Tom Sexton

On this episode of Train Time, Tom Sexton, NE Regional Director for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, explains the growing movement to combine passenger rail service and multi-use trails. While many people think that trails mean no trains, the reality is that the two forms of transportation work well together, and offer benefits to both rail service providers and to the walkers and cyclists who enjoy the expanding network of trails. Examples abound, and Tom points out ways this design approach could be applied more widely on existing and new or restored rail lines.


Note: This transcript was created using AI and is imperfect. For purposes of quotation, please check the actual recording! It is time-stamped , which is useful as a guide to finding a point in the recording, but please be aware that the time-stamps may not be a perfect match to the published podcast.

SPEAKERS: Tom Sexton, Karen Christensen; recorded Tue, 11/9/21 11:14AM • 24:36

Karen Christensen 01:43
Tom, good morning. How are you?

Tom Sexton 01:45
I’m well, thank you.

Karen Christensen 01:47
Glad we could do this. Although I must admit, I think back to the time when you came to Great Barrington, we were live at St. James place with people all around the room. This is a little bit different.

Tom Sexton 02:01
Yeah, I’m I’m intrigued. I haven’t done one of these quite in this in this matter before.

Karen Christensen 02:07
But it gives us a chance to talk about something that’s actually important, interesting and surprising. to a larger audience. I remember when you came to Great Barrington and spoke about rails with trails, how surprised and energized people were, by the end of that, because it was like, their eyes were wide open, they’d never thought of it. So that’s, that’s what, why don’t you tell us, I think the thing that’s better known as rails to trails, and this is, of course, train time, we’re talking about Rails most of the time, so. But you bring it a different perspective on rails and trails.

Tom Sexton 02:57
Yes, most people think of rail trails, that’s the, you know, that’s the product when you’re all done developing a corridor and, and the actual trail part of it. But rails with trails are a subset of, of the, the 24,000 miles of rail trails, we have in the United States, and we’re finding that many more rails with trails are coming online. And overall, it’s really smart to share rights of way these corridors, these linear corridors, they’re harder to create every year, because there’s more stakeholders. United States, the planet is getting denser, it’s hard to just draw a line on a map and say, we’re going to go from A to B. And we’ll work it out on the way that was easy. When across the Great Plains, and you didn’t have to relocate people in other services and go under or over. And now, it’s, it’s a different story. So to look at totally, we need to share rights of way these these corridors with with each other, it doesn’t matter if it’s a highway, or utility, or a railroad, it’s really not a good and it’s not the highest and best use of that piece of property. to only have one user, it’s very inefficient. And it’s cost a lot more to maintain and manage that corridor. When you have only one entity, if you’re sharing, if you’re sharing with a utility, or you’re sharing with a rail. There’s there’s more entities that share in the acquisition, and, and the the maintenance of it, and the operation and management manage of it. But it’s really it’s difficult sometimes, because it’s a different way of doing business. And unfortunately, some people just are slow to come around, but we have a lot of rail trails, which share for utility rights of way. It could be sewage, it could be electrical fiber optics, etc. And this is basically the same concept when we share with an active railroad.

Karen Christensen 05:56
And how has this evolved? The I assume that, that rails to trails that when railroad lines were closed down that that at some point here and in other countries people thought of using the that property for for trails. But But obviously, it’s a more much more complex picture, I think people have have the idea that that you know, you either have a railroad or you have a trail and once things have gone in, you know, once the railroad is gone, it could never For be put back things could never be shared. It’s a, it’s a, you know, it’s a zero sum, which is not what you’re talking about.

Tom Sexton 06:46
Right! We began in 1986, the Rails to Trails Conservancy began to open their doors that year. And there were some rail trails out there before the term was even coined. And before there was an organization. And, and some of those were rail with trail already. So these things were happening, there weren’t there weren’t many. But today, we have over 400 rails with trails, which again, are a subset of the bigger set of pathways we’ve just referred to as rail trails. And we have, let’s see, yeah, we’re over 400 at this point. And, and it’s and it’s growing. You have Massachusetts, seven of your rail trails, which are rails with trails, New England, all total has I think you’re up around 23. Now,

Karen Christensen 07:53
can you describe what you don’t one or two of those, I’d be really interested in where they are, we can actually put links on our when we put this podcast up, because I actually want to go and see it for myself. I’ve seen some of your photos, but I’d love to go and see in Massachusetts.

Tom Sexton 08:10
Sure. And perhaps you and some of your your listeners have already been there and just didn’t notice because it’s it’s it the the two exists side by side very well together, maybe the closest one to where you are would be the Norwalk attic section of the mass Central Rail Trail, your Northampton, which also connects to the Mehan rail trail. And then going south, that’s those trails pretty much come together. Right, in Northampton, and they go under the the Amtrak line. And then they go out to Amhurst. And it goes it goes south south towards a Connecticut border from there. But that’s a rail with trail. Your your I bet people don’t even really think, right?

Karen Christensen 09:12
How do these things come about? What’s the what’s what’s the you? Would you say that there’s any common?

Tom Sexton 09:22
Well, yeah, I think we’re gonna see a lot more of those. For example, one, we’re building really, really long distance connections and and I’m working in New England a lot now to connect the six states. And you often have a disconnection where you want to go and link that city with this city. And for whatever reasons, the the easiest way to get there perhaps, is already not not available, it’s now a highway, or it was it was plowed over to be a farm way, or just reverted back to the other landowners. But there might be an active railroad where you can share that right of way. And sometimes the railroad isn’t really active, but it’s not abandoned. So you can construct a trail and and keep the option open for rail to come back. And Rails to Trails Conservancy really does hope that rail service, their transit, commuter freight come comes back in a big way because we need a more balanced transportation system that’s easier on the environment, and more convenient and gives and gives people choices. Unfortunately, we’ve kind of gotten to a road building mindset. And we just can’t get through the places we’d like to in different in different ways. But if we maintain the corridor, it now it’s really that that’s the important thing. If the the historic line corridor had one track or two tracks or three tracks or more, then and none of those are either abandoned or they’re inactive. That gives you a little more have an easier time to co locate.

Karen Christensen 11:39
Yeah, cuz there’s a lot more space there. How do you look for I’m thinking of the rail trail that that the Metro North line that I take at the moment until the Berkshire line is running again. It goes from, from New York City to was, say New York, and it stops there. But there’s a from there, there’s a trail that goes north on the old Harlem line. And that’s wide enough. You see people on bikes and and walking, and there’s really it’s it’s plenty wide enough for both. Is that is that a usual thing?

Tom Sexton 12:20
Yeah, you can. Sometimes they’re they’re very close together. Sometimes they have a fence in between them. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they’re at different heights, the train may be lower than the trail, or vice versa. But you’ll find that at first people think, oh, that that seems unsafe. But it’s actually very safe. Because it’s railroad corridors contend to be a little bit isolated. And isolation is is the problem is that’s when you have unsafe conditions, because no one’s watching. And fences don’t even take care of that totally. And you could have cameras monitoring rights of way. But somebody has to watch those cameras. And so what I’m saying is that, when you bring in a trail, you actually create a safer corridor, total corridor,

Karen Christensen 13:31
and you mean safer for the railroad in terms of ah,

Tom Sexton 13:36
yeah, yeah. safer and safer for everybody. The railroad, because the best monitoring that goes on in a corridor, are our people that are staying off the tracks, and they do they stay on the trail, there’s no reason to go on the tracks, historically, with these 400 rails with trails. People, people don’t go to the tracks, there’s no reason to go over the tracks.

Karen Christensen 14:03
Right. Right, if you have a trail there. And of course, I guess for the those who are cycling and walking to the fact that there is a train service through again, it’s it’s it’s just not as isolated.

Tom Sexton 14:17
Transit loves it. And if if a trail user see something going on, you have train users that do this all the time. They’re, they’re whizzing by and they see something happening in that corridor, they get on their phone, and they call Yeah. Or they clap, or if there’s a, you know, a railroad employee. Easily accessible. They’ll tell them but that happens all the time to same with someone you or I, who see somebody if they were vandalizing or they were lost, or they were crossing the tracks and looked like they were having a problem. Very few people on a rail trail now don’t have a cell phone. Yeah. And you get on and you call 911. And you alert people. Doesn’t happen often. But and the other thing is that if people, people who are going to do something they shouldn’t, they want to do that away from everybody else. So right away, the use of that corridor by trail people just sends those people away, they’re not going to vandalize, they’re not going to dump they’re not going to hang out and and you know, look for somebody that that that they can steal their purse from or just, it just it’s not happening and we’ve we have 24,000 miles of these things. So it’s pretty mainstream now. And and the rail with trail subset of this is is mainstream as well, Massachusetts, in 2013, actually passed a policy at there at the Department of Transportation that made it easier to put rails with trails in place. Maine did the same thing. New Hampshire just introduced that legislation last week, so you’re going to see a lot a lot more of these and and they really do make a lot of sense.

Karen Christensen 16:31
Who does the planning, does that kind of create some action? Extra demands, you know that my experience is that the people who plan the engineers who plan, railroad projects are probably rather different from the people who plan trails. I mean, how you have to get both groups to get, you know, both sort of professionals together are there people who specialize in this particular thing,

Tom Sexton 16:57
you want to have it, you know, we want to have a partnership, you want to have a cooperative partnership. And most times when these are, these projects are put in place, the railroad and the rail trail interests, work work together. And it might be your rural or metropolitan planning organization that helps facilitate things in the planning. And then when it moves to the more intricate design and engineering of that partnership, that side by side partnership, then they’ll pull in consulting firms that can really get down to the nitty gritty. And fortunately, there are more and more who have some experience with Rails with trails.

Karen Christensen 17:53
Because obviously, with the infrastructure bill having been passed, there’s going to be a lot of different projects going on. And I would love to see because the thing about trails that gets people on on bikes and on their feet and not in cars. So it’s a great fit with an increased use of real roads for passenger travel. Now when when you spoke in Great Barrington, one of the things that I remember galvanized the audience and we were talking most about the Berkshire line that goes right through town, is it people are concerned about parking cars, cars, enter the conversation because people’s like, you know, there’s gonna be all this traffic and all this parking if there’s a train service people want to use. And I remember you’re pointing out that by adding trails that you can create a lot more opportunity for people to get to stations in without using a car.

Tom Sexton 18:59
Yes, I mean, depending on how far they’re they’re coming from a lot of folks and this is proven in transit for many, many years. If you provide some folks a couple miles connection via a trail, they’ll take their bike if it’s a mile half a mile connection, that’s an easy walk. It’s a Safe Walk they don’t have to worry about cars and and that’s that should be thought of as even a bigger context is is when you create you know a point of of density be whatever you’re constructing and and if you can integrate a trail with that or make sure your sidewalks are built and they’re connected and the crossings are are well yeah. And if you don’t have if you don’t have a pedestrian corridor, either a trail or sidewalks then you can think about on road bicycling connections and all those need to be thought about when you’re creating this this hub of of activity because we don’t want to and that’s kind of getting away from the point of a lot of this is we don’t want to keep building 100 space parking lots in everywhere.

Karen Christensen 20:35
Exactly. And it’s it’s really funny because I’ve been involved in a couple of conversations about the last mile issue getting people around and I have I guess people talked a little bit about having rental bikes versus you know city bike like concept but there’s been virtually no conversation about just making it easy for people to walk or actually easy and safe for them to ride a bike to the station. You know the actual physical layout and of course there are things to do as you say to make it so people feel comfortable getting on a bike they feel comfortable walking they have you know, obviously having ways to lock up the bike but those you know, having safe crossings, good lighting that good signage even

Tom Sexton 21:25
Yeah, yeah, it’s it’s all makes it easier for people to get around to get around town and do have purpose connections so that when they get off the transit, if they want to hop on their bike and go home fine if they need to stop in the market or they need to stop for another reason, you want to you want to have you want to have choices, you shouldn’t have to be relegated just to an automobile at that point. I mean, of course, we, as you get further and further away, that becomes more difficult. But we need to think about satellite parking lots and that kind of thing. But now, like, you know, with more people possibly working in home, you’ll you’ll have less, less strain on on all that. But we’ll see.

Karen Christensen 22:26
Yeah, yeah, no, no, for the there are a variety of of private projects and initiatives, not just here in the northeast, but around the country, people trying to get passenger service revived on small as revived or expanded on sometimes quite short lines, sometimes longer lines, if they want to make sure that as they you know, in the earliest conversations about Pat, you know, improved passenger rail, that they can start to think about and learn about that possible trail components, what’s the best way for them to do that?

Tom Sexton 23:07
If they want to learn about this kind of facilities? Yeah, oh, I should have said in the beginning. But our website has a lot of good, easily accessible information on this. It lists all the rail trails in United States. So you can see the ones that are around around you, it has sort of those questions that frequently asked questions that pop pop up, when when people who are not familiar with this kind of facility, want one note. And it lists the different states like Massachusetts that has good enabling policy. So advocates can share that with decision makers, and let them know that this isn’t odd stuff we’re talking about anymore. This this is pretty much mainstream. And there’s a lot of comparables out there, there’s a lengthy record of safety. And it’s really, you know, something that’s easily easily understood now and documented.

Karen Christensen 24:23
That’s great, because I think it’s not as well known as it should be and and I appreciate your coming on to Train Time to make so we can do our best to make sure train advocates across the country know about this and start thinking about it, because it’s so it’s so future, you know, a future positive. And write really, really great a great way to think about, I mean, improving, it’s it’s better for towns, obviously, the climate impact is significant. But in a quality of life. Getting out of the car seems to be a great thing to do whenever we can. So thank you for your work. I look forward to seeing you in person again, one of these days, Tom.

Tom Sexton 25:10
Yeah, be happy to come up and do another presentation and update everybody on on how far we moved on this situation. Last year, and 2020. Federal Railroad Administration came out with a study that was in the works for about five years. We’ve done several studies over the last 30 years on this, but the federal government released their report and found the same things that we were finding that it’s it’s common, and it’s safe and it’s growing.

Karen Christensen 25:51
Oh, that’s terrific. Okay, well, I have to get the link from you and will include that too. And

Tom Sexton 25:55
yeah, that’s, that’s on our website, again, for our toolbox and just use key word rails with trails. It’ll pop up.

Karen Christensen 26:05
Terrific. Thanks so much for being here.