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Model What Used to Be: Abandoned Trackage.

May 10, 2009

abandoned Western Pacific Mainline at Niles

Since the beginning of the railroads not every commercial venture between two steel rails has always worked out for the better. There are over 10,000 miles of abandoned right of way in the US alone, probably much more if you count yards, sidings and industrial spurs.

Often, abandoned right of ways tell almost, if not more of a story then the active lines you’d model on your railroad. Most times bridges were left in place, signals still standing (some still operating years after the track has been abandoned!) Of course embankments, ballast and the right of way itself will remain until redevelopment or nature destroys it.

Railroads merge and traffic dries up, creating duplicate routes and usually the one that’s costlier to maintain is abandoned. Case and point would be the Southern Pacific’s Altamont Pass line. It was steeper in grade and featured sharper curves to the rival Western Pacific mainline just across Alameda Creek. Rails were removed in the 1980’s when much of the traffic along the line had disappeared, and what was left was easily served by the WP mainline (namely the Kaiser Gravel Plant at Radum, between Livermore & Pleasanton, Calif.)

The mess of industrial trackage that can still be found in most American cities that experienced industrial growth before 1940 is another interesting example. Really tight curves, crossovers, diamonds, double slip switches and small yards would be utilized to efficiently serve the major industries of the day. Often the buildings were built with the curvature of the railroad tracks in mind, as were fence and property lines. One can trace former industrial trackage without great difficulty as long as it hasn’t been completely redeveloped. Many older industries simply left the trackage in place and removed their mainline connection (usually a switch) sometimes they would have a few obsolete railroad cars delivered before this would happen to be turned into storage.

When railroads fail completely, due to lack of traffic or commercial business reasons, the right of way is either left to rust or ripped up. All infrastructure except for ballast is sold off and the grade is left to nature. Most often when this happens, especially if it’s in a scenic location near affluent residencies, a “rails to trails” program is started, which usually paves the right of way with a bike path. The Southern Pacific’s San Ramon Branch is an excellent example of this, as is the Northwestern Pacific’s line to Tiburon. It would be interesting to model a little paved pathway with bikers and joggers with evidence that tracks once existed there.

Disasters can also cause a line to be abandoned. The Eel river plagued operations on the NorthWestern Pacific railroad up in Norther California’s Redwood Empire. The river would rise more than 40 feet, washing out bridges, flooding tunnels, destroying buildings and eroding embankments. Eventually the line was so unprofitable that it was abandoned. Plenty of other hard-to-maintain railroad lines have had their rails pulled up.

Here’s some excellent examples of abandoned trackage:
Abandoned Railroad crossing with a soon-to-be abondoned tower guarfding the ghost trackage.

Abandoned switching lead in a yard

spectacular suggestion of what once was, abandoned freeway overpass with retaining walls, bridge abutments, and  piers.

Abandoned Industrial Trackage and a branchline that's had its rails pulled up.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Rangachari Anand permalink
    May 11, 2009 9:51 am

    Very nice layout – is this yours?

  2. Dunc permalink
    April 2, 2011 3:48 am

    An aspect often overlooked on most layouts. I have a small piece of abandoned trackage coming off a wye where the yet to be built expansion will eventually be joined by rail. But for now, it is a rail-less roadbed rotten ties left in place to remind that at one time (or in this case “in some time”) traffic continued to the north.

  3. Andrew permalink
    March 4, 2012 12:39 am

    The reality is that when railways are abandoned, it’s not for economic reasons, it’s for political reasons. If there’s a downturn in the economy, you’re not going to rip out the road from in front of your house.

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