What is the Surface Transportation Board? *
To quote from the STB’s own website:
“The Surface Transportation Board is an independent adjudicatory and economic-regulatory agency charged by Congress with resolving railroad rate and service disputes and reviewing proposed railroad mergers.
The agency has jurisdiction over railroad rate and service issues and rail restructuring transactions (mergers, line sales, line construction, and line abandonments); certain trucking company, moving van, and non-contiguous ocean shipping company rate matters; certain intercity passenger bus company structure, financial, and operational matters; and rates and services of certain pipelines not regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The agency has authority to investigate rail service matters of regional and national significance.
Created on January 1, 1996 by the ICC Termination Act of 1995, the Board is the successor to the former Interstate Commerce Commission (1887-1995) and was administratively aligned with the U.S. Department of Transportation from 1996 to mid-December 2015. The STB Reauthorization Act of 2015 established the STB as a wholly independent federal agency on December 18, 2015.”
(More at: https://www.stb.gov/stb/about/overview.html)
Why can’t a railroad owner just declare a rail line abandoned? *
There is a formal process overseen by the Surface Transportation Board that has to take a number of factors into account. To quote again from the STB:
“Most abandonment applications are filed by the rail carrier owning the track to be abandoned. The most frequent type of abandonment requests the STB receives is from a railroad stating that the track has not been used for two years or more (such a case is entitled “Notice of Exemption”) or that the track has so little traffic on it that it is clear that the carrier could not be making a profit on it (such a case is entitled a “Petition for Exemption”).
Pleadings filed in opposition to abandonments are usually filed by shippers or receivers who are stationed along the line to be abandoned, but other persons may also file in opposition provided that they either challenge the railroad’s statements as filed or offer evidence to show that the shippers and receivers on the line would suffer more harm by losing the rail service than the carrier would suffer by continuing to provide the service.
Procedures are available for those who would like to purchase the line and assume the common carrier obligation to provide service (contract or non-contract) over the line, or who would like to offer the carrier a subsidy to continue to provide the service. This is called an “Offer of Financial Assistance.”
Procedures are also available for those who would like to see the rail corridor made into a public trail or who would like to put the right-of-way to another public use.”
Note that most cases have to be filed by the owner of the track – and it’s also not entirely up to them. Shippers and other parties with an interest in keeping a rail line can contest abandonment; there’s an element of public interest involved and it comes from when railroads often had a monopoly on transportation. Abandonment could destroy a local economy.
An additional consideration is competition. A railroad can’t simply declare a line abandoned in order to keep another railroad from assuming control of it, or when there are other potential operators ready to assume use of the line. Again, public interest is a factor. The STB has to balance competing interests with the overall aim of keeping rail corridors in service or at a minimum intact for future use. The abandonment process is not casual, and with good reason.
“…You take 260 trucks off the road for every train. Highway maintenance cost avoidance is huge.” The environmental and economic development advantages can be calculated as well. “You can move a ton of freight 100 miles on one gallon of fuel, which means shippers can look to savings with rail versus trucks…”
Why is railroad ownership complicated? Don’t they just own the land and can do what they want with it? *
In a word, no. While a railroad may own the land under the tracks outright, in many cases it doesn’t. It has an easement. (Link to Wikipedia article on easements: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easement) In fact, a rail corridor may be nothing but easements obtained from the actual landowners along the corridor.
How easements are written varies. In the case of the Catskills Rail Corridor, the easements are written with specific language specifying “for railroad use only”. The easement is only good as long as the land is being used for a railroad – remove the tracks and the easement is no longer in effect. The corridor disappears. The land reverts to the original owners and any new uses have to be negotiated afresh.
This is further complicated by the fact that a rail corridor may have had several operators in succession over its history, and the land on which the easements were granted may have gone through a number of owners as well. Determining ownership can quickly become an arduous task – and financially disastrous when rails are removed without “getting all the ducks in a row.” Here’s just one example:
(Link to this news article: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/was-public-railroaded-in-trail-deal/)
“…Meaning: The railroad didn’t own a lot of the land. For parts of the line, it was selling only the right to run a railroad. Nothing else.
“In a sense the railroad sold them the Brooklyn Bridge,” says Tom Stewart, a national plaintiffs lawyer.
As a result, last month the federal government agreed to pay out a huge settlement, $140 million to 253 property owners along the Eastside rail line from Renton to Woodinville. The money is compensation for using their land for the planned hiking and biking trail. A whopping $35 million of that goes as a fee to the lawyer, Stewart.”
The lesson is, before removing a rail line, be very clear that all the ownership issues have been taken care of first.
* NOTE: the above three FAQs and the answers to them are offered for a basic orientation only. Consult an attorney with knowledge of these matters in depth before making any decisions or entering into any commitments.