Monday, May 3, 2010

­Trail Planning for Active Rail Corridors

In the 1960's and 70's, the consolidation of our nation's railroads resulted in abandonment of miles upon miles unused rail lines. City governments were drawn to the appeal of these corridors, as they connected cities and often ran through areas of historic or scenic value. Some prime corridors were transformed into greenspaces and recreational corridors for hiking, bicycling, and horseback riding. The trend gained steam and before long trails were being considered for active rail corridors as well. With the current movement to rejuvenate rail corridors nationwide, it seems an incredibly opportune time to take stock of our existing infrastructure and realize the benefits of rails-with-trails.

Converting an inactive rail corridor to a trail (rail-to-trail) is relatively straightforward, but establishing a trail within the easement of an active rail corridor requires more strategizing. For starters, why would a private railroad agree to a trail within their right-of-way? As the railroads are coming to realize, rails-with-trails aren't one-sided endeavors; they offer advantages to the railroad owners as well. With a trail often comes substantial benefit to the railroad, including beautification of the rail corridor and improvement of the railroad’s image in the eyes of the public (through appropriate community outreach). Public agency trail managers might attempt to acquire the easement from the railroad, in some instances reducing the liability of the railroad. Whether the area is patrolled or not, when people actively use a rail corridor trespassing and vandalism rates typically decrease. In the case of rail transit corridors, projects such as the Folsom Parkway Rail-Trail, have produced an increase in transit ridership by thoughtful integration between the two facilities.

Most railroad companies are in favor of rails with trails; according to a survey performed by the Rails to Trails Conservancy, less than 10% of railroad companies initially opposed the idea. In those cases where the trail was opposed, the railroad cited concerns over safety and liability. For obvious reasons, building a trail within an active rail corridor can carry a heightened level of concern for safety, but careful planning can assuage potential problems. Statistically speaking, using a trail in an active rail corridor is far safer than bicycling or walking along a busy city street. In the 34 year history of the program, there has only been one incident. And in this particular incident a biker ignored warnings signals, rode around a lowered gate and was injured by an oncoming train. (See the groundbreaking Rails to Trails Conservancy Study, Rails With Trails for one of the first extensive research efforts on this topic.)

Setbacks and appropriate separation from rail lines is a key factor in designing safe trails. Per “Rails With Trails”, trails are on average 10 to 11 feet wide with the average separation between track and trail being 33 feet. Many trails provide a barrier between the rail tracks and trail, particularly when the two facilities are close together or when railroad speeds are high. These barriers can be anything from heavy duty cast in place concrete walls or a grade separation to a ditch, fence or even just vegetation, depending on actual and perceived risk to trail users and the railroad.  Along the Folsom Park Trail, when railroad easements didn't accommodate adequate separation between train and pedestrian, the design team chose to raise the trail almost 3 feet above the train tracks and provide a retaining wall with metal fence to ensure user safety.

Areas of intersection, where the rail and trail cross paths are critical points to introduce enhanced safety measures. When possible avoid at-grade crossings and attempt to introduce tunnels or overpasses. Standard signage that is universally understood should be used in conjunction with audible and visual signals to warn pedestrians and bicyclists at all crossings. Boston's Southwest Corridor Park spent almost $27 million on a trail that goes to great lengths to avoid at-grade crossings. The 4.7 mile trail includes 17 crossings that redirect pedestrian traffic via tunnels or bridges. On the Heritage Rail Trail County Park in Pennsylvania, the existing rail line passes through a narrow tunnel. To design around tight clearances (at some points within the 250 foot long tunnel the trail was within 6 feet of existing railroad tracks) the lease granted to the railroad by the county gives priority to bicyclists, requiring all trains to stop before entering the tunnel and wait until it is clear. Of course this only works with excursion railroads and not with scheduled or headways-based transit service.

The Federal Highway Administration has additional guidelines for designing trails in active rail corridors. FHWA advises against calling the trail 'safe' and suggests trail managers warn users to be vigilant as trains continue to use the corridor. Material selection and crossing surfaces should be selected to provide traction for runners and bicyclists and adequate illumination should be provided. The FHWA also emphasizes the importance of implementing a maintenance schedule to ensure the condition of the trail is routinely monitored, any hazards are fixed, and the trail is kept generally free of debris. As with any infrastructure project, thoughtful planning and continued maintenance will aid in creating a vibrant corridor for years to come.


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