Surface Transportation:

Issues Related to Preserving Inactive Rail Lines as Trails

RCED-00-4: Published: Oct 18, 1999. Publicly Released: Oct 18, 1999.

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John H. Anderson, Jr
(202) 512-8024


Office of Public Affairs
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on rail banking, which refers to the preservation of inactive rail lines as trails, focusing on: (1) the implementation process for rail banking, including whether it protects the various interests of landowners, communities, rail carriers, and those interested in converting the rights-of-ways to trails; (2) the extent to which rail-banked property has returned to use as rail lines and the potential for future reactivation of rights-of-way for rail service; and (3) whether rail banking facilitates the return of these rights-of-way to rail service.

GAO noted that: (1) rail banking is a voluntary agreement between a rail carrier proposing to abandon a right-of-way and a party interested in converting it to a trail (trail sponsor); (2) during the abandonment process, a trail sponsor submits a request to the Surface Transportation Board to use the right-of-way as a trail; (3) in this request, the trail sponsor must agree that: (a) the use of the right-of-way is subject to the restoration of rail service; and (b) it will assume all managerial, financial, and legal responsibility for the right-of-way, including any liability arising out of its use as a trail; (4) if the Board determines that the right-of-way can be abandoned and if the rail carrier agrees to negotiate, the Board will issue trail use authority to the trail sponsor to allow the parties to negotiate a trail use agreement; (5) if a rail-banking agreement is reached between the parties, it may be implemented without any analysis or approval by the Board; (6) approval of the trail use agreement is not required from the landowners that may have underlying rights to the property, the local community, or any other entity; (7) because rail-banked properties are not considered abandoned under the law, the rights-of-way remain intact and adjoining property owners do not have use of the rights-of-way; (8) however, landowners, communities, trail users, or others with concerns about whether a trail sponsor is meeting the two requirements above can petition the Board to address these concerns; (9) of the rights-of-way that have been rail banked, three have been returned to rail service; (10) officials with four of the largest rail carriers and trail sponsors told GAO that the likelihood of additional rail-banked rights-of-way returning to rail service in the near future is low; (11) officials with two of these rail carriers told GAO they are only rail banking those rights-of-way for which they see little to no future potential for the reactivation of rail service; (12) rail banking offers carriers some advantages over abandoning unused rights-of-way; (13) while returning rail-banked rights-of-way to rail service may require some environmental studies, rail carrier officials stated that the carriers can avoid the cost of repurchasing or condemning land to reassemble or reconstruct a rail line; and (14) these officials noted that the rail line reconstruction costs are less than if the property was abandoned because rail banking does not permit a trail sponsor to take any action that would impede the restoration of rail service.

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