Abandoned and disused railway tracks across the USA, Over 18,760 km (11,658 miles) of rail-trails

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type of use
Penny Herscovitch

initial cost
Costs vary widely depending on location and length of trail. Sources of funding include: federal, state and local government funding, grants, private partnerships, and community fundraising
operating cost
Trails are owned by the trail agency, but must be maintained from year to year.

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submitted by
tashy endres
submitted on

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web links

Rails to Trails and Rail Banking Program, USA

Conversion of abandoned railcorridors into recreational areas

time frame: varies

initiators: Local communites began to use abandoned railways as trails
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), a non-profit organization, founded in 1986
Rail corridor is usually owned by combination of railway company and various owners of adjacent property, and upon abandonment some parts of corridor may revert to those adjaent landowners.
Generally local, state, or federal government agencies buy corridors from the railroad company and build the trails.
Trails are generally managed by the public agencies, or by nonprofits, land trusts, or community foundations.

users: Trails are open to the public and many are accesible to disabled people

municipal role: Federal government provides funding in the form of grants for trail development.
Local and State government agencies often purchase and manage trail

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Since the 1960s, more than 18,760 km (11,658 miles) of abandoned railway corridors across the United States have been converted to networks of trails for recreation, non-motorized transportation and greenways for wildlife preservation. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), a non-profit organization founded in 1986, promotes policy, funding, action and projects at the national, state and local levels. The trails are purchased from the railway companies and managed by government agencies, nonprofits, land trusts, or community foundations. The railbanking program, created by congressional ammendment in 1983, allows the temporary, though often long-term, use of a disused rail corridor as public trail while maintaining the option of
reactivating the corridor for rail use.

Recreational trails for cycling, running, walking, skiing
Non-motorized transportation
Wildlife preservation corridors


In the 1960s, people spontaneously began to use abandoned railway tracks as trails, especially in the Midwestern part of the U.S. This “Rails-to-Trails” movement became part of the growing grassroots environmental movement, with the shared goals of recycling, land and wildlife conservation and non-automobile transportation. The early 1980s saw a dramatic decline in use of the nation’s railway infrastructure, and in 1983 the U.S. Congress ammended the National Trails System Act to create the railbanking program. The program serves to preserve rail corridors for further transportation use and facilitate temporary, though often long-term, use of the rail corridor as a trail. Since 1986, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), a non-profit organization with more than 100,000 supporters nationwide, has been active in promoting national and state policy, assisting local trail builders and catalyzing their efforts, and  publicizing the trails and greenways movement. The greenways movement, a broader push for preservation and development of linear open spaces along natural or man-made corridors, including abandoned railroad right-of-ways, has been gathering momentum since the early 1990s.



There are currently over 18,760 km (11,658 miles) of trails across rural, suburban and urban U.S. Rail trails are flat or genlty graded, and tracks and equipment are generally removed when the corridor is abandoned by railway company.

Trails are used both by people, for recreation and non-motorized transportation, and as natural refuges for wildlife. Many trails are wheel chair accessible, and possible activities include walking, running, biking, skiing, and horse-back riding. In some cases, trail builders can work out agreements to share the corridors with utility companies, for under- and above-ground water, gas, sewer, telephone, electric or fiber optic lines. Utitility companies can help defray costs to the trail organization in various ways, from donation of the corridor to in-kind services to yearly fees.


When a rail company officially abandons a rail corridor, that corridor will often be broken up legally: some stretches that are owned by the rail company remain in their possesion, while others revert back to adjacent landowners. If this happens, it becomes very complicated for activists and organizations to aquire an abandoned corridor to transform into a trail, because there are so many owners to deal with. Railbanking permits the private or non-profit organization, or public agency, to buy the corridor from the railway company and maintain it for use as a trail, and the railroad company may remove all of its equipment and tracks (except for bridges and tunnels). At any point in the future, the railroad company has the right to re-establish rail service along the corridor, providing that they recompensate the trail group for the property and all improvements made.


Adjacent landowners
+ development and use of land as trails can benefit land values more than a disused railway
+ easy access to recreational facility provided by trail
- fears about use of former rail right-of-way though their property for trails, of people passing through their land

Rail company (owner)
+ Railbanking preserves their right to reactivate rail service along corridor

Trail activists and organizations (sometimes buy and/or manage trail)
+ Railbanking agreement is simpler to coordinate than negotiating purchase of corridor from variety of owners once it has been abandoned
+ many sources of funding and support for rails-to-trails initiatives
- Railway company can buy back the corridor at any time

Government agencies (sometimes buy and/or manage trail)
+ preservation of national/state/local open space and heritage
- responsible for costs and overheard of buying and maintaining trail

The rail-trails stimulate local economies by increasing tourism and attracting businesses, including bike shops, restaurants and other services. They convert abandoned, often littered and overgrown corridors into managed and maintained trails, which provide free recreational and educational opportunities and present local historic landmarks. The creation of greenways through developed areas helps to protect natural environments and preserve wildlife.


Australia (http://www.railtrails.org.au/)
Railstrails Australia is a national organization dedicated to promoting the conversion of parts of the 50,000+ kilometers of publicly and privately owned rail corridors into trails.

Canada (http://www.goforgreen.ca/Greenways/index.html)
Go for Green, a Canadian non-profit organization, promotes recycling of abandoned rails for use as trails, greenways, fibre optic highways, transportation routes and landbanking.

EU  (http://www.aevv-egwa.org/)
The European Greenways Association, formed in 1997, promotes the preservation and development of infrastructures, including disused railway corridors and historic routes, for use as public, non-motorized trails.

Great Britain (http://www.sustrans.org.uk/)
Since the late 1970s, Sustrans, the UK’s sustainable transport charity, has been converting railway lines to trails and working on projects to encourage people to use non-motorized or public forms of transport. With funding from federal and local governments, development agencies, the EU, the cycle industry and private supporters, Sustrans is in the process of building a 10,000 mile (16,093 km) National Cycle Network by 2005.

Spain (http://www.viasverdes.com/)
Since 1993, the Vias Verdes program has converted more than 800 of the 7,000 kilometers of Spain’s abandoned railways, which are mainly public property, into trails. The program, run by the federal Ministry of the Environment in collaboration with RENFE and FEVE (the national rail companies) and local community organizations, attempts to reuse the abandoned infrastructure and provide employment for disenfranchised youth.


Allen, Jeff and Tom Iurino, editors. Acquiring Rail Corridors, A How to Manual. Washington, DC: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, 1996. Printed copies available from Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, call (202) 331-9696 or download it from the Clearinghouse.

Fabos, J.G. and J. Ahern, eds. Greenways: The beginning of an international movement. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts. 1996.

Rails-To-Trails Conservancy (Editor). 1000 Great Rail-Trails: A Comprehensive Directory: The Official Rails-To-Trails Conservancy Directory. Washington DC: The Rails-To-Trails Conservancy. May 2001.

Ryan, Karen-Lee and Julie A. Winterich, editors. Secrets of Successful Rail-Trails, An Acquisition and Organizing Manual for Converting Rails into Trails. Washington, DC: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, 1993. Printed copies available from Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, phone (202) 331-9696 or download it from the Clearinghouse.

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legal: Conversion of rails-to-trails and railbanking are legal, covered by federal legislation under the National Trails System Act as well as individual states’ laws

Washington & Old Dominion Trail, Virginia

Route of the Hiawatha Rail-Trail, Idaho

rails to trails map

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