21 California trails-with-rails

Rose Canyon trail
Rose Canyon Bike Path – San Diego
Photo by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
“California Rails-with-Trails”

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has announced in their RTC TrailBlog that they have completed a new report “California Rails-with-Trails”, now available as a resource for trail designers. The study examines the safety of 21 trails that share corridors with active rail lines. This study is the most recent of several studies of trails with rails, and adds yet more evidence trails that share a corridor with trains can have better safety than trails along or crossing roadways.

From the RTC study:

“The good news is that rails-with-trails have been shown to be just as safe as other trails. Every day, thousands of people across the United States safely use existing rails-with-trails. Fears that more trail users would be severely injured due to the proximity of moving trains have never been realized.”


“Rails-with-trails can be safer than trails next to roads. “In the last 15 years, more than 76,000 Americans have been killed while crossing or walking along a street in their community,” according to the 2009 Dangerous by Design report by Transportation for America and the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership. Trails separated from roads can provide a safer option. Even with an active rail line near the trail, the exposure from a track carrying ten to twenty trains per day is much less than a road carrying thousands of vehicles per day.”

Among the 21 trails surveyed in this most recent report:

  1. One third had separation distance (distance from center of track to edge of trail) of 20 feet or less.
  2. Over one half had train speeds of 40 mph or greater.
  3. Over one half had train frequencies greater than 20 per day, and some had frequencies greater than 40 per day.
  4. Four trails had no barrier between trail and rail.

The typical design section MTA presents for the Purple Line in the Georgetown Branch Corridor has an approx. 20 foot separation distance and has both a fence and/or retaining wall and a planted buffer as a barrier.

There are now over 200 trails alongside active railroads in the U.S. RTC has links to two earlier studies (one by RTC of 61 rails with trails, and another study by the U.S. Department of Transportation of over 20 rails with trails) at their Plan, Design, Build: rail-with-trail webpage. These earlier studies show very similar results as this new RTC study.

None of this and other overwhelming safety data is likely to stop “Save the Trail” advocates from continuing to assert that building the Purple Line alongside a trail is a dangerous, novel, untried idea. Indeed, much of the testimony presented to the Planning Board by Purple Line opponents at the Dec. 10 Purple Line Master Plan public hearing would have made you think that rail transit systems are only built in unpopulated areas because they are too dangerous to be in urban and suburban communities. It was especially ironic that several residents of the Town of Chevy Chase testified that children using the Lynn Drive path to school would be put at severe risk by the Purple Line, yet not one showed any awareness or concern about the existing risk children take on that same route when crossing East-West Highway, see Keeping the Children Safe.


One Response to “21 California trails-with-rails”

  1. Casey Anderson says:

    Great post, Wayne. I would also point out that the Metropolitan Branch Trail runs right next to Red Line trains in DC.

    When Purple Line opponents claim there is no way to prevent kids from climbing over fences or other security barriers between the trail and the tracks, or that putting a trail next to trains will “destroy” the trail, they should be prepared to explain how it is that we already have trails next to rail (and in the case of the W&OD and Custis trails, next to major highways) right in our backyard. These trails are safe and enjoyable — in fact, the W&OD trail is one of the most heavily used multiuse trails in the whole country.