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Road Management & Engineering Journal
Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.
July 18, 1997
TranSafety, Inc.
(360) 683-6276
Fax: (360) 335-6402

Simulated On-the-Road Emergencies...
Planning and Designing Rail-Trails on Abandoned Rail Lines
Report Compares Methods of Analyzing Ramp-Free Junctions
Study Spotlights Railroad-Highway Grade Crossing Warning Systems

Planning and Designing Rail-Trails on Abandoned Rail Lines

Abandoned rail lines are getting a new life as multipurpose rail-trails for activities such as bicycling, hiking, walking, and in-line skating. The safety needs of trail users require engineering planning, funding, and maintenance. Retaining rail bridges at highway-trail crossings is often the major issue, requiring a balance between the safety needs of motor vehicles passing under railroad bridges and trail users who walk on the bridge over the roadway. States can provide better solutions by implementing planning before rail lines are abandoned. This requires coordination between government agencies and trail advocates.

Purpose and Objectives of the Research

Gary L. Gittings, Darren J. Torbic, and Leonard A. Zangwill studied research on converting abandoned rail crossings to multiuse trails. They reported their findings in a paper entitled "Evaluation of Planning and Design Issues for Multiuse Trail and Highway Crossings." The paper appeared in the Transportation Research Board's Transportation Research Record 1538, Pedestrian and Bicycle Research, published in 1996. This research was sponsored by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) and the Mid-Atlantic Universities Transportation Center and was conducted by the Pennsylvania Transportation Institute at The Pennsylvania State University.

The researchers said their objectives were:

  • To identify the key engineering and public planning issues associated with the conversion of a railroad and highway crossing to a trail and highway crossing;
  • To identify points in the transportation planning process in which consideration for future trails should be addressed;
  • To determine current practice, including lessons learned in addressing crossing issues on rail-trail projects; and
  • To make recommendations on the key crossing issues on the basis of a review of current practice, existing guidelines or standards, and published research.

The research included in-person interviews, telephone interviews, and a review of engineering and planning research literature.

Rail Line Abandonments

When a railroad abandons a line, it files an abandonment petition with the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). The railroad may abandon a line with as little as 50 days' notice and can make two types of request:

  1. Public use condition request

    For this type of request, the ICC requires the railroad to retain all real estate along the trail route and keep all suitable structures. This condition allows six months for negotiation of a purchase agreement. A problem that may occur is that owners of adjacent property may have "reversionary" rights to right-of-way properties.

  2. Interim trail use, or rail-banking request

    If an "entity" is willing to accept all responsibility for property to be abandoned, the ICC grants a "notice of interim trail use." Six months are allowed for negotiation of trail-use terms. Because this is not a legal abandonment, the property reversion condition is avoided.

Research Analysis and Findings

Table 1 shows the five issues the researchers addressed and what topics they studied for each issue.

Topics and Issues Addressed in the Research

1. Currently at-grade crossings
  • What criteria should be used to trigger consideration of a grade-separated crossing?
  • What is the nature of any warrants that may be involved?
2. Currently grade-separated crossings
  • What criteria should be used to trigger consideration of an at-grade crossing?
  • What steps might be necessary to bring a structure up to trail standards?
  • Should an existing structure be rebuilt or rehabilitated?
  • What if an existing structure creates a sight distance problem now?
3. Sight distance
  • What process should be used for ensuring that adequate consideration is being given to sight distance and for documentation on the factors considered and the decisions made?
4. Signing
  • What signing is necessary for the highway, and who is responsible for installation and maintenance?
  • What type of signing is necessary along the trail in advance of the intersection, and who is responsible for installation and maintenance?
5. Rail corridor preservation
  • What steps need to be taken to increase awareness regarding the potential value of preserving the integrity of a rail corridor?
  • What criteria should be considered regarding the potential of a trail project?
  • Whose responsibility is it to be aware of the potential?
6. Conversion process
  • What is the process and where do responsibilities lie?
  • What are some of the alternative levels of involvement that PennDOT might have during the rails-to-trails planning and conversion process?
  • What are the nature of PennDOT responsibilities during planning for rail/trail conversion?

At-Grade or Grade-Separated Crossings?

Deciding whether to keep the existing grade separations at highway-trail crossings is the "most controversial issue in rail-trail projects." It requires answers two major questions:

  • Is safety "enhanced or degraded by the removal of the structure"?
  • What are "the magnitude and division of responsibility for current and future costs"?

Pennsylvania terrain requires many bridges and costs 20 to 25 percent of PennDOT's annual construction/reconstruction budget. According to the authors, the most important factors in deciding whether to retain bridges are:

  1. Physical condition of the bridge, such as loose masonry or concrete or rusting steel components;
  2. Limiting design elements or geometrics, principally alignment and horizontal and vertical clearances;
  3. Motor vehicle accident history at the site;
  4. Mix and volume of the motor vehicle traffic; and Financial considerations.

The first three factors are issues of motor vehicle safety. When loose materials from aging bridges fall on roadways, they create a safety hazard to vehicles driving under railroad bridges and a strong motivation for PennDOT to remove the bridge. Regarding the second factor, PennDOT built many rail structures over highways early in this century, and their roadways "typically have 2.4 or 2.7-m [8 or 9-foot] lanes and little or no shoulders and are frequently in poor alignment with the structure." The resulting roadway may not meet current safety design guidelines; and in most of these cases, PennDOT chooses to eliminate the grade-separating structures.

Pennsylvania places priority on routes that carry high volumes of commercial or agricultural traffic. Removing a bridge may be an enhancement for this type of traffic. Beyond future trail user safety needs, PennDOT must consider existing highway user needs. PennDOT also has financial concerns, as the authors explained:

Beyond the general financial pressure to eliminate structures, an additional fiscal consideration relates to the crossing abolition ruling. Abolition proceedings provide an opportunity for Pennsylvania to hold railroads financially responsible for removal of rail structures. However, if a crossing is abolished without removing the structure, the Commonwealth has no further recourse to the railroad to help finance removal costs at a future date. This adds more pressure to the argument that PennDOT should press for railroad bridge removal during the abolition proceedings.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) is often involved in these decisions and tends to protect the safety of current motor vehicle travelers.

The PUC requires some agency be accountable if a rail structure is to remain at a highway crossing. It prefers government agencies or railroads as trail sponsors. For several reasons, most nongovernmental organizations fail the PUC's criteria because:

  • they lack a stable funding base,
  • they are new organizations, staffed by volunteers,
  • their credibility suffers from a lack of expert engineering testimony, or
  • they are not under PUC authority and therefore cannot be required to be responsible for maintenance and reconstruction costs.

The 1990 Pennsylvania Rails to Trails Act mandated the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) to identify railroad corridors that might be usable for rail trails and authorized it to acquire such property. The Act did not provide a funding source. DCNR has been supportive of nonprofit trail groups and is willing to consider leaving structures for trail use if engineers can certify that the structures are sound.

Trail advocates view keeping rail structures in place as a commitment by PennDOT and the PUC to the future of the trail. The ability to move quickly on the trail is a factor for commuters. At-grade crossings reduce speeds and create safety hazards for trail users.

PennDOT personnel mentioned these factors in determining the appropriate trail-highway crossing to meet all user needs:

  • Type of trail user;
  • Average daily traffic (ADT) of roadway and trail;
  • Mix of vehicular traffic;
  • Type of roadway to be crossed (limited access, arterial, etc.);
  • Number of lanes to be crossed;
  • Speed of the roadway;
  • Sight distance;
  • Percent grade; and
  • Drainage.

The researchers found little engineering guidance in the U.S. for choosing types of trail crossings. This review showed the need for more research on such factors as sight distance and geometric conditions.

Sight Distance

Sight distance is critical for the safety of all users and is especially critical when it involves both motorized vehicles and bicyclists or pedestrians. Trail users must not only be able to stop in time to avoid vehicles at intersections but also in time to avoid barriers that some trails include to keep motorized vehicles off the trail. Trail users must have enough sight distance to allow them to cross the roadway from a full stop. The different accelerating abilities of individual trail users complicate this.

Signs and Pavement Markings

In Pennsylvania, trail sponsors are responsible for all signs and pavement markings. These may be the only safety measure at a crossing. PennDOT requires trail organizations to mark the crossings, but the public highway or transportation agency is subject to tort claims if a collision happens between a trail user and a motorist. The authors noted, "This circumstance raises the question, If a public agency risks the liability exposure, should the agency take a more active role in the installation and maintenance of signs and pavement markings on the highway?"

Often, warning signs on the roadway are placed ahead of the trail crossing; however; there may be no signs or makings at the crossing location. Motorists may pass the trail crossing without seeing it and may become less sensitive to the trail warnings.

Some solutions suggested were crosswalks, reflectorized panels, or bicycle crossing signs. Rural engineering districts favor requiring trail users to yield to roadway traffic, because highway traffic does not normally stop for pedestrians and bicyclists. On the other hand, one urban district marks all trail crossings with crosswalks because motorists would expect this in urban areas. Reflectorized panels or vertical bars could be placed at the corners of crossing to identify them both in daylight and at night.

Importance of Public Planning to Trail Development Efforts

Developing a statewide bicycle trail plan that identifies a trail network is important so that abandonments can be incorporated as they occur, and structures can be retained.

Research Recommendations

  • Treat Trail Users as Transportation Customers

    State transportation agencies should consider trail users their customers so that balanced decisions on such issues as retaining structures, designing crossings, and installing crossing signs and markers can be made.

  • Encourage Development of Local Bicycle and Trail Plans

    County comprehensive plans should include consideration of abandoned and active rail lines. This would foster uses in the public interest when land becomes available.

  • Enhance Communications and Cooperative Intergovernmental Efforts to Preserve Potential Trail Corridors

    Departments of transportation should develop a statewide policy for districts to cooperate with trail planners so that they will have more notice of abandonments and can more effectively preserve the rail corridors.

  • Encourage Identification of Bikeway and Trail Networks in Statewide Bikeway and Pedestrian Plans

    States must include bicyclists and pedestrians in their long-range plans mandated by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA). By developing a statewide network of trails, active rail lines along the route may be given higher priority for preservation as they are abandoned.

  • Decide Whether to Retain or Remove Bridge Structures

    To balance the safety requirements of motor vehicle operators and trail users, some extra costs may be incurred. Funding may be available under (ISTEA) programs, but the researchers felt that those who benefit from the trail should assume some financial responsibility. They suggested user fees that are "strictly dedicated to bicycle-related improvement efforts."

Table 2 summarizes recommendations based on responsibility for maintenance, condition of the structure, and safety history of the site.

Structure Removal or Retention Decision

Scenario Recommended Decision*
1. No alignment or clearance problem. No accident history. Responsible agency willing to accept responsibility for structure. Retain
2. No alignment or clearance problem. No accident history. No responsible agency willing to accept responsibility for structure Case by Case
3. Alignment, clearance, or both are substandard. No accident history. Remove
4. Alignment, clearance, or both are substandard. Accident history at site. Remove

* These recommendations assume the existence of public plans for the trail in question. If such plans do not exist, then it is recommended that the structure be removed.

  • Determine Sight Distance

    Sometimes providing the required sight lines may not be possible, so the issue of sight must be decided on an individual basis. The decision often depends on the location of the crossing. Table 3 below shows sight-distance recommendations.

Sight Distance Recommendations

Marked Crosswalk Unmarked Crosswalk
Urban Area Stopping Sight Distance for Motorists Intersection Sight Distance for Pedestrians
Rural Area Intersection Sight Distance for Pedestrians Intersection Sight Distance for Pedestrians

  • Determine Responsibility for Signs and Pavement Markings

    The agency that controls the roadway should be responsible for all trail-related signs, and trail crossings should be identified at their location.

  • Pursue Additional Research

    The authors recommended further research "to improve guidelines on the specific needs of trail users at crossings, the appropriate type of trail-highway crossing, trail user willingness to divert to safer crossing points, the safety consequences of midblock crossings, sight distance requirements for bicyclists, and the required signing or pavement markings, or both, at a trail-highway crossing."

Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.

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