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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Rails to Trails

Air Date: Week of

Steve rides the nation's 500th bike path converted from an abandoned railroad bed and reports on the national Rails to Trails program. It preserves old railbeds as transportation corridors, parks and pieces of the country's social and natural history.


(Music up and under train sound)

CURWOOD: There may be no better symbol of the industrial age and of the industrial might that became modern America than the railroad, and that Golden Spike that finally linked both coasts was the linchpin of a network of rail lines that covered over a quarter million miles. Soon, nearly everybody and everything moved to the rhythm of the rails.

(Music up: "The train I ride, sixteen coaches long . . .": fade under)

Before World War Two, only the rich could afford private railway cars, but once the war was over, almost everyone could afford the private automobile. The interstate highways took over as the nation's prime corridors, and from shiny passageways of progress, many railways rusted into back alleys of weeds. Thousands of miles of tracks are still abandoned each year, many of them cut up into little pieces and sold. But now there's a movement afoot to preserve these rail rights-of-way. Born of the headlong rush to industrialize, these corridors are now an antidote to some of the pressures of industrialization.

BURWELL: They are a window into history, of what the country and countryside looked like 120, 150 years ago.

CURWOOD: David Burwell is director of the Rails to Trails Conservancy in Washington.

BURWELL: Certain prairie grasses that no longer exist, parts of the tallgrass prairie exist only in railroad rights-of-way. In the Midwest the railroad corridors were Federal land grant corridors, often about 400 feet wide, and they were then fenced, immediately fenced, and they've never been plowed. Therefore, the remaining remnants of original prairie habitat are often located only in these railroad rights-of-way.

CURWOOD: Not only do these undisturbed corridors provide important sanctuaries for plants and animals, Burwell says they're also badly needed for people.

BURWELL: Let me put it very bluntly: we cannot afford as a country to lose these corridors. They are excellent linear parks for recreation, biking, hiking, horseback riding, jogging, nature appreciation -- all of which are, demand is increasing for those kinds of recreational facilities around the country. They're also historic corridors, railroad corridors connect small towns and they were built during the 19th century, when the country was industrializing. They also have very high conservation values. So they have all sorts of different reasons to preserve them.

(Sound of biking)

CURWOOD: So far, Burwell and his Rails to Trails Conservancy have gotten over 5000 miles of old rail corridors designated as biking, hiking, and recreation trails. The Minute Man bike path, northwest of Boston, runs from the western terminal of the subway system out through the towns of Arlington and Lexington to Bedford. The trail parallels the route the British took when they retreated from Concord and Lexington in the first days of the Revolutionary War. It's convenient for me, because it runs just a few blocks from my home in Lexington, to just a couple of hundred yards from the editorial offices of Living on Earth in Cambridge. Commuting by bike is a great way to get some fresh air and back to nature a bit. In many places, the trail passes through sweet meadows and quiet forests. As I bike by homes, I get a sense of life before the invention of the automobile. People who used to commute by car call it progress.

(Taped interview: trail commuter)

CURWOOD: So, you're a commuter. Where do you come from and where do you go?
MALE COMMUTER: East Arlington, and I go to Hanscomb Air Force Base in Bedford. So I don't take the bike route all the way but it sure avoids Mass Ave, which is nice.
CURWOOD: So, now, what's the best part about taking your bike into the subways now?
FEMALE COMMUTER: Oh, I enjoy it, I enjoy the fresh air and it's a way to fit exercise into my daily routine and I really appreciate being away from the pollution caused by the cars. It's very restful.

CURWOOD: The person who's probably most responsible for creating this eleven mile long linear park is Allen McGlennon, director of planning for the town of Arlington. Plans to extend the subway out into the suburbs fizzled out in the 70's, but the bikeway that was part of the subway plans still seemed like a good idea to McGlennon. The only thing required was persistence. It took nearly 17 years to get the various bureaucrats, from the railroad to the state to the towns, to sign off. It was hard, he says, to convince people that the railbed was a valuable piece of engineering that should be used and enjoyed.

McGLENNON: When this railroad was laid out in 1846, it passed through a section of Arlington known as the Mill Brook Valley. As we ride up you'll see that over a three-mile stretch we only rise about 200 feet. And this is one of the sections of the area around Boston where you can get through the hills.
CURWOOD: Is this unique for here, or is this something can you generalize to the rails-to-trails experience?
McGLENNON: One of the fascinating things about rails-to-trails phenomenon is that railroads were always trying to find the gentlest grade. It also depended on whether they were carrying passengers or freight. If they were carrying freight the grade had to be very, very shallow, because they would carry a hundred cars of coal, for example, in Pennsylvania. So the rails paralleled the rivers, because the rivers had found, created the valleys. And you end up now, as those rails are getting abandoned, you have phenomenal opportunities for rail trails.
CURWOOD: So you don't have to have a ten-speed even, you can use your old three-speed?
McGLENNON: You can use your three-speed, even a single-speed on this trail, and on most of them.

(Sound of construction)

CURWOOD: They're still pounding in the guard-rail posts. Construction on the bike trail isn't done yet, but people have been flocking here since the first rough coat of pavement went down in the summer. While most users of the trail are recreational, McGlennon says he expects about three thousand commuters will use the trail regularly, and that should get a lot of cars off the road.

The State of Massachusetts still owns the Minuteman, and it's in the new National Rail Bank. That means that, someday, it could be revived as a rail line. But that doesn't have to mean the end of the bike path. One rail-banked trail in Iowa went back in service to haul coal to a power plant, and the bike trail was relocated to one side.

(Sound of fife and drum corps)

A throng of bikers and a fife and drum corps in Colonial garb helped mark the opening of the Minuteman Bike Path this fall -- the 500th trail in the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Project. Allen McGlennon presented David Burwell with a commemorative railroad spike, in thanks for his role in the project. It's too early for it to be a golden spike, but that doesn't stop Burwell from dreaming.

BURWELL: This is a great, a great day for us. We're very excited about it. I want to thank you all for coming. The purpose of this day is beyond the Minuteman, 500 to 500, is the concept of 500 trails, one great idea. And the one great idea is linking them all together so we can go back to one trail, one continuous interconnected trail all over the country. And that's our goal.

(Sound of band)

CURWOOD: More than a hundred years ago, Americans first rode coast to coast by rail. David Burwell says he expects that in his lifetime he'll be able to bike from coast to coast on some of those same railroad beds.

(Music up and out after applause)



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