How Abandoned Urban Railways Can Be Recycled- An Overview


Have you ever wondered how life was like over two centuries ago? Well, in the mid-19th century, the U.S. was rapidly expanding westward and at the time, railroad technology was state-of-the-art. Thousands upon thousands of kilometers of track were laid, with locomotives carrying supplies and people to new frontiers.

Before the advent of automobiles and the consequent creation of the interstate highway system, railways were the lifeline of a bygone era, connecting cities across the country. In fact, it would not be remiss to state that without trains, industrialization and settlement of the western part of the U.S. could not have occurred as rapidly as it did. However, over time, vehicles were invented and highways and roads spread across the country at a much faster rate than railways ever did. What used to be primarily transported on trains would eventually be carried on roads by large trucks.

Although railroads remain active and relevant across the U.S., thousands of kilometers of track have been abandoned in the intervening years, with additional sections of railroad falling into disuse every year. So what happens to these abandoned urban railways?

How abandoned urban railways can be recycled

To begin with, the physical parts of old railway tracks are usually recycled. For instance, metal rails can be removed and sold as scrap metal which, in time, gets recycled to form new products. As for wooden railroad ties, these can find new uses, say, as landscaping timbers.

Having done away with the metal rails and wooden railway ties, you are now left with empty corridors representing prime real estate that is long and flat and which connects small towns. While some of the old railway lines may be purchased by adjacent landowners, most old railways are often converted into multi-purpose recreation trails that can be used for among others, cycling and walking.

These rail trails (as they are commonly referred to as) have become quite popular across the U.S., with local governments at the state, county, and city level as well as other private groups and conservative organizations eagerly seeking out abandoned rail lines in order to develop trail projects that will be of benefit to local residents.


The first reported case of recycling abandoned urban railways was the Elroy-Sparta State Trail in Wisconsin which opened in 1965. Currently, the longest developed rail trail is the 240-mile Katy Trail located in Missouri. However, the Cowboy Trail in Nebraska (321 miles) is likely to eclipse the Katy Trail once completed.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC)

Over the past quarter of a century, communities wishing to convert abandoned railroads to trails have received tremendous support from the RTC- a non-profit organization that is dedicated to building a nationwide network of trails from abandoned railways and connecting these corridors to build healthier places aimed at benefiting the locals. Presently, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has overseen the development of over 30,000 miles of trails and is working to add a further 8,000 miles to that total.

Since the entanglement of architecture, industry, and infrastructure highly represents important segments of 20th century urban life, the end of their use cycles raises pertinent questions concerning their local and formal impacts. This is why organizations such as the RTC are pivotal, especially as concerns the recycling of abandoned urban railways.