Railbanking, as defined by the National Trails System Act, 16 USC 1247 (d), is a voluntary agreement between a railroad company and a trail agency to use an out-of-service rail corridor as a trail until a railroad might need the corridor again for rail service. Because a railbanked corridor is not considered abandoned, it can be sold, leased or donated to a trail manager. The railbanking provisions of the National Trails System Act as adopted by Congress in 1983 have preserved more than 4,400 miles of rail corridors in 33 states that would otherwise have been abandoned.
In 1983, concerned by the rapid contraction of America’s rail network, the U.S. Congress amended the National Trails System Act to create the railbanking program. Railbanking is a method by which lines proposed for abandonment can be preserved through interim conversion to trail use. If a line is railbanked, the corridor is treated as if it had not been abandoned. As a result, the integrity of the corridor is maintained, and any reversions that could break it up into small pieces are prevented. Railbanking can be requested by either a public agency or a qualified private organization.
When a rail line is railbanked, the railroad corridor is maintained and the line is subject to possible future restoration of rail service should the need arise. Any railroad can apply to the STB to resume rail service on a railbanked corridor. The tracks and ties on a railbanked line can be removed to allow the corridor to be converted to a trail. However, bridges and trestles must remain in place, and no permanent structures can be built on the right-of-way. To date, 9 across the U.S. have come out of rail banking for railroad use as a result of economic need. Without rail banking, these communities would have likely lost their access to these corridors.
In short, railbanking allows a line that would otherwise be abandoned to be kept in tact for current and future generations to use. It allows for a trail to be constructed for recreation and alternative transportation uses, but also ensures that the economic viability of a rail line is not destroyed.