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What Is a Railroad Right of Way?

Barbara Wells
Barbara Wells

U.S. railroad construction began in the 1820s with the New Jersey Railroad Company and spread rapidly. By 1850, East of the Missouri River had about 9,000 miles (14,484 kilometers) of track. In 1862, congress signed the Pacific Railroad Act and by 1869, the transcontinental railroad was completed. To encourage railroads in Western U.S., Congress granted "right of way" to run tracks across lands. Initially, the right of way granted a fee. After the Railroad Act of 1875, the right of way granted an easement only, no fee. Therefore, a railroad right of way is a right of passage through the public lands of the U.S.

In general terms, easement is the right to use another's property for a specific purpose. Specifically for railroad construction, easement refers to the right to cross or use a land for a specific purpose. A common misconception is that easement gives one ownership of the land. However, easement for railroads is simply a right of use and occupancy and does not mean that the railroad company has a right over the land itself.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

Congress began granting railroad right of way to companies in 1835. In 1875, Congress adopted a general law codifying the practice. The changes produced by the railroads' grants of easement had positive effects by encouraging and directing immigration and promoting tourism. Before the age of automobiles and highway systems, such easements were necessary to create a vast transportation network.

When a railroad company ceases to use the land for the purpose for which the easement was granted, the condition reverts. This means that easement no longer applies. In cases where a railway company purchased a property for railroad construction, naturally, its rights are unaffected even if rail service is discontinued.

Discussion Comments


The railroad operates using antiquated technology and they do not spend any money upgrading their tracks or the infrastructure they sit upon. I'm from Council Bluffs, Iowa, and the Union Pathetic regularly denies 911 access to entire neighborhoods. They abuse these laws that are over 150 years old, and they operate rail yards and lines that encompass 45% of all land inside our city limits.

This has prevented my city from growing and prospering. We cannot attract companies that provide good paying jobs. They destroy city sewers and streets and shake apart the foundations of hundreds of homes within a mile of their tracks. The railroad does more damage than good and it's pathetic that this new infrastructure bill, just passed, doesn't address reorganizing and relocating rail yards or tracks!


I find it interesting that once a railroad is no longer in use the property right of way goes back to its original owner. That could be fairly complicated if the railroad hadn't received so much land from the government as they were building the railroads.

I know the railroad industry is still important, but not used nearly as much as it was years ago. You wonder what will happen to all of the land with so many abandoned railroads.


It is interesting to think about how the railroad industry shaped the United States so many years ago. There are still many railroads in use today, but many of them are no longer used.

I have a friend who has made a career working for the railroad and was once shown a copy of the railroad right of way maps for the particular railroad he worked for. That was a lot of right of way privileges, and this was just for a particular section of the country.

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