Abandonment in the context of railroad tracks refers to the discontinuation of their use for transportation services. This can involve removing the tracks entirely or leaving them in place for potential future use or repurposing. The process is typically initiated by the railroad company and must be approved by a regulatory body. The reasons for abandonment can vary, including economic factors, decreased demand, or shifts in transportation needs.

Key takeaways

  • Definition: Abandonment refers to discontinuing the use of railroad tracks and potentially removing or repurposing them.
  • How it works: The process involves filing a petition with a regulatory body, public notice, public input, regulatory review, and finally approval or denial. Legal steps and track removal or repurposing follow approval.
  • Types:There are several types of railroad track abandonment, ranging from partial to complete cessation of use. Some instances include seasonal or functional abandonment, where tracks are only used at specific times or repurposed for non-transport activities. Others involve legal or de facto abandonment, which relate to the formal or informal discontinuation of service.
  • Pros and cons: Pros: Land reuse, cost savings, potential environmental benefits, and local development. Cons: Lost connectivity, job losses, resource waste, infrastructure decay, and possible increase in carbon footprint.
  • Explore your options: If faced with potential track abandonment, community members can participate in public hearings or submit comments to voice concerns. Legal challenges may be an option, or local entities could consider purchasing the tracks to maintain service. Alternative uses, such as turning tracks into trails, can also be proposed.

How it works

The process varies by jurisdiction but generally aims to balance the interests of all stakeholders.

The process of railroad track abandonment typically begins with the railroad company filing a petition for abandonment with a regulatory body, such as the Surface Transportation Board in the United States. Upon receiving the petition, the agency issues a public notice to inform local communities and other stakeholders. This opens a period for public comments, objections, or alternative proposals, such as selling or donating the tracks. After reviewing all submissions and evaluating the economic and environmental impacts, the regulatory body will either approve or deny the request for abandonment. If approved, legal procedures are undertaken to finalize the process, leading to the eventual removal, retention, or repurposing of the tracks. The procedure aims to balance the interests of the railroad company, local communities, and broader transportation networks.

Step by step instructions to abandon a specific track:

  • Filing petition: A railroad company starts by filing a petition with a regulatory body, often the Surface Transportation Board in the U.S.
  • Public notice: The agency issues a public notice to inform communities and stakeholders of the proposed abandonment.
  • Public input: There's a window for public comments, objections, or alternative proposals like track sales or donations.
  • Regulatory review: The agency reviews all submissions and assesses the economic and environmental impacts.
  • Approval or denial: The regulatory body makes a decision, either approving or denying the abandonment request.
  • Legal procedures: If approved, legal steps finalize the abandonment, including land and asset transfers.
  • Track removal or repurposing: Finally, tracks are either removed, left in place, or repurposed based on the terms of the approval.

What are the different types of abandonment?

Each type has unique implications for communities, transport networks, and the environment.

Partial abandonment: Only certain segments or sections of the rail line are discontinued, while others remain operational.

Complete abandonment: The entire railroad line is shut down, including all tracks, stations, and services.

Seasonal abandonment: Tracks are used only during certain times of the year, remaining unused otherwise.

Functional abandonment: Tracks remain but are repurposed for non-transport uses, like walking trails or art installations.

Legal abandonment: Formal legal procedures are completed to officially cease operations and relinquish ownership of the rail infrastructure.

De Facto abandonment: Operations cease without formal legal proceedings; tracks may still technically be owned but are not used.Emergency abandonment: Temporary cessation due to natural disasters, accidents, or other unforeseen circumstances.

Pros and cons


  • Land reuse: Freed land can be repurposed for parks, housing, or other community needs.
  • Cost savings: Reduces maintenance and operational expenses for railway companies.
  • Traffic alleviation: Can decrease congestion if replaced by efficient public transport systems.
  • Environmental benefit: Potential decrease in pollution if rail lines convert to green spaces or non-polluting transit.
  • Local development: Nearby areas may attract new investments or businesses.


  • Lost connectivity: Abandonment can sever important transport links, impacting local economies.
  • Job loss: railway employees may lose jobs, affecting communities.
  • Infrastructure decay: Unused tracks and stations deteriorate, becoming eyesores or safety hazards.
  • Resource waste: Abandonment disregards the investment put into constructing the tracks.
  • Carbon footprint: Shift to road or air travel may increase carbon emissions.

In summary, abandoning railroad tracks can offer land reuse and cost benefits but may impact connectivity and community jobs.

Explore your options

Now that you're familiar with the complexities of railroad track abandonment, its types, and its pros and cons, you may want to explore options to either challenge or adapt to these changes. Community action groups, local government bodies, and specialized legal firms can offer expert advice and pathways for involvement. 

Whether you're considering public commentary, legal challenges, or proposing alternative uses for the tracks, partnering with these entities can help you navigate the intricacies of railroad abandonment processes effectively.

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