One of the nicest features of a rail trail is that it is straight and level. You will especially appreciate this fact if you have ever pushed your bike up the switchbacks of the Eastside Trail or called after you children to “Be Careful!” as they zip down and around one of the steep and curvy sections of the Rockdale River Trail.
Why is there such a difference between these types trails? Multi-use trails like Eastside, Rockdale River, and Arabia Mountain were built in recent years, long after the surrounding areas were developed. Consequently, they must zigzag between subdivisions and developments, follow property lines, parallel roads, or hug stream banks and floodplains where land is available and undeveloped. Hills and sharp curves are sometimes unavoidable.
By contrast, railroads were originally constructed a century or more ago across open farmland or forest. They had the freedom to take the long way around in order to avoid extreme terrain features and to create a line with gentle slopes and curves. Development occurred later, along and around the railroad.
Smooth and gentle was not merely a preference, it was a necessity. Steel wheels on steel rails provided relatively low traction for locomotives to pull against or for the braking of freight cars. Long trains can’t manage sharp corners; trains require slight grades and long curves. These factors required that our predecessors go to great lengths when constructing these railroad lines – cutting through hills and filling valleys – to accomplish these gradual inclines and curves.
Now, years later, as we convert our old railroad to a rail-trail, we benefit from the work of these pioneers – we have gentle pathways that pass through scenic vistas.