THE FUTURE OF RAILROADS: Why Rail-To-Trail Conversion Is The Key To Both Eventual Rail Restoration and Current Off-Road Networks

The CapeFlyer Railroad service has been a huge success.  Well over 10,000 people have bought tickets so far this summer, generating more than enough revenue to cover the relatively puny $165,000 annual cost of running the train.  The high cost of gasoline, the desire to avoid multi-hour Cape-traffic traffic jams, the new bus service from RR stations to all 15 Cape Cod towns, the availability of rental cars and bicycles – all these have contributed to the high demand.  And it also turns out to be fun!

Another factor was the fact that the train tracks already existed, as a letter to the editor pointed out.  The writer also worried that converting New England’s dense web of old RR “rights of way” [ROW] to bike/walk paths would make future rail service impossible because “the bicycle lobby would combine with the NIMBY set along the right of way to fight such a move.”

As someone who believes that the future of transportation has to include a revived rail system as well as a vast “Green Routes” network of off-road paths, this could be a serious trade-off problem – if true.  I needed to get answers to a number of questions:

— Creating a Rail-to-Trail (R2T) path requires removing the tracks.  However, if the rail facility has deteriorated to the point that it would have to be significantly replaced, then the R2T really has no impact on the eventual cost or complexity of eventually returning it to RR usage.)  Has anyone developed criteria for evaluating the re-usability of Rail facilities? And has anyone done a survey to see which of our state’s unused or abandoned Rail lines require what level of improvement to be re-activated?

–In addition to technical issues, it is only worth reviving a Rail line if there are sufficient numbers of potential passengers.  Has anyone developed a method for determining what currently unused or abandoned Rail Road ROWs will be a good candidate for future re-activation?

–What actually is the major threat to preservation of old RR ROW corridors?  Is it R2T conversions, or is it the encroachment by or sale to abutters of small segments that make it expensive or impossible to re-assemble them?

— Rather than being a cause for the lose of public access to RR ROW, is it possible that R2T conversion is a key strategy for preserving public access?  Are there good examples where conversion to a Rail-Trail is clearly and exclusively what saved a RR-ROW from being lost?

–Even though R2T conversions are a relatively new phenomena, are there any examples of a R2T being recycled back to Rail Road usage?

Not having access to private staff of researchers, I decided to ask Craig Della Penna, former New England Rails-To-Trails Conservancy leader and a frequent critic of state policies and practices around these issues.  


Q. What’s the background for the decline of Rail Roads in the US?

<<Della Penna:  By the early 1900s the United States had the largest railroad system in the world with almost 300,000 miles of track and corridors, with New England having the densest network of all.  Contrary to the movie image of passengers looking out the window, most rail service carried freight.  But after WWII the switch of federal funding priorities to highways along with the change of land-use patterns and the disbursement of both industry and population led to the use of trucks and cars and the rapid abandonment of rail facilities.  Over half of the US rail system, about 180,000 miles –about a third of that in New England alone, has been abandoned, much of it sold off in segments to multiple abutters.  Most of this occurred before there was any Rail-to-Trail (R2T) activity which, in any case, has only happened  on about 20,000 miles of corridor nation-wide.  Unfortunately, except for the corridors that have been preserved, or “railbanked”, by R2T conversion very few of the lost Rights-of-Way can be re-assembled for future railroad use.

Q:  Is there a general description of the condition of rails and/or ties and/or the ground bed that would require them to be ripped out and replaced – meaning that doing so for a R2T conversion really has no impact on the eventual cost or complexity of eventually returning it to RR usage?

<< Della Penna:  The quality of RR track is expressed, to a large extent, by its “Class” and the associated maximum speed – with Class I being the worst (maximum passenger train speed of 15mph) up to Class 9 (maximum speed of 200 mph).  The unused lines in Eastern Massachusetts are so decrepit by now that they are all Class 1—or worse (meaning that passenger service is not even allowed). About 50 miles of Class 1 track along the Connecticut River are being upgraded to Class 4 (allowing 80 mph) at a cost of $70 million – a typical cost that would be a good investment in a lot of other places as well!

Q:  Are there any criteria which make it likely that a currently unused or even abandoned Railroad ROW will be a good candidate for future re-activation?

<< Della Penna:   Yes.  The MBTA has commissioned many studies and know exactly which ones make sense and which don’t.  [At the bottom of this post is a copy of the MBTA policy and the 2006  spreadsheet that quantifies this for specific locations.]

Q. How common is it for unused or abandoned Railroad ROW’s to be encroached upon or sold in ways that make it expensive or impossible to re-assemble them?

<< Della Penna:  It depends on who owns the corridor.   There are sales of former Rail Road corridor every month in Massachusetts – usually unbeknownst to the vast majority of the citizens including railfans like the letter-writer from Newton..  Because the state, including the new MassDOT, is so passive – or, worse,  complicit – in this process, I set up a land acquisition company a few years ago and have bought, and thereby blocked the loss of public access to, 3.5 miles of corridor.  Just as important, I have taught a number of groups how to do this work, and they have been able to save another 9-10 miles of corridor.

<< Della Penna:  Several years ago  I was biking across the state with a travel writer for the NYTimes and the Globe and saw what I recognized as a theft of public property. Someone had taken a diamond tipped cut-off saw and cut out a 20 foot section of rail and ties and dragged it out of the way.  They then bulldozed out the berm and then created a driveway to build a new modular construction house.  I went back a day or two later and took a group of pix and sent it to the T with the message that if their Real Estate department couldn’t defend their own land and they needed to give it or lease it to the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). They offered up a lease to DCR within a few months.  (I guess they agreed with me!)  Unfortunately, getting DCR to accept the lease turned out to be another five-year battle!

Q.  Are there good examples where conversion to a Rail-Trail is what saved a Railroad ROW from being lost?

<< Della Penna:  Every rail trail that is built saves the corridor. If the trail isn’t there, then the adjoining landowners encroach—at the least; more typically they buy the stretch nearest them.  The Shining Sea Path in Woods Hole was created from an abandoned corridor that was secretly bought out by a local investor for the explicit purpose of preventing public access.  That fight not only led to a Supreme Judicial Court ruling allowing the use of eminent domain to secure the corridor but also prompted the passage of a state law to give public agencies first crack at purchasing abandoned RR corridors.  Unfortunately, the 161C program has never saved a single mile of corridor.  However, today, southern New England currently has over 200 R2T projects in various stages – the most in the nation.  If we want to preserve our rail corridors for a future revival of Rail service, we better hope that they are all successful!   Best of all, nearly every successful R2T project is not only heavily used but increases nearby property values so that municipalities are reimbursed for whatever it cost them to build.  In my town about two bus-loads of kids now ride their bikes to school, saving so much tax money that the town recognizes bicycling on the trail as a transportation use and they plow it in the winter.

Q.  Even though R2T changes are relatively new, are there any examples of a R2T being recycled back to RR usage?

<< Della Penna:   I know of at least five such places in Washington State, Iowa, Ohio, and Missouri.  One or two are where the planned Rail-Trail conversion didn’t take place and instead a trash train was instituted where a giant hole in the ground—former coal mine—is being filled up w trash from places where the landfills are full.  Like Boston:  the unitized big gray rail cars in Boston are loaded all the time with trash and then they head west to a big giant hole in the ground.  Might even be the one where the trail was not built—but I’m not sure where the Boston trash goes.  There is even a place near St. Louis where the transit agency bought a slug of miles of dead RR to build into transit—when needed.  In the interim it is a trail network.   I was contacted a number of times by a consulting firm in MN where a trail was being converted to light-rail.  The Hiawatha line as I remember.

Q.     Would the revival of railroad service help relieve some traffic congestion on our roads?

Of course.  But if we are really serious about reducing our car dependence, we’d be rebuilding our trolley network, the trolley lines, rather than the heavy railroad lines.  Trains mostly moved freight.  Trolleys moved people.  There was a time in the not too distant past when you could take a trolley from Boston to Chicago just by transferring from one line to the next.  We would start replacing highway lane-miles with resurrected trolley lines.


Related Previous Posts:

> BUS SYSTEM IMPROVEMENT IS KEY TO TRANSIT: Local, Improved, Express, and Bus Rapid Transit

NON-MOTORIZED HIGHWAYS: A Regional Green Routes System To Connect Municipal Bike Networks, Sidewalks, and Parks

PARKS, GREENWAYS, AND TRANSPORTATION: Increasing Usefulness By Combining Visions





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