Removal of the existing railroad tracks on a federally regulated freight rail line (such as the SCBRL) requires that the line is railbanked. Thus, an Interim Trail, where the trail is built on the railroad track alignment, requires railbanking to be feasible. Railbanking is a complex process that requires approval of the Surface Transportation Board (STB), the federal agency with regulatory jurisdiction over the interstate freight railroad network. A brief summary is provided below. A full discussion of railbanking on the SCBRL was provided during the September 2, 2021 and February 3, 2022 RTC meetings.
The SCBRL is a 32-mile long federally regulated freight railroad between Davenport and Watsonville. SCCRTC purchased the SCBRL land and assets from Union Pacific in 2012 but did not purchase the freight easement. Since the SCCRTC's purchase of the SCBRL, the freight easement has been held by the contracted freight operator on the line. SCCRTC is currently contracted with Saint Paul and Pacific Railroad (SPPR). Therefore, use of the SCBRL right-of-way is shared between the SCCRTC as the landowner and SPPR as the holder of the freight easement.
Railbanking is a legal mechanism created by the federal government as part of the National Trails System Act Amendments of 1983 that allows for the preservation of a railroad right-of-way where a railroad might otherwise be fully abandoned. Railbanking is a voluntary process governed by the STB in which a railroad operator and a trail agency agree to enter into a legal agreement to use a freight railroad corridor as a trail (or other interim use, including passenger rail transit) until an unspecified future time when the railroad returns to freight service. Railbanking preserves the integrity of the continuous railroad right-of-way for the future reactivation of freight service and prevents any easements from reverting to the underlying property owner. Preserving easements would facilitate SCCRTC's preservation of the continuous 32-mile corridor. Construction of an interim trail on the existing railroad track alignment, a trail next to the railroad track alignment (trail with rail), passenger rail transit, or a combination of uses would all be allowable should the SCBRL be railbanked.
Although railbanking defines a process through which an interim trail on the existing railbed could be constructed, it is unknown if railbanking will be feasible. The SCCRTC does not have complete control over the process. For railbanking to occur, a Notice of Abandonment would need to be filed with the STB. The holder of the freight easement is the entity that would typically file the Notice of Abandonment. Although the holder of the freight easement, SPPR, provided a notice of intent to abandon the line, they have not moved forward, due to potential objections. Railbanking would be more feasible and simplified if affected parties could reach a mutual agreement. If not, SCCRTC could file with the STB to attempt to force abandonment. If the Corridor is unable to be railbanked, any interim trail that requires the removal of the railroad tracks would be infeasible.