The Zombie Railways: Rail Lines That Are Coming Back to Life

The Herald News, "Fall River Rail Line Being Reclaimed After 60 Years of Inactivity". Jack Foley, Photographer.
Like any piece of infrastructure, or facility, a railroad line has a finite time of existence. A line is built, and functions as long as it is properly maintained and there is traffic on the line. Once that ends, it is either left in a dormant state, or the rails are dug up and sold for scrap. Dead railroad lines continue to stay dead, generally speaking, and their remnants sometimes make for some interesting discoveries decades later. As I've learned over the course of my abandoned railroad research, the abandoned railroad network is even more vast than our current network.

Streetcar tracks discovered during a construction project in Elgin, IL. Image: City of Elgin.
As railroad lines were consolidated, and continue to be consolidated, especially since the beginning of the 1970's, the scenario described reflects the vast majority of the lives of railroad lines. It is these abandonments that make up the majority of what I cover on this site.

That said, that is not the story of every railroad line. Some corridors follow a non-linear service timeline. Indeed, although it is uncommon, a railroad can be reactivated even following total abandonment.

First, let's discuss how much of the rights-of-way of abandoned railroad lines are preserved in the first place. While it may seem counter-intuitive, the railroad industry actually has the National Trails System Act to thank for this.

One of the most important terms in the case of reactivation involves the term "railbanking", in which the corridor is put into a "bank", where rails are usually torn up, but the corridor is saved in case railroad activity is ever required, like for a light rail or if a new factory is built next to the line. In the interim, this corridor can become a rail trail. While most of the time, the interim never comes, there are a few examples of railroad lines coming back, usually in piecemeal form. Here are some examples:

1) Andrews to Murphy line, North Carolina
Link to project study

Roughly 15 miles along US-74 separate Andrews, NC to Murphy, NC, which parallels the old Louisville & Nashville Railroad between the two cities. This line was abandoned in 1985 although the infrastructure was purchased by the State of North Carolina. The line underwent a corridor study in 2015, which recommended reopening the railroad as a freight corridor, which could add $60 Million to the regional economy.

In addition, a potential tourist railroad is proposed in the project study. Many tourist lines use corridors that would otherwise be abandoned, and in the case of the next reactivated line, that is exactly what happened...

2) Illinois Railway Museum, Union, IL.

In 1956, the Illinois Railway Museum was growing out of it's original North Chicago home and looking for a place to call home more permanently. A long abandoned interurban line paralleling the Chicago & Northwestern Railway in Union, IL offered a solution.

Image: The Trolley Dodger
The Elgin & Belvidere Electric Railroad ran between it's namesake cities and offered transfers to trolley systems leading to Chicago & Rockford on the east and west, respectively, but like many electric lines, it could not keep up with the automobile, and was abandoned in the 1930's.

The line was purchased for back taxes by the Illinois Railway Museum, who promptly moved their campus to the Union location, and has been there ever since. The museum reactivated a 7 mile stretch of the interurban used to showcase their steam and diesel operations by the mid-1960's.

IRM 1630, A former Frisco Steam Engine. Photo taken by me in August '14.
In this case, reactivation of the line resulted in a tourist railroad, which is how a few reactivations have occurred. These efforts are almost entirely the output of hundreds of hours of volunteer labor and a love of the railroad. Honolulu, HI has a tourist train after the abandonment of most of the Oahu Railway and Land Company trackage, thanks in large part to volunteers, as one example.

3) The Milwaukee Road in South Dakota

As the longest abandonment in US History, the Milwaukee Road Pacific Extension was abandoned in 1980, and most of it wasn't sold off to other railroads, including a roughly 275 mile stretch between Rapid City and Mitchell, SD. The State purchased the right-of-way and reactivated the line already between Presho and Mitchell, and is apparently working to restore the entirety of the line all the way to Rapid City, be it as a common carrier freight railroad, or a tourist operation. As of now, it's mostly used for railcar storage and a few short line operations.

Image: Larry Gibson, March 2009.
4) Maine Central's Calais Branch

Located in Northern Maine, the Calais Branch of the Maine Central Railroad was abandoned in pieces since the early 1960's, and it wouldn't be long before the entirety of the line was abandoned from Bangor all the way to St. Croix Jct, a distance of roughly 130 miles.

But in 2010, the rails got some life put back into them when the Downeast Scenic Railroad, another volunteer heritage railway began running a 5 mile route in Ellsworth, ME.

Image: Downeast Scenic Rail
The State of Maine also owns the trackage between Bangor and Ellsworth, meaning the possibility of further reactivation, either with freight or as an expansion of the Downeast Scenic. Such is the case of many reactivations; while some part of the line may be useful as a short line freight operation, a commuter rail or a tourist train, often only a small amount of the line returns to service.

I've written before about the necessity of rail trails, and how they benefit communities, the general public, and the rail industry alike, the rail system of yesteryear was overbuilt, and in a continuously efficient rail transportation environment, a railroad abandonment or railbank agreement is not the end of the world. And indeed, it might not be the end of the rail line itself, assuming the land is preserved.

The abandoned railroad network is confusing enough, and adding rail reactivations makes things even more confusing. That said, the next step on my abandoned railroad map is to create a reactivations layer, as some good news to the railfan and the rail industry needs to be shared, as well as described for context.

To my knowledge, no one has created a map of railroad reactivations, so if you know of any more, or any that might become reactivated, please let me know in the comments!

As always, thanks for reading, and have a happy Halloween from FRRandP!


  1. In 2010 Duke Energy began rebuilding a 10 miles stretch of the former PRR to service a power plant in Knox County, Indiana. The line is now open and in use.

    1. Hello Unknown!

      Thanks for the update. The line has been traced and is now on the map!

  2. Ellis & Eastern to rebuild, expand through Brandon ,


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