Join Malsce Today
Submit Button

The collapse of the American Railroad

Type:  Featured News  

 From The MALSCE Surveyor, Fall 2009, Vol 1 Issue 1

Full PDF of this issue available here

More than 183,000 miles of railroad tracks run throughout the United States of America adjoining literally tens of thousands of landowners. When stretches of this system become financially unfeasible, they are abandoned, and the tracks are removed. When the tracks are removed, and there is no monumentation showing where the tracks once existed, defining the location of boundary lines for adjacent property owners can be a costly endeavor.


In many western states the railroads were constructed before the survey of lands were performed by the General Land Office or other qualified agencies. When deeds were issued they would call for the railroad right-of-way. Since little, if any, monumentation was performed when laying out the railroad the only monumentation available would be the tracks, fences, culverts, etc., that were called for on the maps of the railroads. Numerous deeds call for the railroad right of way being 200 feet wide. It is an assumption, many times, that the 200 feet is measured from the center of the tracks and in order to calculate the right of way the tracks are surveyed, the center established, and then offsets made to determine right of way. If these tracks are removed then the monumentation is removed. Monumentation, whether man-made or not, is an integral part of retracing any property boundary.
The railroad tracks and the monumentation that lie within the railroad rights-of-way are paramount in defining the legal location of adjoining property lines. In many cases the railroad tracks are the only monumentation that define property boundaries. Land surveyors throughout the United States have retraced boundaries adjoining railroad property and when the tracks are removed the visible monumentation of landowners; property are also removed, causing the cost to survey and map the affected properties to escalate dramatically.
In some abandonment cases due to lack of monumentation, landowners must seek the determination of their legal property lines in court. One example is in Colorado, 05-CV-136, where taxpayers and landowners each paid over $100,000 in legal fees for Civil Court to determine the location of just one quarter-mile of abandoned property line.
This is not a local or regional problem. On average, each state in the United States will see the abandonment and removal of one financially-failed segment of railroad per year.
Monumentation lying within the railroad rights-of-way may be bridges, culverts, utility poles, fences, survey monuments, or other physical items. When construction is done on the railroad this monumentation may be destroyed and cannot be relocated without extensive research and survey fieldwork, if it can be relocated at all. Again, the cost of this procedure is passed down to the landowners adjoining the railroad, either directly or through legal action. If the railroad rights-of-way cannot be properly located it further burdens the land owners by putting a cloud of title on their property which in turn causes the title companies to deny warranty deeds or title insurance.
Attempts have been made in many states to address this problem with statutes, but very few have been enacted. The overall result is that there is no uniformity of legislation in the United States for railroads and landowners to solve this problem in a cost effective manner.
The American Congress on Surveying and Mapping is proposing Federal legislation that would address and solve the problem of railroad monument preservation in a uniform and efficient manner.
Modern technology such as Global Positioning Systems (GPS) can be used to accurately map the location of the rail tracks and/or other monumentation prior to the tracks or monumentation being removed or destroyed. Counties can provide storage for maps so they are no lost, destroyed or purposely kept from the people who need them. Preserving railroad monumentation is significantly less expensive than trying to survey and map the locations of railroad tracks and other monumentation after construction, disturbance or removal. Additionally, preserving railroad monumentation will drastically lower the cost and manpower required for accurate surveying and mapping of the monumentation location, while avoiding costly litigation of property rights borne by private citizens and stakeholders.
In summary, railroad tracks and other monumentation are often the only physical location of the boundary between a property owner and a railroad. When the monumentation is removed or destroyed it is costly to property owners to relocate it. The preservation of railroad monumentation benefits property owners in every state. It is a process that although was once a costly endeavor, can now be done quickly and inexpensively. Congress should protect property owners against the cost and hardship of relocating their boundary with railroads after the loss of monumentation by introducing preservation of railroad monumentation legislation.
Editor's Note: This is the first in a series, to be published, of journal articles highlighting the theoretical aspects
of Land Surveying. The original work was prepared as a White Paper for the National Society of Professional Engineers
(NSPS) and peer reviewed by that society. This is the premier publication of this work, courtesy of NSPS.




Sustaining Members








One Walnut Street, Boston, MA 02108-3616

Tel. 617-227-5551 Fax. 617-227-6783

Copyright 2017 by the Massachusetts Association of Land Surveyors and Civil Engineers. All rights reserved.

Supported by the Staff of