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.