Trail Development Issues

Rail trails can take several years to develop and there are several issues that need to be addressed. For example, property owners adjacent to an old railroad line may be concerned about the possible loss of privacy or noise that may accompany a trail. They may also believe the land belongs to them and that the railroad had only an easement over their property. Fortunately, with more than 1,200 rail trails already on the ground, these issues have been successfully dealt with in the overwhelming majority of cases.

Corridor ownership

Rail corridors can be bought, granted to the railroad company by the Federal government, or pieced together through agreements (easements) with individual property owners. Many corridors have been acquired through a combination of these and other methods.

When a railroad no longer wants or needs a corridor, they can abandon the line and, depending on ownership, dispose of the property. The Rails to Trails Conservancy has published a variety of resources on this subject, including Acquiring Rail Corridors and Secrets of Successful Rail Trails: both recommend seeking professional help in negotiating with railroads, property owners, and interested non-profits in turning an old railroad line into a trail.


In 1983, Congress amended the National Trails System Act to create a program called "railbanking" to keep intact the remarkable network of railroad corridors that had been created in the 19th and early 20th century. Congress wanted to save the corridors for future potential rail use and allow their interim use as trails.

When a railroad announces its intention to abandon a corridor, interested groups or agencies can apply to the Surface Transportation Board to have the corridor railbanked and used in the interim as a trail. The program has helped create some of the most spectacular trails in the United States, including the Katy Trail in Missouri, the 320-mile Cowboy Trail in Nebraska, and the Capital Crescent Trail in Washington DC, and it has preserved more than 3,500 miles of corridor for future railroad use. Follow the link to view a PDF on Issues Related to Preserving Inactive Rail Lines as Trails.

Community concerns

People close to a proposed trail may have concerns about the impact of the new facility on their property, privacy, and peace and quiet. Research and the experience of numerous trails in communities across the country have shown that these fears are usually not realized and can be mitigated through careful trail planning, design, and management.


People living close to a proposed rail trail often fear an increase in crime and vandalism as a result of people using the trail. Ironically, converting a disused rail corridor to a trail often cleans up untidy wasteland and discourages undesirable behavior by ensuring a steady stream of legitimate users (i.e. walkers, bicyclists, joggers) who self-police the public right-of-way. Trail users also are unlikely burglars. A study by the Rails to Trails Conservancy found that major crimes on rail trails, including rape, murder, and mugging, were "very low" compared to national crime rates.

Property Values

Adjacent property owners fear that a trail will lower the value of their home or property because of the concerns such as crime, increased traffic, and noise. Studies in Denver, Seattle, and other communities indicate that the presence of a trail is either not a factor in the value of a home or adds value. Indeed, there are now countless examples of homes being sold on the strength of their proximity to a regional trail, and national surveys of prospective home buyers have found people want walkways and bikeways far more than golf courses, tennis courts, and other amenities.


Popular regional trails attract people from outside the immediate neighborhood of the facility, and they often drive to a trailhead before walking, bicycling, or jogging on the trail. Adequate parking, and the development of safe parking areas, is important for the peaceful operation of a trail, as is integration of the trail into the overall transportation network.


Property owners may worry about the potential for lawsuits arising from injuries to trail users that may occur on their land (for example, a runner slipping on wet leaves while taking a short cut through a back yard). In almost all states, recreational use statutes protect landowners from such claims.