News & Publications

Rail Law Alert No. 11

Supreme Court Issues Decision on Nature of Federal Interest in Property Conveyed under the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 – Potential Impact on Rail-Trails

On March 10, 2014, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. U.S., in which the Court was asked to determine whether the federal government retained a reversionary interest in abandoned right-of-way it originally had granted to a railroad pursuant to the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 (1875 Act).  The Court held that the railroad’s right-of-way consisted of an easement, which was extinguished upon abandonment of its railroad purpose, and that the private landowner of the underlying property owned the property unencumbered by any reversionary interest in the federal government.

The holding in the Brandt case is limited to rights-of-way granted under the 1875 Act that were fully abandoned.  This case does NOT affect interests in the following types of railroad corridors:

  • Corridors that have been railbanked under the National Trails System Act at 16 U.S.C. 1247(d) and the accompanying regulations at 49 C.F.R. 1152.29.  “Railbanked” corridors are lines that were not fully abandoned and thus remain under the STB’s jurisdiction pending reactivation of the corridor by either the original abandoning railroad or its successor, or by another bona fide person or company that seeks authority to restart service on the line and has the necessary property rights to do so.  
  • Corridors located within states formed from the original 13 colonies.
  • Corridors originally granted to a railroad by the federal government over federal lands prior to 1875.
  • Corridors acquired from private land owners by the original railroads.
  • Corridors for which the interim trail user owns the adjacent land and/or is the fee owner of the corridor.