Rail trails are 'healthy' investments

February 05, 2012|By TIM ROWLAND |

As Washington County revives an old plan to run a rail trail through South County, it’s worth examining exactly what a rail trail is.

The original plan, floated in the early ’90s, didn’t fare so well, largely because the concept was in its infancy and people understandably didn’t know what to make of a plan to turn defunct rail beds into hiking, biking, skiing and jogging paths.

Two decades later, there is a mountain of evidence for anyone who cares to investigate. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has 150,000 members and a system that includes 20,000 miles of trails.

I’m not the nation’s foremost expert, but I’ve ridden hundreds, if not thousands, of miles of rail trails over the past two decades, all across the country. And last Sunday, Beth and I did what we often do — looked up a trail and went for a ride.

This particular ride took us to the Washington and Old Dominion trail in Virginia. We’d ridden the leg west of Leesburg, so this time we headed east.

I’d be real hesitant to buy into the idea that rail trails are some kind of economic savior. In my view, we get off point when we start talking about rail trails in terms of jobs and economic development. These trails are about exercise, health, bringing families together and enjoying the outdoors instead of sitting in front of a computer screen. That should be benefit enough.

Still, like most rail-trail enthusiasts, we didn’t think anything of driving 40 miles to get to a trailhead. While we were in Loudoun County, we ate lunch and bought a few groceries. So if this is your idea of stimulus, mission accomplished.

The ride through Northern Virginia suburbia is not terribly inspiring (the westward leg from Leesburg to Purcellville is far more picturesque). But it is instructive for those who want to learn about rail trails.

Those who were using the trail on this 45-degree day were about evenly divided among bikers, joggers and walkers. Horses are allowed, although they are encountered infrequently. No motorized vehicles are permitted, nor is bicycle racing or speed training.

The trail skirts schools, subdivisions, private homes, parks and playgrounds. Paved paths connect from the rail trail directly to housing developments — proximity to a rail trail is considered to be an asset, and a selling point for local properties.

Usership of the trail is all over the board. There are some fast cyclists, but no one anywhere in the neighborhood of world-class speed. At the other end of the spectrum are the moms and dads with a couple of toddlers in tow — laughing and crawling around looking at pebbles and plants, as toddlers are prone to do.

In between are folks walking or jogging with their dogs, older couples on a leisurely peddle, and joggers wearing Spandex and earbuds, their glazed eyes fixed on the ground — for them, heart rate is more important than bird calls, but it shows that the trail can reach a wide band of interests.

The trail is quite obviously a place where people feel safe. Kids of all ages use the trail without the need for supervision. Single women, young and old, jog and bicycle without concern.

For those with an interest in history, rail trails have frequent markers that tell the story of the local people (Ashburn, Va., was given its name when an ash tree caught fire, and was so large that it took a week for the fire to go out).

There has been some fear that trails create sprawl. Perhaps the best answer to that is that along 10 miles of the most sprawl-prone area in the state, the only enterprise that seemed to be catering to trail users was a barbecue shack. Remember, we are talking about a demographic that as a rule wouldn’t eat at a fast-food restaurant if you put a gun to their heads.

The Weverton route under consideration in Washington County would be visually superior to suburban paths, and would have the added advantage of being more lightly traveled. It would tie in with the C&O canal towpath, allowing for a multi-day trip going east or west.

It would link Hagerstown to what is becoming a growing, nationwide network of trails designed to, as the trail conservancy says, “build healthier places for healthier people.”

For those neighbors of this proposed trail who might not be fully convinced, go to, find a local trail and then go for a stroll. It will become clear that there’s one word to describe rail-trail developments, and that word is “healthy.”

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is

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