The Rail-Trail Scam

I recently learned that a writer for the Adirondack Explorer has the following proposal to create a new rail-trail: demolish a line that’s in use by a heritage railroad, pave it over, and convert it to a bicycle trail. The arguments in the piece are your standard hatchet job considering only the costs of rail and only the benefits of the alternative, and are downright uninteresting; what’s interesting is that this is just the culmination of the misuse of the original concept of rail-trails.

Originally, rail-trails were created to preserve railroads for future use. Their mandate includes “to preserve established railroad rights-of-way for future reactivation of rail service.” In reality, restoration almost never happens. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s review of railbanking points to success that a full nine railbanked corridors have had rail service restored, out of 301. The rest have been paved over, and often have enough non-railroad users that any restoration would be politically difficult in practice; I suspect that this is why the Providence Foundation makes no mention of restoring service on the second, now-abandoned track between Providence and Woonsocket in its regional rail study.

Another problem with railbanking is that it focuses on what’s useful as a trail, and not on what would be useful as a railroad later. There are pleasant exceptions, such as the Milwaukee Railroad’s route in most of Washington State, but in Rhode Island, the rights-of-way that have been preserved are those that would be easiest and least expensive to rebuild from scratch: the line to Hartford through West Warwick and Coventry, the line from East Providence to Bristol, and the aforementioned second track to Woonsocket. In contrast, many major pieces of infrastructure were demolished. Downtown Providence’s connection to East Providence was cut and would require new urban viaducts to be restored, and it’s sheer luck that the bridge over the Blackstone estuary is still there. Newport’s only rail connection to the mainline was railbanked but removed, which means restoration would face fewer regulations than starting new service from scratch, but only after rebuilding a bridge from the island to the mainland.

This is not intentional, but it’s neglectful of the needs of any mode other than the car as regular transportation; even bikes only get the nod for recreational use. The document coming out of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, Railbanking and Rail-Trails: a Legacy for the Future, makes this thinking clear, when one reads between the lines. Here are some touted benefits of rail-trails:

The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines recommend at least 60 minutes of daily exercise for children and teens and at least 30-60 minutes everyday for adults. Trails provide close, safe, traffic-free paths for walkers, joggers, inline skaters [and] cyclists. Rail-trails are also part of a nationwide initiative launched by Congressman James L. Oberstar (D.-Minn.) to create safe routes that will encourage school children to walk and bike to school.

The first sign of utter disregard for alternative transportation as everyday transportation is the touting of “traffic-free paths.” Segregation of different modes of travel into different rights-of-way is the thinking of the traffic engineer and the freeway builder, not of the urbanist. The second is the fact that, in practice, the placement of those trails follows ideal corridors for the needs of trains, not bicycles or pedestrians. One does not use a mode of transportation that averages 60 km/h and loses 2 minutes every time it stops the same way one uses a mode that averages 25 km/h and can stop where you want. You can look at the northern end of the aforementioned West Warwick trail on Streetsview or on satellite and judge for yourself how useful it is for a cyclist’s daily work trip; a train would just blast through at full speed.

There’s already an ideal place for pedestrians are cyclists: the streets. Those are the strange linear alignments used by cars and fronted by actual residences and jobs. Away from urban areas, those are the country roads that go through small towns. A policy that aimed at reducing car use and getting people to use more active transportation would impose walkability and bikability standards on streets, which are where the exact addresses people want to go to are. A policy that didn’t care would turn railroads into recreational trails and greenwash it by saying they’re usable by pedestrians and cyclists. And I think we all know which of the two the rail-trail scam is.


  1. BBnet3000

    During the whole Prospect Park West bike lane saga, lots of people were saying “bikes can just go through the park!”. For a bike, going out of ones way like that is arduous and time consuming. In most cases that’s the story with bike trails as well. Many of them are nice for recreation, but for commuting they leave a lot to be desired, except for hardcore roadies who commute further by bike than most people.

  2. Jason Becker (@jasonpbecker)

    It’s bizarre to me that the folks things that those who are breaking a serious sweat to commute should just reroute to longer paths in order to be next to trees instead of cars. I don’t know why it’s not obvious to more people– roads are designed for the same type of transportation that bikes provide (other than speed). Parks, recreational trails, and trains are not uses that directly translate to commuting by bike.

  3. Alex

    You make good points, but I’d encourage you to rethink the utility of separated paths for practical cycling. Most converted rail lines make excellent facilities for bicyclists for two reasons – one, rail lines were magnets for jobs and homes at one point in time so many of them still are dense with trip generators or else are ripe for redeveloping into lofts, malls, etc. Two, rail lines graded for rail use make cycling a breeze, ideal for casual cyclists uncomfortable with proximity to motorized traffic and crucial for mode share. Plus, a lot of the old rail lines in urban areas are grade-separated, making them as useful for cyclists as freeways are for motorists (more so, actually, since they tend to be less congested).

    I’m an experienced (if not exactly in shape) urban cyclist who regularly goes out of his way to use a trail on a (semi-) abandoned rail bed. Not only do I also appreciate separation from motor vehicles but even with inconvenient access points it’s much faster than the downtown streets with a stoplight every 330 feet. Unfortunately this makes the political problem of reactivating those rail lines less tractable, but it doesn’t negate your other point about needing to impose walkability and bikeability on streets because most trips on separated paths still need to start and end on regular streets.

  4. Andre Lot

    Alon, one must not take a one-size-fit-all approach! The Netherlands, due to its flatness, are probably the country with the larges cycling infrastructure in the World on a per sq. mile/per 1.000 inhabitant basis. This is how they do it, I’ll provide you with some links from the municipality I live in (the canal belt in Amsterdam is not a good reference with its odd demand pattern and lousy tourists).

    On the very roads that front houses outside downtown, they use traffic calming patterns and “total street” approach, with speed limited to 30 km/h. Look here: , here: or here:

    For fast connections, they have segregated, well signed bike paths, like the one you can see on this traffic light crossing orthogonal: and also here:

    Along major urban roads, bikes don’t share the lanes with cars or trucks. That is dangerous. Instead, they have physically segregated parallel bike lanes, like here: or here (these roads all have 50 km/h speed limit).

    Outside urban areas, only minor roads allow bikes to share the ROW like this one:, speed limith 70 km/h.

    Else, they either have segregated bike paths like here: or here

    On high-speed links, freeways, or even urban expressways/ring roads, bicycles, scooters and small motorbikes are not allowed at all like here or here or here

    There are also many completely independent bike paths, far from any other car-road, some linking different cities, that I can’t show because they are not on Google Street View.

    Use segregation, albeit scorned by part of urban planners, is still the most efficient way to organize traffic in bigger cities.

    That doesn’t mean rail lines should be converted on bike paths if they have better use as rail lines in first place. This is another discussion you took on your post. However, to suggest that own ROW, segregated bike paths are inherently bad is the same of passing a blank condemnation on all pedestrianized areas, or all restricted access highways no-matter-what.

    • Alon Levy

      Fair enough. But, bear in mind, here is the county road that parallels the tourist railroad the article I link to proposes for demolition. It looks little wider or faster than your shared example in the Netherlands. I would guess the speed limit there is 35 mph. If you look very carefully, you’ll see a sign on the right reminding drivers that cyclists use the road. Slightly further north, here is a more visible sign for pedestrians.

      Providence has some painted bike lanes, but nothing physically separated. Because bike traffic is low, what happens is that those lanes get regarded as additional shoulder space. My practice is to walk in the roadway when it’s relatively narrow and there’s little car traffic, which is usually the case in my neighborhood; otherwise, I find a road with a decent sidewalk. For walking, I’d prefer commercial streets over trails simply because they offer more opportunities to rest and buy or eat something, but presumably I’d feel differently if I were on a bike traveling at 25 km/h rather than on foot traveling at 6 km/h.

      I don’t think that segregated bike paths are always bad. My problem is that a policy is sold on the grounds of giving bikes their own ROW when for the most part this ROW isn’t that useful for cycling, and when other important bike/ped issues are ignored. It’s roughly analogous to paving over rail lines to build BRT but never building on-street bus lanes, or to building high-speed rail in a region without any local transit.

        • Alon Levy

          In America they at least have buses. Sometimes even light rail that goes to 2 places you might want to go to. It’s still better than the connecting infrastructure at the city end of the West Warwick trail.

      • Adirondacker12800

        bear in mind, here is the county road that parallels..

        Wrong railroad on the wrong side of the park. That line runs between Saratoga Springs and Tahawus. The one they want to pave over, apparently with pixie dust and the labor of elves, runs between Utica and Lake Placid.

        Not that the spandex set isn’t drooling at the thought of converting North Creek to Tahawus to bicycle trail They won’t get it. Barton Mining wants to use the line and scuttlebutt is that National Lead may be interested in reopening the mines in Tahawus. Scuttlebutt is “ski train to New York City” too. The station in North Creek is a few miles from the Gore Mountain ski area.

        Newport’s only rail connection to the mainline was railbanked but removed,

        Two entries above what you linked to notes “The old swing bridge on the Fall River branch was damaged by an overloaded freight train in 1980 and taken OOS, then damaged by a barge hit in 1988 and deemed beyond repair. Bridge was demolished in 2007 to facilitate construction of the replacement span for adjacent Sakonnet River highway bridge.”
        At least it’s been removed on RIDOT’s highway budget and not on the rail budget.

          • Nathanael

            The attacks on the Utica-Lake Placid line have been recurring. The snowmobilers are actually more of a threat than any other recreational group.

            The Adirondack Scenic is not taking these attempts to sever their line lightly and I don’t think the pavers will get away with it.

        • Adirondacker12800

          In one of the comments in the linked articles someone pointed out that the rail line is already a snowmobile trail. The train seasonal that shuts down for the winter. The snowmobilers use it. Technically trespassing but it’s being used as a snowmobile trail. … and there are plenty of snowmobile trails through the Adirondacks already.

  5. Joseph E

    I certainly agree that streets should be the main route for people on foot and on bikes. City streets and rural roads already go to every address, and usually provide direct routes between destinations. And in North America, most streets and roads are already more than wide enough to fit separate sidewalks, cycletracks and 1 motor vehicle lane in each direction. Residential streets don’t need separate infrastructure, and actually should be narrower.

    However, even pro-pedestrian and pro-bike places, such as the Netherlands or Denmark, also provide no-motorized routes for bikes and pedestrians. For long trips, bikes benefit from long, straight, level routes with few sharp turn or steep hills, just like freight trains. The lack of elevation change on old rail alignments is particularly important. Although it is more expensive to pave new bike and walking paths, rather than repurposing existing streets, these 12 foot wide strips of pavement are much cheaper than new BRT or train lines, or new auto-oriented roads.

    Personally, I currently use a rail trail for part of a one-way commute here in Portland, OR, and I often used a grade-separated trail along a river for transportation in Long Beach, CA. The lack of cross streets and hills makes these routes much faster than using side streets or major streets with stoplights. And for recreation as well as transport, it is nice to get away from the noise of motor vehicle traffic.

    So I agree that we should first get space for bikes and walking on our existing major streets and roads. But there is plenty of money in the highway budget to pave a few separate trails.

    Many rail-trail alignments are on wide right-of-ways where there should be plenty of room for two or three tracks in addition to the trail, so that really should not be a reason to avoid paving trails.

    • EngineerScotty

      I’m assuming you are referring to the Springwater Corridor. If it were proposed to restore freight service on the line–or to use it for a MAX line–what would your reaction be?

      • Alex

        Minneapolis is entering PE on its Southwest LRT line, which will be built along a former rail line that has had a multi-use trail on it for about 20 years. The ROW is wide enough that they will be able to maintain 12-15′ (I think) of trail along the entire length in addition to the double-tracked rail. Despite very heavy use of the trail for recreation and commuting, the biggest outcry about the line isn’t coming from cyclists (although I don’t think many people have seen the sort of awkward plans for the trail at station locations yet).

        • Alex

          Freight rail though seems to require an insanely wide buffer – something like 15′ from the tracks – although I don’t know if that is a federal regulation or if some companies just require it in some places.

          I know that CP said they needed that buffer and thereby nixed a bike trail in St Paul, MN.

          • Andre Lot

            That has to do with safety. Those very wide buffers are a counterpart to far less stringent safety requirements (regarding rails, trackbed etc) in certain tracks (class 3 and lower) where only slow-moving freight passes, admitting that low-speed derailments are more likely (indeed, on a statistic basic, far more likely per train car x mile traveled) and so a buffer should exist – cargo derailment is serious, but can be not a catastrophe if it just lays down on the ROW instead of hitting houses or so.

            For a similar reason, freight railways like UP are adamant non not allowing its row to be used for additional tracks for passengers unless very high cost measures like a reinforced concrete wall separates any passenger track running less than 13-17 feet from the outer envelope of the freight tracks.

          • Nathanael

            I really hate the “what the hell, let’s just derail our trains regularly” attitude to infrastructure taken by UP and a few of the other railroads (CSX comes to mind).

  6. Joseph E

    Andre, thanks for the great links to examples of good bike infrastructure. I would also recommend the English-language blog View from the Cycle Path ( for more videos and articles about good Dutch bike facilities.

    In Alon’s defense, many rail trails in the United States are nothing like those dutch bike paths. Many rail trails cross roads without lights or crosswalks, which makes it hard to use them for transportation. And many of the routes are abandoned freight corridors which wind thru the countryside rather than connecting urban areas. And the historic lack of any restoration of passenger or freight rail service on many of the “rail banked” corridors is a real problem.

  7. Jonathan R

    I agree with Alon 100%. Another problem that he doesn’t mention with rail-trails and the bias toward recreational use is that it encourages building parking lots along the trails so that people can drive their kids to the trail, unload the bikes from the car or SUV, toodle back and forth for an hour or so, then return and drive home. If you don’t believe me, check out the brochure for the Henry Hudson Trail in Monmouth County, NJ, below:

    Click to access hht_6_10.pdf

    The use of rail-trails for through travel is discouraged by having gaps in the route. The HHT has three detours from Aberdeen to Freehold, one of which is a Superfund site and not on the brochure (even in PDF format), one of which takes you through the towns of Matawan and Aberdeen, and one of which involves a two-mile trip on a busy state road. I feel strongly, having ridden the entire length of the trail in both directions earlier this summer, that these detours make it impossible for novice riders to travel the entire length of the trail and encourage the driving-to-the-trail behavior I mentioned above.

    Second problem is that by routing cyclists and walkers onto their own separate paths, there aren’t as many cyclists on the streets and roads. Making cyclists and pedestrians rare on roads makes it more difficult for drivers to recognize them when they are there, and it reduces the pressure for other accommodations like bicycle parking along the way.

    • Andre Lot

      “Second problem is that by routing cyclists and walkers onto their own separate paths, there aren’t as many cyclists on the streets and roads. Making cyclists and pedestrians rare on roads makes it more difficult for drivers to recognize them when they are there, and it reduces the pressure for other accommodations like bicycle parking along the way.”

      This is a moot argument. Depending on the hierarchy of the road in question, segregation works best for everyone. The idea of increasing the danger by mixing traffic on non-strictly local roads so that different people travelling in different vehicles get used to one another is, at least, irresponsible and, at worst, political bricking of the worst possible kind, one that directly endanger traffic safety (unless one is to think no traffic, anywhere, should go faster than 30 mph).

      • anonymouse

        The thing that cyclists are afraid of, with some justification, is that promoting segregation would mean that cyclists get banned, officially or unofficially, from big roads entirely. Since there isn’t a whole lot of cycling infrastructure around other than those roads, there really won’t be anywhere to ride if you’re just trying to get somewhere, and the resulting low numbers of cyclists would be used to justify the lack of any further investment in cycling infrastructure. I think the goal should be to make cycling as safe as possible, and while segregation is one possible approach to that, it can’t possibly work everywhere, and so it helps to have drivers and cyclists who are used to sharing the road (which should, of course, be made safe for cyclists).

          • Andre Lot

            I will never trust a blog that brags itself about “warring motorists [e.g., cars]” (or planes, or trains, or trams) to promote other vehicles. Anyone with the “it’s us against them” mentality in not only bias, but her/his arguments useless in any sensible, compromising debate.

          • Alon Levy

            It’s a joke, for the most part, coming from the fact that Britain’s new Conservative government pledged to end the previous Labour government’s “war on the motorist.” (Its transportation policy is not all that different in practice, and many of the differences are wonky questions such as whether to electrify the main lines or commuter lines first.)

        • Andre Lot

          Most US cities and subdivisions have very wide streets. City-to-city back roads (not talking about major links or freeways, which are obviously [i]not[/i] a place to cycle nearby if only by the wind disturbance of 100 km/h+ trucks) usually have large ROWs and generous shoulders. Certain roads are just not the domain of scooters, bicycles etc. as certain pedestrianized areas are not the domain of cars, for instance.

          So conditions to set up segregated bike lanes are better in US than in Europe. However, what they usually do is the wrong thing: a bike lane between the parked cars and the moving lanes (I’ve seen plenty of them in NYC), the worst possible design for both car drivers and cyclists in busy streets.

          • anonymouse

            There’s a lot wrong with how bike lanes are built in the US. They generally are put in where it’s easy to do so, often by painting a bike stencil in the “generous shoulder”. This also means that the most difficult stretches of roads and intersections, where cyclists need the most help and both cyclists and motorists need the clearest cues about where cyclists should be going, are just not done and cyclists are left to fend for themselves. At least, that’s what I’ve been seeing far, far too commonly here in the San Jose area.

          • Andre Lot

            Painting lanes for bikes, when sold as a cheap fix, has the same effect of the “rapid bus is the best transit system because it only requires removing parked cars and some paint”: it doesn’t deal with the bottlenecks.

            In the case of rail-to-trail projects, this is also a problem if they are to be used with a regular commuting function rather than only recreational (case in which driving with your bike on your car is totally acceptable): where old rails cross streets or busy avenues, the trail is just eliminated and there is no easy way to cross.

  8. D. P. Lubic

    Thought you might appreciate seeing some other material:

    NPR transcript on a story on this; the snowmobile crowd sounds nasty:

    This story is also in this discussion of the issue at Railway Preservation News:

    From RyPN, another story link:

    Info on the road itself:

  9. Pingback: I Ride The Harlem Line…» Blog Archive » The opening of the Dutchess Rail Trail, and the Hopewell Junction Depot

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