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.
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.