Rails to Trails

Old Train Corridors Are A Hiker's Delight

The 19th century railroad station in Chattanooga, Tennessee, has been painstakingly rebuilt—as a hotel. The city is building a sustainable image through such mass-transit services as a free electric bus shuttle, but contrary to the immortal song “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” there's no passenger rail service anymore.

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, a network six times as big as today's interstate highway system. According to Stephen B. Goddard's Getting There: The Epic Struggle Between Road and Rail in the American Century, private investors put $21 billion into railroads that same year.

California's Bizz Johnson Trail was once a busy rail line–and could be again through the nationwide Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Today, bikers enjoy the route.© Stan Bales / Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Today, the much-reduced national Amtrak rail network is struggling to get off federal life support. Amtrak is in make-or-break mode, heavily dependent on the success of a new high-speed line, Acela, that is providing 150-mile-per-hour service between Washington and Boston. Bill Schulz, an Amtrak vice president, says that the national railway service is on a Congressionally mandated “glide path” to financial independence that should end in a total separation by the 2003 fiscal year.

Meanwhile, only half of the original rail network is still in place, and railroads continue to abandon 2,000 miles of track every year. Once old rail rights of way, or “corridors,” are sold for development, they're gone forever. Recreating them is cost-prohibitive. Cities reintroducing light rail do so at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars per mile.

The nonprofit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) answers this dilemma by turning unused rail corridors, at least temporarily, into hiking trails. Founder Dave Burwell is an environmental lawyer by trade, and worked in the 1970s for the National Wildlife Federation, which focuses mainly on preserving wildlife habitats for hunting. Abandoned, overgrown train lines provide precisely that kind of animal-friendly habitat, but as railroads deregulated in the 1970s, they began selling land for development. And hunters began to lose access to the corridors.

Burwell researched the corridors' history. “I found that even though they were under railroad control, they had originated in federal and state land grants,” he says. “And so there was considerable public investment in them. The problem was that there was no legal preservation mechanism that kicked in when the railroads divested. The 10 to 20 percent not actually owned by the railroads revert to somebody, but whom? Title problems almost guaranteed they wouldn't be saved.”

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. And while the world waits for the resurrection of railroads, the corridors make ideal trails, passing through some mighty picturesque countryside. Most of the work of trail creation has already been done by the railroad.

The Rails-to-Trails program has been a fantastic success. There are currently 1,012 rail-trails in the U.S. with a total trail mileage of more than 11,000. Another 1,200 projects are underway in all 50 states, with 18,000 more miles. There's unlimited potential, given the fact that more than 160,000 miles of rail corridor have been abandoned. “But some of it has been converted to roads, some plowed up for farm land,” says Burwell. “We'd be happy with a third of the total, 50,000 miles of trails opened up to public use.”

RTC has researched a possible rail trail across the continent, starting from either Massachusetts or Maryland and ending up in Seattle or San Francisco. Some 30 percent of the route already exists, another 35 percent is in public ownership, and the remaining 35 percent, now private, would take massive amounts of work to put together. It's a splendid ambition, though. If the whole network is connected, there will be off-road trails and greenways from coast to coast.

A prime example of a successful corridor is the Katy Trail, a 200-mile pathway that marks the former track of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, popularly known as the Katy. The famous train is featured in an old blues tune that laments, “She caught the Katy/And left me the mule to ride.”

The Katy was decommissioned in 1986 and its iron rails and wooden ties sold for scrap. The corridor was acquired by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which turned it into a state park. The Union Pacific Railroad donated another 33 miles of disused track in 1991. Though it runs through patches of meadow, for the most part the trail is shaded by a canopy of mature second-growth trees, and it's a cool haven on hot days. As the trail winds by the Missouri River near the University of Missouri campus, the farms on either side provide a nostalgic look at what that part of the state was like before Columbia became a sprawling college town.

But creating beautiful hiking trails is only part of what RTC is about. It's also very serious about its role as a railbank. “Rail buffs are suspicious of the trail users,” Burwell says. “They're afraid they'll never get their corridors back for rail use. But if we weren't preserving them with trails, they'd be gone forever.”

Hank Dittmar, formerly the director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, now runs the Great American Station Foundation, which seeks to renovate the old buildings as cornerstones of downtown revitalization. “Not all the corridors will ever be viable for conversion back to commuter rail,” Dittmar says, “but that has to be an option. The best thing is to make sure that you can do rails with trails.”

Dittmar points out that the conversion issue has never been tested, because no railroad has ever tried to claim a rail trail. “But there has to be the clear intention that it can be returned,” he says. “The existence of rail trails needs to be factored into the regional planning process, and every possible use considered for them.”

Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, is similarly skeptical that well-established trails will be converted back to rail lines. But, he adds, “It sure beats putting a building down in the middle of a right of way or letting it sit there and grow weeds.”