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Abandoned US Railroad Tracks Find New Life

Old Tracks Find New Purpose as Cyclists Ride Railsi
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October 28, 2013 5:13 PM
Thousands of kilometers of railroads once criss-crossed the United States, carrying the freight that kept America's economy steaming. While trains are still important to the economy today, they play a much smaller role. Thousands of kilometers of tracks have been abandoned... including a segment of the Kansas-Missouri-Texas Railroad, better known as the “Katy,” that runs across half of the midwest state of Missouri. But, as Shelley Schlender reports from Sedalia, Missouri, that unused line became the first to find new purpose as a bike path, thanks to the Rails to Trails Conservancy.

Old Tracks Find New Propose as Cyclists Ride Rails

Shelley Schlender
— The morning sun shines like gold on the two rails of train tracks that run through Sedalia, Missouri.

An automobile rumbles over the tracks then disappears up the street.

A clanging crossing gate drops, allowing a lone engine to chug by pushing a single boxcar.

When trains were king

Ten blocks away, three dozen tourists dressed in bicycling clothes, gaze up at a train museum that looks like a palace topped by a towering, green tiled roof.

Tour guide Kathleen Boswell says this historic depot dates back to the 1860s, when trains were king.

Hundreds of trains stopped at the depot along the Kansas-Missouri-Texas Railroad, also known as the Katy, each week.

However, by the 1970s, so many trucks and planes carried freight and people, that the train tracks were largely abandoned.

In the 1980s, private donors worked with government officials to turn this stretch of track into the tourist attraction it is today.

New way to ride the rails

The former Katy railway is now one of longest recreational trails in the National Rails to Trails Conservancy. It was also one of the first.

The tourists hop onto their bicycles and take to the trail, gearing up for a week of biking up to 80 kilometers a day. They'll be pedaling along a car-free trail that winds through hardwood forests and train tunnels, past corn fields and beside the expansive Missouri River.  

The group is among the nearly half-million people who use the Katy Trail every year. More than 20,000 of them come from out of state.

“I love biking. That’s why I’m here," said Stacy Heikes, who is from Colorado. "I love biking in new places. Right up the road, I hear, there is a burr oak that’s a state champion in size.”  

A tour agency called Road Scholars organized this group’s itinerary, and it encourages side trips to train museums, vineyards and the Missouri state capital.  

The historic murals at the capital building in Jefferson City captured California resident Alice Frost's heart.

“The one mural in the senator lounge was just magnificent," Frost said. "I had never been to Missouri before and I had put it on my low list of places I might like to go, but after seeing it, I see there’s many good things for vacationing, and I’m enjoying it.”

Paying off

The Katy Trail cost $6 million to build. Today, the state of Missouri spends a small fraction of that each year to maintain the 390-kilometer long trail.

Katy Bike Rental owner Todd White says the resulting tourist traffic means the investment pays off.

"The economic impact study says that $18.5 million every year [is] getting sprinkled along this trail," White said. "Two hundred and fifty thousand meals and, of course, the bike shops and different support services along this trail as well.

Many Missouri cities now require major roads and bridges to include a bike lane, and for residential areas to add bikeways that link up with the Katy Trail, according to White.

Since beginning with the Katy in the 1980s, the Rails to Trails program has helped convert 32,000 kilometers of abandoned train tracks into recreational paths. The group's ultimate goal is to create a nationwide network of connecting trails.

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