Banking operates on trust; many of them used to have the word in their names. When you deposit money in a bank, you expect it to be there if you need it. If a banker ever told you, "Gee, you know, I've actually come to like this money a lot, and I really need it to buy gym equipment," you'd take them to court.
Apparently trust doesn't go for much in the world of railbanking. This process was set up in the late twentieth century when railroads were going bankrupt. The freight business was dwindling, and railroad companies didn't want to pay to maintain lines that they didn't use. At first, they just abandoned them, but then the government recognized that many of them had acquired their rights-of-way with government subsidies.
Rather than give that land away for free, Congress passed laws allowing agencies and nonprofits to buy it and convert it temporarily to recreational trails. There was always the implied guarantee that rail uses for these corridors was still a priority, and that if a railroad wanted the land back it could get it easily. The term "railbanking" deliberately invoked a metaphor with financial banking: you deposit the right-of-way to keep it safe for future use.
Nowadays, with driving and motor freight getting more and more expensive, current rail corridors are getting overburdened. In places like the D.C. suburbs, people are looking at reactivating the rail corridors, and encountering resistance. Many of the opponents object to active rail lines in their backyards or parks, but others object to returning rail-trails to their previous uses.
Because of this, I think it's appropriate to look at rail-trail projects with a certain amount of skepticism. Mrs. Transit and I are members of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, and we get their magazine, which is invariably upbeat and cheery. It's full of exciting stories about how this old railroad line has been transformed into a trail with educational exhibits telling kids about its history, and that one is used by commuters in some small city in the Midwest.
What it often glosses over, of course, is the loss of passenger and freight capacity that occurred when the line was abandoned. How the people who lived nearby were forced to drive or take buses whether they wanted to or not, and how the roads were widened to accommodate the increased car and truck traffic. It also glosses over any hint that the right-of-way could or should ever revert to rail use.
There are some times when I read about a trail and think, "well, that's nice, but imagine if they still had commuter rail along that line. Or if this town had Amtrak service three times a day."
Don't get me wrong, I love rail-trails. Plenty of times I want to go for a nice long walk in the woods, but I don't want to climb a narrow twisty hiking path or worry about cars on a suburban road. I've spent many an enjoyable hour on the South and North County Trailways, the Walkill Valley Rail-Trail and other wonderful paths in the region. I think that we need more long-distance corridors for walking and biking that can give people a break from dealing with cars. But I think that often, we have a greater need for trains, and we need to think about that when deciding what to do with particular corridors.