I'm all about the mission of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. I'm a member. I wear the T-shirt and everything. Yet, in the back of my mind, there has always been this voice saying, "what about the railroads?" The total railroad track mileage in the United States has dropped from a peak of 260,000 miles in the 1930s to under 100,000 miles today. I suppose as long as these are simply abandoned, multi-use trails are great alternative, particularly if they can serve important transportation corridors, but we may just need that track again if we need to put together a sustainable intercity transportation system.
That's why I've been getting more excited about the prospect of Rails-with-trails. This concept uses the valuable right-of-way leased to the railroad company to run a trail alongside the tracks. This is one way a trail can be get built in areas where land acquisition costs are prohibitively high, or there isn't much public interest in running easements through private property. Less commonly, this could occur if rail gets built alongside an existing trail. I believe many of the tracks donated by railroad companies to rails-to-trails come with some kind reclamation clause, in case adding more line becomes viable again. It would be good to be prepared for this occasion.
The unfortunate purple line dispute happening on the Maryland side of the DC metro area right now is essentially a question about rails with trails. Opponents of the line do not want to lose any of the Capital Crescent Trail, while purple line advocates respond that both can coexist.
The U.S. DOT conducted a pretty thorough study of rails-with-trails in 2002, in order to determine how safe they actually are and hammer out some design standards. Although liability is still a live issue for railroad companies, there are many strategies, such as fencing or creating a buffer, to mitigate the risk.
From the report:
"Based on the lessons learned in this study, it is clear that well-designed RWTs can bring numerous benefits to communities and railroads alike. RWTs are not appropriate in every situation, and should be carefully studied through a feasibility analysis. Working closely with railroad companies and other stakeholders is crucial to a successful RWT. Trail proponents need to understand railroad concerns, expansion plans, and operating practices. They also need to assume the liability burden for projects proposed on private railroad property. Limiting new and/or eliminating at-grade trail-rail crossings, setting trails back as far as possible from tracks, and providing physical separation through fencing, vertical distance, vegetation, and/or drainage ditches can help create a well-designed trail. Trail planners need to work closely with railroad agencies and companies to develop strong maintenance and operations plans, and educate the public about the dangers of trespassing on tracks.
Railroad companies, for their part, need to understand the community desire to create safe walking and bicycling spaces. They may be able to derive many benefits from RWT projects in terms of reduced trespassing, dumping, and vandalism, as well as financial compensation. Together, trail proponents and railroad companies can help strengthen available legal protections, trespassing laws and enforcement, seek new sources of funding to improve railroad safety, and keep the railroad industry thriving and expanding in its services (freight and passenger)."