Monday, May 20, 2019

Legal Issues Associated With Abandoned Railways


For farmers and ranchers (and other rural landowners) owning agricultural land adjacent to railroads, the abandonment of an active rail line presents a number of real property issues.  What is the legal effect of the abandonment?  Does state or federal law apply?  What about fencing?  These (and others) are all important questions when a railroad abandons a line.

Abandoned rail lines and legal issues – that’s the topic of today’s post.

Legal Effect of Abandonment

During the nineteenth century, many railroad companies acquired easements from adjoining landowners to operate rail lines.  In some instances, railroads acquired a fee simple interest in rights-of-way and in those situations, can sell or otherwise dispose of the property.  In most situations, however, a railroad was granted an easement for railroad purposes, usually acquired from adjacent property owners.  The general rule is that a right-of-way for a railroad is classified as a limited fee with a right of reverter if received from Congress on or before 1871, but is classified as an exclusive use easement if the right of way is received after 1871.

If the railroad held an easement, the abandonment of the line automatically terminates the railroad's easement interest, and the interest generally reverts to the owners of the adjacent land owning the fee simple interest from which the easement was granted. See, e.g., Penn. Central Corp. v. United States Railroad Vest Corp., 955 F.2d 1158 (7th Cir. 1992).

After abandonment, state law controls the property interests involved.  Once abandonment occurs, federal law does not control the property law questions involved. The only exception is if the United States retained a right of reverter in the abandoned railway.  Under the Abandoned Railroad Right of Way Act (43 U.S.C. § 912), land given by the United States for use as a railroad right-of-way in which the United States retained a right of reverter had to be turned into a public highway within one year of the railroad company’s abandonment or be given to adjacent landowners.  Later, the Congress enacted the National Trails System Improvement Act of 1988 under which those lands not converted to public highways within one year of abandonment would revert back to the United States, not adjacent private landowners.

What About Recreational Trails? 

In 1976, the Congress passed the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act in an effort to promote the conversion of abandoned lines to trails.  Under the Act, the Secretary of Transportation is authorized to prepare a report on alternate uses for abandoned right-of-ways.  The Secretary of the Interior can offer financial, educational and technical assistance to local, state and federal agencies.  In addition, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) was authorized to delay disposition of railroad property for up to 180 days after an order of abandonment, unless the property was first offered for sale on reasonable terms for public purposes including recreational use.  The National Trails System Act amendments of 1983 authorized the ICC to preserve for possible future railroad use, rights-of-way not currently in service and to allow interim use of land by a qualified organization as recreational trails.  Effective January 1, 1996, the Congress replaced the ICC with the Surface Transportation Board (STB), and gave the STB authority to address rail abandonment and trail conversion issues.  The organizations operating the corridors as trails assume all legal and financial responsibility for the corridors.  This is known as railbanking.

Under the 1983 amendments, a railroad must follow a certain procedure if it desires to abandon a line.  A potential trail operator must agree to manage the trail, take legal responsibility for the trail and pay any taxes on the trail.  The STB engages in a three-stage process for railroad abandonment.  First, a railroad must file an application with the STB and notify certain persons of its planned abandonment.  The application must state whether the right-of-way is suitable for recreational use.  In addition, the application must notify government agencies and must be posted in train stations and newspapers giving the public a right to comment.  Second,the STB then determines whether “present or future public convenience and necessity” permit the railroad to abandon.  A trail organization then must submit a map and agreement to assume financial responsibility and the STB will then determine whether the railroad intends to negotiate a trail agreement.  Third, if such a determination is made, the STB will issue a “certificate of interim trail use” or a certificate of abandonment.  The parties have 180 days to reach this agreement.  If no agreement is reached, the line is abandoned.  Abandonment of a railroad right-of-way cannot occur without the prior authorization of the STB.  See, e.g., Phillips Company v. Southern Pacific Rail Corp., 902 F. Supp. 1310 (D. Colo. 1995).  But, once abandonment occurs, the STB no longer has any jurisdiction over the issue.  See, e.g., Preseault v. Interstate Commerce Commission, 494 U.S. 1 (1990).

Before passage of the 1983 amendments, it was clear that when a railroad ceased line operation and abandoned the railway, the easement interest of the railroad in the line reverted to the adjacent landowners of the fee simple.  See, e.g., Consolidated Rail Corp. Inc. v. Lewellen, 682 N.E.2d 779 (Ind. 1997)However, as noted, the 1983 amendments established a more detailed process for railroad abandonment and gave trail organizations the ability to operate an abandoned line.  While most railroads hold a right-of-way to operate their lines by easement specifying that the easement reverts to the landowner upon abandonment, after passage of the 1983 amendments, a significant question is when, if ever, abandonment occurs. One court has held that the public use condition on abandonment does not prevent the abandonment from being consummated, at which time STB jurisdiction ends, federal law no longer pre-empts state law, and state property law may cause the extinguishment of the railroad's rights and interests.  See, e.g., Fritsch v. Interstate Commerce Commission, 59 F.3d 248 (D.C. Cir. 1995), cert. denied sub. nom. CSX Transportation v. Fritsch, 516 U.S. 1171 (1996).  

A more fundamental issue is whether a preclusion of reversion to the owner of the adjacent fee simple is an unconstitutional taking of private property. I will analyze the constitutional takings issue is a subsequent post.  Suffice it to say, however, in 1990 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the 1983 amendments as constitutional.  Preseault v. Interstate Commerce Commission, 494 U.S. 1 (1990). But see Swisher v. United States, 176 F. Supp.2d 1100 (D. Kan. 2001).  

Recent Case

Numerous issues (including issues associated with fencing) involving the abandonment of a rail line were front and center in a recent court decision from Kansas.  In, Central Kansas Conservancy, Inc., v. Sides, No.119,605, 2019 Kan. App. LEXIS 29 (Kan. Ct. App. May 17, 2019), the Union Pacific Railroad acquired a right-of-way over a railroad corridor that it abandoned in the mid-1990s.  At issue in the case was a 12.6-mile length of the abandoned line between the towns of McPherson and Lindsborg in central Kansas. A Notice of Interim Trail Use (NITU) was issued in the fall of 1995.  The corridor was converted into a trail use easement under the National Trails System Act. 

In 1997, Union Pacific gave the plaintiff a "Donative Quitclaim Deed" to the railroad’s easement rights over the corridor, with three-quarters of a mile of it running through the defendant’s property at a width of 66 feet.  Pursuant to a separate agreement, the plaintiff agreed to quitclaim deed its rights back to the railroad if the railroad needed to operate the line in the future.   By virtue of the easement, the plaintiff intended to develop the corridor into a public trail.  In 2013, the plaintiff contacted the defendant about developing the trail through the defendant’s land.  The defendant had placed machinery and equipment and fencing in and across the corridor which they refused to remove. 

In 2015, the plaintiff sued to quiet title to the .75-mile corridor strip and sought an injunction concerning the trail use easement over the defendant’s property. The defendant admitted to blocking the railway with fencing and equipment, but claimed the right to do so via adverse possession or by means of a prescriptive easement.  The defendant had farmed, grazed cattle on, and hunted the corridor at issue since the mid-1990s.  The defendant also claimed that the plaintiff had lost its rights to the trail because it had failed to complete development of the trail within two years as the Kansas Recreational Trail Act (KRTA) required. 

In late 2016, the trial court determined that the two-year development provision was inapplicable because the ICC had approved NITU negotiations before the KRTA became effective in 1996.  The trial court also rejected the defendant’s adverse possession/prescriptive easement arguments because trail use easements are easements for public use against which adverse possession or easement by prescription does not apply.  During the summer of 2017 the plaintiff attempted to work on the trail. When volunteers arrived, the defendant had placed equipment and a mobile home on the corridor preventing any work. The plaintiff sought a "permanent prohibitory injunction and permanent mandatory injunction." The defendant argued that he had not violated the prior court order because "[a]ll the Court ha[d] done [was] issue non-final rulings on partial motions for summary judgments, which [were], by their nature, subject to revision until they [were] made final decisions."  Ultimately, the trial court granted the plaintiff’s request for an injunction, and determined that the defendant had violated the prior summary judgment order.  The trial court also held that the plaintiff had not built or maintained fencing in accordance with state law. 

On appeal, the appellate court partially affirmed, partially reversed, and remanded the case.  The appellate court determined that the defendant did not obtain rights over the abandoned line via adverse possession or prescriptive easement because those claims cannot be made against land that is held for public use such as a recreational trail created in accordance with the federal rails-to-trails legislation.  The appellate court also determined that the plaintiff didn’t lose rights to develop the trail for failing to comply with the two-year timeframe for development under the KRTA.  The appellate court held that the KRTA two-year provision was inapplicable because a NITU was issued before the effective date of the KRTA. 

However, the appellate court determined that the plaintiff did not follow state law concerning its duty to maintain fences.  The appellate court held that Kan. Stat. Ann. §58-3212(a) requires the plaintiff to maintain any existing fencing along the corridor and maintain any fence later installed on the corridor.  In addition, any fence that is installed on the corridor must match the fencing maintained on the sides of adjacent property.  If there is no fencing on adjacent sides of a landowner’s tract that abuts the corridor, the plaintiff and landowner are to split the cost of the corridor fence equally.    The appellate court remanded the case for a determination of the type and extent of fencing on the defendant’s property, and that the plaintiff has the right to enter the defendant’s property to build a fence along the corridor.  Any fence along the corridor is to be located where an existing fence is located.  If no existing fence exists along the corridor, the corridor fence is to be located where the plaintiff’s trail easement is separated from the defendant’s property.  The appellate court remanded to the trial court for a reconsideration of its ruling on fence issues. 


Abandoned rail lines create numerous legal issues for adjacent landowners, including a mix of federal and state law.  In addition, fencing issues get involved and those may be handled not under the general fence laws of the particular state, but in accordance with fencing provisions specific to the conversion of abandoned rail lines to trails.  In any event, for those that believe they have been negatively impacted by a rail line abandonment, seeking good legal counsel is a must to protect whatever landowner rights remain.

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