may still include rails, such as light rail or streetcar. By virtue of their characteristic shape (long and flat), some shorter rails to trails are known as greenways and linear parks.

History

United States

In North America, the decades-long consolidation of the rail industry led to the closure of a number of uneconomical branch lines in the 1960s. Some were maintained as short line railways, but many others were abandoned.

Beginning with a few lines in the Midwestern United States, these disused industrial relics were turned into ecological areas functioning as linear parks or community space, but mainly as non-motorized transportation or recreation corridors for walking, hiking, bicycling, horse riding, birdwatching, etc.

By the 1970s, even main lines were being sold or abandoned. This was especially true when regional rail lines merged and streamlined their operations. As both the supply of potential trails increased and awareness of the possibilities rose, state governments, municipalities, conservation authorities and private organizations bought the rail corridors to create, expand or link greenspaces. The first abandoned rail corridor in the United States converted into a recreational trail was the Elroy-Sparta State Trail in Wisconsinmarker, which opened in 1965. The following year the Illinois Prairie Path opened. The longest developed rail trail is currently the 225-mile Katy Trail in Missourimarker; when complete, the Cowboy Trail in Nebraskamarker will extend for 321 miles.

The conversion of rails to trails hastened with the federal government passing legislation promoting the use of railbanking for abandoned railroad corridors. This process would preserve rail corridors for possible future rail use with interim use as a trail.

Australia

The development of rail trails in southeastern Australia can be traced to the gold rushes of the second half of the 19th century. Dozens of rail lines sprang up, aided by the overly enthusiastic "Octopus Act", but soon became unprofitable as the gold ran out, leading to a decreased demand for timber in turn. Decades later, these easements found a new use as tourist drawcards, once converted to rail trails. Dozens exist in some form, but only a few — such as the 95 kilometre Murray to the Mountains Rail Trail — have been fully developed. Progress is frequently hampered by trestle bridges in unsafe condition, easements that have been sold off to farmers, and lack of funds. Funding is typically contributed in roughly equal parts from federal, state and local governments, with voluntary labour and in kind donations contributed by local groups.

New Zealand

A number of rail trails have been established through New Zealand, the most well known are the Otago Central Rail Trail and the Little River Rail Trail. The National Cycleway Project, which is a Government-led initiative, will greatly accelerate the establishment of new trails. The first seven projects (not all of them rail trails, though) were announced in July 2009 and will receive $9 million in funding of the total project budget of $50 million.

Other countries

There are tens of thousands of miles and thousands of rail trails in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and many other countries. The main factor restricting the potential scope of the movement is the lack of abandoned or surplus rail lines in continental Europe, though abandoned canal towpaths are readily available and used for similar purposes.

Conversion issues

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Rail trail conversions can be complex for legal, social and economic reasons. Railroads in North America were often built with a mix of purchased land, government land grants, and easements. The land deeds can be over a hundred years old, land grants might be conditional upon continuous operation of the line and easements may have expired, all expensive and difficult issues to determine at law.

Railroad property rights have often been poorly defined and sporadically enforced, with neighboring property owners intentionally or accidentally using land they do not own. Such encroachers often later oppose a rail to trail conversion. Even residents who are not encroaching on railway lands may oppose conversion on the grounds of increased foot traffic in the area and its perceived decline of personal security.

Because linear corridors of land are only valuable if they are intact, special laws regulate the abandonment of a railroad corridor. In the United States, the Surface Transportation Board regulates railroads, and can allow a corridor to be "rail banked" or placed on hold for possible conversion back to active status when or if future need demands.

While many rail trails have been built, many more potential trails have been squashed by community opposition. The stature of the conversion organization, the quality of involvement of the local community, and government willingness are all keys factor in the successful acceptance of a trail.

Typical features

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Most original rail lines were surveyed for ease of transport and gentle (often less than 2%) grades. Therefore, the rail trails that succeeded them are often fairly straight and ideally suited to overcome steep or awkward terrain such as hills, escarpments, rivers, swamps, etc. Rail trails often share space with linear utilities such as pipeline, electrical transmission wires and telephone lines.

Most purchase of railway land is dictated by the free market value of the land, so that land in urban and industrial cores is often impractical to purchase and convert. Therefore, rail trails may end on the fringes of urban areas or near industrial areas and resume later, as discontinuous portions of the same rail line, separated by unaffordable or inappropriate land.

A railroad right-of-way width varies based on the terrain, with 30 m or 100 ft being amply wide enough where little surface grading is required. The initial 705 mile or 1135 km stretch of the Illinois Central Railroad is the most liberal in the world with a width of 200 ft or 60m along the whole length of the line. Rail trails are often graded and covered in gravel or crushed stone, although some are paved with asphalt and others are left as dirt. Where rail bridges are incorporated into the trail, the only alterations (if any) tend to be adding solid walking areas on top of ties or trestles. If paved, they are especially suitable for people in wheelchairs.

Where applicable, the same trails used in the summer for walking, jogging and inline skating can be used in the winter for Nordic skiing, snowshoeing and sometimes snowmobiling.

Railbanking

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Railbanking is preserving railroad rights-of-way for possible future use. Railbanking leaves the tracks, bridges, and other infrastructure intact, relieving the railroad operating company from responsibility of maintenance and taxation. Often the tracks are put in custody of a state transportation agency, who then seeks a new operator for possible rehab or reactivation. This helps ensure the possibilty of future restored rail service when new economic conditions may warrant resuming operation. With environmental laws as they are, the restoration of railroad tracks upon a right-of-way that has been stripped is very difficult, requiring a lengthy process of environmental impact reports and permitting process. Once tracks have been stripped from a right of way and conversion to recreational trail is complete, there is little likelihood that rail service will ever be restored.

Another means to accomplish this is by using them as multi-use trails. Many railroads are not built on land that is actually owned by the railroad company, but is simply an easement. The terms of the easement often require that the land continue to be used for transportation, or it will revert to the property owner; railbanking often satisfies these conditions, keeping the corridor intact in case future conditions promote the reversion to rails. However, conversion back to an active railroad can face opposition due to local special interest group attachment (usually in cooperation with local political might as well) to a multi-use trail. As a result modern railroads are often hesitant to railbank a line as a rail trail.

The land over which railways pass may often have many different owners — private, rail operator or governmental — and, depending on the terms under which it was originally acquired, the type of operating rights may also vary. Without Rail Banking, on closure, some parts of a railway's route might otherwise revert to the former owner. The owner could reuse them for whatever purpose he chose (for example, for building) or modify the ground conditions (remove embankments or fill-in cuttings), potentially prejudicing the line's future reuse if required.

A single section of a route changed in this way could have serious consequences for the viability of a restoration of a service, with the costs of repurchasing the land or right-of-way or of restoring the site to its former condition outweighting the economic benefit. Over the full length of a railway's route with many different owners the reopening costs could be considerable.

By designating the route as a Rail Bank, these complications are avoided and the cost of maintaining a right-of-way are removed from the railway operator. In the United States land transferred to Rail Banks is held by the state or federal governments and many Rail Banks have been reused as Rail Trails.

In the United Kingdom, thousands of miles of railway were closed under the Beeching Axe cuts in the 1960s and whilst a few of these routes have subsequently been reopened, none were formally treated as Land Banks in the US manner. The Beeching closures were driven by the government's desire to reduce expenditure on railways, and so most lines were offered for sale to the highest bidder, a process which frequently led to great fragmentation in the ownership of former UK railway lines.

List of rail trails completed and proposed

This features an extensive list of completed, proposed, and those under construction.

See also





References

  1. http://www.railtrails.org.au/documents/Rail_Trail_Establishment_Guidelines.pdf
  2. http://www.tourism.govt.nz/Our-Work/New-Zealand-Cycleway-Project/New-Zealand-Cycleway-Quick-Start-Tracks/


External links

United States



Canada



Europe



Australia



New Zealand

  • Central Otago Rail Trail The official website for the Otago Central Rail Trail. The 150 km Otago Central Rail Trail thrusts deep into the heart of Central Otago, the only region in New Zealand with a continental climate; a magical stage for amazing performances by all four seasons.



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