We have thousands of miles of abandoned train tracks located throughout the U.S. So why our Federal government has done absolutely nothing about them?

Anyone who ever rides a train anywhere in the U.S. can notice that we have a lot of sections of abandoned tracks which were once connected to our active lines.  Few people probably realize just how many thousands of miles of abandoned tracks we have, but the administrators within our Department Of Transportation are certainly aware of this.

While Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine, Donald Trump and Michael Pence were recently arguing about topics such as ideas for programs which could create thousands of jobs nationwide as well as the implications of importing steel from the PRC, there are thousands of miles of stretches of train tracks that have been abandoned which continue to slowly rust in place.

I’d be pretty surprised if I’m the first person ever over the course of the past 150 years to think of this, but believe it or not, as far as I know this has never been proposed here yet.

Recycling abandoned train tracks would be an impressively simple project- it would be a lengthy project, but railroad companies have been melting old tracks and recycling them into reusable iron and steel in the process of routine track maintenance since the 19th century, the technologies involved are that simple.

As part of the process of routine track maintenance, railroads and subways routinely replace worn out and damaged tracks, all a factory needs is a high-temperature industrial grade smelter or furnace to melt old tracks into reusable iron and steel.  So We Really Need Jobs Now

Abandoned train tracks exist in all 50 states, and as our population continues to grow, we will need steel for thousands of industrial uses.  The Federal Railroad Administration probably has a list of abandoned tracks and accompanying structures, but if such a list does exist, it is not presently available to the public.

There are three possible uses for train tracks which have been abandoned for many decades:

  1. some can be rebuilt for modern light rail commuter lines,
  2. some can be refurbished to operate tourist lines, or “heritage railways,”
  3. some can be removed to create footpaths, hiking trails, and bicycle trails.
1. Modern Light Rail Systems

In recent years in a few areas of the U.S., modern light rail systems have been constructed using the same tracts of land that had been the locations of railroad tracks which had been abandoned for many decades.  It may be quite possible that more new light rail commuter systems will be constructed within the upcoming decades of the 21st century, and that existing light rail systems may be extended, so some of the stretches of abandoned train tracks may become the site of new light rail systems.

2. Heritage Railways

Some stretches of abandoned tracks throughout the U.S. are historically significant.  In the cases in which abandoned tracks were parts of train lines that had been used during historical events or lines which had played significant roles in various aspects of the development of our country during different eras, we certainly do need to make every possible effort to preserve them, and if possible, we should seriously consider refurbishing some of them into tourist lines.

In some areas, heritage railways have been built where stretches of abandoned tracks had been laying vacant for many decades.  Heritage railway lines have been built by rebuilding stretches of tracks which either have historic significance or are located in scenic areas, and today, tourists  can ride either vintage cars which have been refurbished, or in modern train cars and see how people traveled on these same lines during the 19th century or in the early decades of the 20th century.

3. Trails, Parks And Urban Greenspaces

In recent years, interest groups that are interested in preserving sections of tracks that have historical or architectural significance as well as creating urban green spaces have been working with the parks departments in some cities and counties to create pedestrian or bicycle paths where commuter or freight lines ran during the 20th century.

The High Line in New York City is an example of a footpath which was constructed over a section of freight tracks in Manhattan which had been abandoned since 1980.  The Queensway is a comparable project which has been proposed in Queens, N.Y., the Low Line is a project in which pedestrian paths and subterranean park space are presently being constructed in a trolley station in lower Manhattan which had been abandoned since 1948, and The Rail Park is a similar project which has been proposed in Philadelphia.

There are also conservation groups such as the Rails To Trails Conservancy which convert abandoned sections of tracks into pedestrian, bicycle and equestrian trails.  The Rails To Trails Conservancy is a conservation organization which relies largely on private donations; their budget only allows them to oversee a limited number of projects each year, though they have certainly been successful in converting some abandoned train tracks into bicycle, equestrian and walking trails.

In some instances in which there are no likely possibilities for new train lines being rebuilt either for commuter lines or tourist lines, and no parks or trails are proposed, it may be beneficial to dismantle abandoned tracks, and not replace them with anything at all, thus giving forests, swamps or deserts a chance to regrow.

Why Was This Not Done Half A Century Ago?

Railroad companies have been replacing worn out and damaged sections of tracks as part of routine maintenance since the 19th century, and since the 19th century, railroad companies have been sending tracks to scrap metal companies who melt them into reusable iron and steel.

I’d be quite surprised if I’m the first person since the mid 19th century to notice that stretches of abandoned railroad tracks would also provide an ideal source for scrap iron and steel, though I haven’t found any proposals which were intended to address the thousands of miles of abandoned tracks that are slowly rusting in place throughout the U.S.

If it were profitable to remove abandoned tracks, scrap metal companies would likely have done so many decades ago.  The process of hiring labor crews to dismantle older lines would cost more than the railroad companies or transit authorities would recover by recycling older tracks for scrap materials.

Recyclable Materials

In addition to tracks, there are also abandoned signal lights, trestles, platforms, switches, bridges, transfer bridges, industrial tipples, tender houses, switch houses, overhead lighting, catenary structures and support beams for elevated tracks throughout the U.S., all of which are potential sources of recyclable scrap metals.

The steel that has been used to construct railroad tracks and the accompanying structures has changed a lot since the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.  Today’s civil engineers design tracks which are intended to support heavier trains which travel at faster speeds than in previous eras, and engineers today know a lot more about safety standards, fireproofing as well as how to design tracks which can withstand ice, snow, rain and hot weather.  Today, railroad tracks and spikes are made from alloys which were not yet known in the 19th century and during the first half of the 20th century.

While alloys that are added to steel today are different from those that were used during the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, the process of recycling tracks and spikes into scrap components is not actually terribly dissimilar to the processes that metal companies were using one and a half centuries ago.  Scrap metal companies today use energy efficient processes, factories are larger, industrial furnaces operate at hotter temperatures, but the process of melting damaged and replaced tracks into their component materials is based on the same concept as metallurgy factories were using 1½ centuries ago.

If the FRA does get serious about dismantling some of the thousands of miles of abandoned tracks that have been slowly gathering rust for many decades now throughout the country, because the tracks were built during different eras by many different companies, this will result in tracks which were made from steel which had numerous different alloys added to it.  Therefore, recycling the steel will result in numerous different scrap products, which will have numerous potential uses.

Wooden crossties are harder to repurpose because of the fireproofing chemicals in them, but they can be used as planks and handrails in docks and piers.  Concrete from crossties is easily recycled.

Legal Issues Regarding Rights Of Way

Most of the abandoned commuter train lines and subway tracks throughout the U.S. are owned by the city, county or state transit agencies who administer the trains and subways, while most of the abandoned freight lines are owned by the railroad companies.  When the administrators within a transit agency or a freight company decide that they intend to stop operating a certain line, they notify the Surface Transportation Board.  The STB allows interested parties such as commuter railroads or conservation groups to submit proposals to repurpose those lines or convert the land into trails, and if no one submits proposals within the allocated time frame, the lines close.

If the Federal government were to create and fund a program in which our government would  subsidize the costs of dismantling some of the thousands of miles of abandoned tracks that have been rusting in place throughout the U.S. for many decades now, the federal government would have to offer reasons to justify such a program, and I believe that there are environmental reasons that would serve to justify such a program.

As I mentioned earlier, while some stretches of abandoned tracks are being removed to create footpaths, bicycle trails, hiking trails and equestrian trails, other stretches of abandoned tracks have been rebuilt into modern light rail system, and some have been converted into heritage railway lines for tourists to ride.  In the instances in which new light rail lines or heritage trains are proposed, the older tracks will still need to be dismantled and new tracks will need to be installed to conform to modern safety standards.  The environmental benefits of a program in which the Federal government would subsidize the costs of dismantling abandoned sections of train tracks throughout the U.S. would be that such a program will result in millions, if not billions of tons of recyclable iron and steel being sent to scrap metal processing facilities and foundries throughout the U.S.

Because I am proposing that there are environmental benefits to a program in which the Federal government would subsidize the costs of dismantling disused tracks, it is important to note that the continued presence of abandoned train tracks throughout the U.S. does not pose any known immediate environmental hazards.  Small amounts of chemicals may have likely dripped from trains onto tracks over the course of decades of continuous use, and wooden crossties were usually fireproofed with creosote, nonetheless, the amount of potentially toxic chemicals that are found along disused tracks are usually negligible.  Abandoned tracks do not constitute a threat to ground pollution or to seepage into groundwater.

A program in which our Federal government would subsidize the costs of dismantling thousands of miles of abandoned train tracks and the accompanying structures throughout the country would create jobs, and such a program would contribute to the recovery of our steel industry.  This would enable the Federal government to work with city, county, and state transit agencies as well as with privately owned freight companies to oversee the process of dismantling and recycling thousands of miles of abandoned tracks.  If this is done carefully, we’ll be preserving some sections of tracks which can be repurposed into heritage railways, some sections can be rebuilt for modern light rail systems, other sections of tracks can be converted into pedestrian and bicycle trails, and in other areas, this would be an opportunity for some our forests, deserts and swamplands to regrow.

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Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...

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