What Does “Rails-To-Trails” Mean Anyway?

Dear EarthTalk: I keep hearing the phrase “rails to trails.” What does it mean?

—Stella Meridian, Key West, FL

The American rail network, once the envy of the world, has fallen on hard times. At its peak in 1916, there were 300,000 miles of track, which was six times as big as today’s interstate highway system. Today, as most Americans drive to work, the much-reduced national Amtrak rail network is struggling to get off federal life support. Only half of the original rail system is still in place, and 2,000 miles of track is abandoned every year. Once old rail rights of way, or “corridors,” are sold for development, they’re gone forever, as recreating them is cost-prohibitive.

The nonprofit Rails to Trails Conservancy answers this dilemma by turning unused rail corridors, at least temporarily, into beautiful hiking and biking trails. Founder Dave Burwell, an environmental lawyer, says, “Even though the corridors were under railroad control, they had originated in federal and state land grants, so there was considerable public investment in them.”

In 1983, Congress enacted a powerful amendment to the National Trails System Act that allowed soon-to-be abandoned rail lines to be “railbanked” for possible reactivation. Since then, the rails-to-trails program has been a fantastic success. There are currently 1,012 rail-trails in the U.S. with a total mileage of more than 11,000. Another 1,200 projects (encompassing 18,000 more miles) are underway in all 50 states. Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, says rail-trails are the next best thing to increasing train service.

CONTACT: Rails to Trails Conservancy, (202) 331-9696, www.railtrails.org