Railroads are a vital part of North America’s freight transportation system. According to the Association of American Railroads (AAR), more than 600 freight railroads operate in Canada, Mexico and the United States on over 173,000 miles of track. In the United States, an estimated 40 percent of all goods are transported by rail, and that percentage is growing. The U.S. Department of Transportation projects that total freight demand will rise by 92 percent from 2002 to 2035.

To meet this increase, railroads have been investing billions of dollars. In 2007 alone, freight railroads spent almost $10 billion to expand and maintain infrastructure and equipment. These projects represent valuable opportunities for surveyors. However, working along a railroad also presents some specific challenges. Before embarking on a railroad project, surveyors should understand the basics of safety regulations, property issues involving rights-of-way, and valuation maps.

Surveyors should obtain the current right-of-way information and related permits from the railroad before embarking on a survey project.

Safety First

Safety should be a primary concern in every survey project, but strict adherence to safety practices is imperative when performing railroad surveys. “Safety is the railroad industry’s number-one priority,” says Edward R. Hamberger, president and chief executive officer of the AAR. “Railroads have an enviable safety record that is the direct result of commitment to programs and practices aimed to reduce accidents and protect employees.” The Roadway Worker Protection Rule, passed in 1996 as Subpart C of the Federal Railroad Administration Roadway Protection Regulations, is a set of federal regulations designed to protect railroad workers and prevent accidents or injuries that result from the movement of rail cars, locomotives and maintenance-of-way equipment. Under this rule, contractors to a railroad-including surveyors-are included in the definition of roadway worker:

Roadway worker is defined as any employee of a railroad, or of a contractor to a railroad, whose duties include inspection, construction, maintenance or repair of railroad track, bridges, roadway, signal and communications systems, electric traction systems, roadway facilities or roadway maintenance machinery on or near track with the potential of fouling a track, and flagmen and watchmen/lookouts as defined in this rule.[1]

Instead of developing their own safety programs, contractors are required to comply with each railroad’s existing programs and on-track safety procedures, and employers must ensure that their employees receive adequate training in these programs and procedures:

Each roadway worker is responsible for following the on-track safety rules of the railroad upon which the roadway worker is located.[2]

When an employer assigns duties to a roadway worker that call for that employee to foul a track, the employer shall provide the employee with a job briefing that includes information on the means by which on-track safety is to be provided, and instruction on the on-track safety procedures to be followed. A job briefing for on-track safety shall be deemed complete only after the roadway worker has acknowledged understanding of the on-track safety procedures and instructions presented.[3]

These and other general safety policies are maintained and published by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). However, every railroad is required by the FRA to implement its own subset of on-track safety procedures. These policies may vary slightly from one railroad to another, so anyone performing a survey along a railroad should consult with the railroad’s safety director to ensure that they have the most current and accurate on-track safety manual for that particular railroad. According to a technical bulletin issued by the FRA in January 2005, “Roadway workers who provide on-track safety for others must have the manual at the work site for easy reference. Lone workers must also have this manual easily available to them. FRA does not intend that an individual should have this manual on his or her person while performing work, but to have the appropriate sections available and readily accessible to all roadway workers at the work site.”

Figure 1. A railroad valuation map legend.


The term “right-of-way” is sometimes used to describe a right belonging to a party to pass over the land of another.  It is also used to describe the strip of land upon which railroad companies construct their roadbed. When used in the latter sense, the term refers to the land itself, not the right of passage over it.[4] In cases where a railroad has temporarily abandoned or “rail banked” the service of a particular line, it is often assumed that such property has automatically been abandoned or has reverted to the adjoining landowners; however, this is a misconception.

Like all other transportation industries, railroads take safety and security issues very seriously, and nonrailroad employees have been arrested for trespassing along a railroad. Section 214 Appendix A of the Roadway Workers Protection Rule lists the civil penalties that can result from violations of the rule by contractors or nonrailroad employees. Some may question whether the federal policies outlined by the Roadway Workers Protection Rule would take precedence over any local right to trespass along a railroad while surveying, but most will agree that it is better to err on the side of caution given that these rules governing the safety of railroad employees and contractors apply equally to all outside parties.

Before beginning a railroad project, surveyors should obtain a right-of-way permit (also called a “warrant to trespass”) in addition to the appropriate safety documentation and briefings. The process of obtaining the necessary permits and right-of-way information varies and may require applications and associated fees. Many railroads have these applications and instructions available for download from their Web sites.

Figure 2.  A portion of a valuation map showing a station and the adjoining parcel of land purchased by the railroad.

Valuation Maps

When The Valuation Act was passed into law on March 1, 1913, it required the Interstate Commerce Commission to organize a Bureau of Valuation. The newly formed bureau was tasked with creating an inventory of the real property and assets of every railroad in the United States. The original purpose of this legislation was to derive the shipping rates charged by each individual railroad as a function of the total net value of its property and assets.

The actual valuation process began in 1914 and was completed by 1921. Each railroad was divided into a series of valuation sections of varying lengths, and the resulting valuation maps were compiled on wax-faced linen map sheets typically measuring 24.25 inches tall by 56 inches wide. Each map sheet contained a legend describing the type of map (e.g., right-of-way, track, station or land), the railroad ownership, operating division, survey stations at the beginning and end of the map sheet, map scale, valuation section number and state, and sheet number (see Figure 1). The maps were drafted showing the center line of a given track plus the boundaries of the right-of-way. Distances in standard 100-foot chaining notations were also included marking some of the more prominent features, such as switches, culverts, fences, signal stands, water bodies, crossing locations, and bridges and other structures owned or served by the railroad (see Figure 2). Stationing was also shown for Public Land Survey System features such as section and quarter-section lines as well as property owned by the railroad outside of the main rights-of-way, points of tangency for curves, and the center line of grades.

Strict adherence to safety practices is imperative when performing railroad surveys

Most modern railroad valuation maps include a schedule of property, which contains details about the grantor, grantee, instrument of transfer, date of the transfer, reference to the proper deed book, the custodian’s number and other information that is relevant to any portion of the railroad property. Valuation maps also include callouts for the identification of various pipeline and cable crossings along a right-of-way. These easements or encroachments are often noted as “contracts” and are typically included within the map or listed in the schedule of property.

Having all of this information readily accessible should make the surveyor’s job easy. Unfortunately, the countless mergers and buyouts that have occurred throughout the history of our nation’s railroads have created a history “puzzle” of sorts when trying to determine the proper names (grantees) of the railroads involved at the time of the valuation as well as researching all of the deeds and other land records. Furthermore, most modern railroads are not shown as the grantee on any of the valuation maps compiled between 1914 and 1921. Today, they are simply the successors that are made up of all the railroads that have been merged together and acquired over the years.

For this reason, surveyors involved in a railroad project should be prepared to do some research on the history of that railroad. Museums, preservation societies, Web forums and historians are typically more than happy to share their knowledge about a particular rail line. Be aware, however, that some railroad historians are considered right-of-way specialists and, depending on the complexity of the task involved, may charge fees for their services.

When researching the deeds to a given railroad right-of-way, surveyors should note the type of instrument used with the transfer of title including any reversionary clauses if applicable. The information contained in the legal instrument used will specify whether a right-of-way was chartered, transferred in fee simple or condemned, or whether it contains any reversionary conditions. Railroad valuation maps offer guidance to the proper records and title transfers but should not be deemed as a replacement for the necessary title work and deed abstracts. Having detailed information about the railroad-including the date of its construction, changes with the road name, and other historical information-is invaluable for ensuring an accurate survey.

Many railroads have begun adopting GIS to serve as a warehouse for managing data, and this trend should improve the availability of current valuation maps and related information in the future. GIS databases begin with a railroad base map, in which scanned images of the hard-copy maps are georeferenced. Linear, areal and point features can then be digitized. Once this digitization has taken place, spatial queries can be performed to retrieve information about a particular segment of railroad property. Updates to the GIS and its accuracy are further enhanced with data obtained from field surveys, which presents additional opportunities for survey work. Having a working geographic-information and property-management system therefore offers significant benefits for both surveyors and the railroads.

Effectively surveying along a railroad requires sound knowledge of its history, right-of-way information (including titles and deeds) and, most importantly, the required safety procedures. By understanding these and other important issues, surveyors who work along a railroad will be able to stay on the right track.


1- 49 CFR Part 214, Definitions: §214.7.

2- 49 CFR Part 214, Responsibility of individual roadway workers: §214.313 (a).

3- 49 CFR Part 214, Supervision and communication: §214.315 (a) and (b).

4- Black's Law Dictionary, 5th ed.

5- Preseault v. ICC, 494 U.S. 1 (1990).


Railroad Lingo

Are you a mud chicken? Have you ever talked to a mudhop? Visit the Catskill Archive’s Glossary of Railroad Lingo to find the definition of these and other railroad terms.


Rails to Trails

The National Trails System Act of 1968 was amended by Congress in 1983 to include provisions that protected the nation’s railroad corridors. Congress’ first attempt at preserving the railroad rights-of-way appeared as the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act of 1976. This act came at a time when railroads were abandoning many of their less-profitable lines at an alarming rate, which caused concerns that the nation’s railroad network would become fragmented.

Part of the solution was to use the inactive railroad beds as trails for recreation and nonmotorized transportation. This action not only preserved the railroad rights-of-way but also complemented the National Trails System Act. Section 8(d) of the act gives “the national policy to preserve established railroad rights-of-way for future reactivation of rail service, to protect rail transportation corridors, and to encourage energy efficient transportation use.” This law permits a railroad, through permission granted by the Surface Transportation Board, to free itself from the task of maintaining an unprofitable rail line by temporarily transferring it to a qualified agency (public or private) for use as a trail system. The law includes provisions that such a corridor may be reactivated for future rail use if the need arises through a process known as “rail banking.” The rail banking law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990 when it was deemed as a “valid exercise of Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.”[5] By noting what formerly active railroad beds are targeted for rail banking, surveyors can offer their services with the transfer of ownership to provide the necessary monumentation once the tracks have been removed.

The Rails to Trails Conservancy is a nonprofit organization that serves as a depot for rail-trail information. The group is highly active with the legislation and funding for the preservation of many former rail corridors. Currently, more than 13,000 miles of formerly active railroad rights-of-way are being preserved for trail use throughout the United States. For more information, visit www.railstrails.orgz.

Editor's note: The photos in this article are not intended to represent all required safety procedures and equipment.