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An abandoned railway is a railway line which is no longer used for that purpose. There are many hundreds of these throughout the world. Thousands of miles of railroads have been abandoned in the United States, much of it in the 40 years from 1965 to 2005. The right of way which has been established for such a line makes it useful for an alternate form of transport such as a rail trail. Other uses are possible. For example, in 1936, farmers in Aldrich, Missouri, found various uses for the land and materials of an abandoned railway. The abandoned railway stations on the line may be put to some other use too.
The most common reason for abandonment is that the line fails to make a profit. The decision to abandon a line may be taken by a railway company or by government, as with the Beeching cuts in Great Britain in the 1960s.
Abandoned railways are prevalent in the United States due to a number of historical and economic factors. At first, the growing industrial regions in the Northeast, the agrarian regions in the South and Midwest, and the expansion of the country westward to the Pacific Ocean all contributed to the explosive growth of individual railroad companies and railroad rights-of-way across the entire country in the last half of the 19th century. Railroad mileage within the U.S. reached its peak in the mid-1910s, with over 254,000 miles of railways in use. Eventually, competing modes of transportation began finding favor with society, siphoning away both passenger and freight revenues from railroad companies, even as they struggled to earn profits against pricing regulated by the government. The Great Depression of the 1930s forced some railroad companies into bankruptcy, creating hundreds of miles of disowned and subsequently abandoned railway properties; other railroad companies found incentive to merge or reorganize, during which excess or redundant rights-of-way were abandoned as liabilities to be eliminated from their books.
These and other factors have implicitly created thousands of miles of abandoned railroad corridors that criss-cross the nation. While most lay dormant and are still under the ownership of the abandoning railroad company, some cause political controversies in communities through which they run due to property disputes once the land returns to adjacent landowners; others are converted to rail-trail use, an increasingly popular option that opens once-abandoned corridors up to the public for their leisure while at the same time preserving them for possible future railroad use. Furthermore, in a few rare cases, abandoned railways have been rebuilt and used as active railroad routes once again.
Abandonments in the United States are controlled under Title 49, Chapter 10, Part 1152 of the Code of Federal Regulations, and are administered by the Surface Transportation Board, an adjudicatory body within the U.S. Department of Transportation. The abandonment process starts when the railroad company submits a notice to the STB about their intent to abandon a railway line; this notice is served 10 days before the formal abandonment petition is filed by the railroad company. Once filed, various timeframes are allotted in order for other interested parties to proffer their requests regarding the abandonment; any intent by a rail-trail advocacy group to convert the right-of-way into a rail-trail (called rail banking) must be submitted within 30 days, while any financial assistance offers to either purchase the property outright or to subsidize rail traffic on the line must be submitted within 50 days. If ultimately approved by the STB, the railway up for abandonment will be either formally abandoned, converted to trail use if the railroad and trail advocacy group arrive at an agreement on terms/price of the sale of the property, or operated by either the owning railroad (via a subsidy) or by a new owner.
Media related to Former railway lines at Wikimedia Commons