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Is Headwaters Junction compatible with Riverfront Fort Wayne?

By July 28, 2019July 17th, 2020News and Updates

With proper urban planning, design, and implementation, cultural railroad attractions like Headwaters Junction are not only highly compatible with mixed-use development like Riverfront Fort Wayne but can become a unique and authentic complement to the types of commercial and pedestrian uses that help make public spaces come alive.

In their 2015 Riverfront Plan, SWA Group confided that Headwaters Junction would be a “catalyst for the riverfront” and would subsequently invite thousands of people to the riverfront year-round with its dynamic programs, educational events, and moving trains, providing both connectivity and recreation in Riverfront Fort Wayne.

In 2019, we asked Stone Consulting to review conclusions made by the David Rubin Land Collective during their time in Fort Wayne. The Land Collective self-professed a “prejudice” against railroad environments due to their limited experience with industrial freight and high-speed passenger train corridors and an admitted lack of familiarity with cultural or tourist railroad attractions. Despite the immense community support for Headwaters Junction in numerous public input sessions hosted by Land Collective, Headwaters Junction was not included in their recommendations.

Stone Consulting’s report – and the real-world precedents illustrated below – demonstrate compatibility with development, urban planning, and landscape design, with our own emphasis added.


Stone Consulting has worked on various issues regarding the Headwaters Junction project thanks largely to our design engineering background for recreational rail sites.

It is understood that the city’s consultants are justifiably concerned about the developmental impacts of reinstalling the track across the Riverfront Park area and how that will work with overall planning efforts for the revitalization of the community.

Fort Wayne has the opportunity to use the rail attraction site as a development catalyst that actually fits well with an overall development plan, as it functions as an ‘anchor store’ to attract year-round visitors. The concerns that consultants may have are not unfounded, but the purpose and execution of a heritage rail attraction can be done in far more community-friendly ways than what most people perceive as a ‘railroad corridor’.

Our design efforts for vintage streetcar projects in St. Louis, Kenosha, Tampa and other locations have focused on finding ways to build durable track corridors that meet railroad and regulatory requirements yet enhance the community goals rather than restrict them.

In Germany, this steam train attraction becomes the center of attention as it visits a park.

The German rail line is seamlessly integrated with the park.

Railroad Corridors Perceived as Pedestrian Barriers

The typical freight railroad track construction methods used today do form a physical barrier for pedestrians, and that’s typically just the beginning – with added fencing, barriers, and signage all intended to keep people away from the tracks for safety.

On the complete other end of the design spectrum are both vintage streetcar and urban light rail systems, that require a high degree of integration with both highways and pedestrians, and have developed design standards and practices to make the track structure as visibly unobtrusive as possible into the urban landscape. New Orleans, Kenosha and many European cities have led the way.

The middle ground – which is where recreational and vintage railroads interact with the public, has the freedom to design to either standard. The equipment runs at much slower speeds, has a quicker stopping distance due to shorter train length, has adequate trackside personnel to monitor safety, and has the ability to control their own standards rather than having a distant corporate engineering staff enforce them on an unwilling partner community.

Where these interactions do take place, designs have been developed to adapt larger equipment loads than streetcars to the urban design standards by using buried concrete ties that do not rot, combined with heavier (but level to the final surface) rail, and even grassed-in rail, patterned brick, or crushed limestone even to the railhead to facilitate pedestrians. It’s important to know that this is intended where train usage is infrequent and short, and train speeds are typically in the 10mph and less category for the areas immediately adjacent to terminals.

Railroad lines can be cleverly embedded in green ways, as featured here. This design allows pedestrians to easily move over railroad areas.

Federal track safety standards that also apply to excursion and heritage railroads still require that the tracks be inspected for safety, and that often involves visible tie condition. On some excursion railroads, local ordinances prohibit chemical weed spray, so the operators have to hand-mow the track structure. The specific federal track regulation only states that trackside and track structure vegetation cannot interfere with worker safety and function, not that it can’t exist, so a tightly-mowed ‘lawn’ track is actually possible even under conventional rail guidelines. Similar possibilities exist for ‘street’ trackage construction standards using bricks, asphalt, or concrete.

Rail access and track geometry requirements also can conflict with issues like parking areas, access roads, and other uses, but unlike typical freight railroad standards, can be far more flexible. Conflicts with infrequent rail access through parking areas in both Kansas City KS and Sacramento CA were solved by simply combining track with paved areas that could be cordoned off at the times when the tracks actually did need to be used for rail access.

In Steamtown, Scranton PA, the entire turntable area was not only surfaced level with the many tracks for pedestrian use, but the flangeways were filled with rubber material that prevented tripping hazards yet were crushable by trains moving across the pedestrian areas.

Developer Concerns about Railroad Corridors

Generically, the raised concerns by developers when confronted with a railroad corridor are correct. This is true when the majority of known urban Class-1 freight corridors have become neglected, often overgrown, and given the rise in trespasser accidents – increasingly fenced and patrolled to dissuade any kind of neighborhood interaction.

This assumes several things just by the word ‘railroad’ that do not necessarily apply in this situation:

1) Noise from fast-moving trains, along with the perceived hazards from unknown freight movements.
2) Movements all hours of the day and night that cannot be locally controlled.
3) Long trains and speeds that provide a hazard to anyone on the corridor.
4) Visual unsightliness from trash, brush, graffiti, and presence of trespassers.

The opposite is true when you look at urban planning criteria as applied to transit and recreational corridors where design is applied from the start to make the corridor as much a part of the neighborhood as is technically feasible. Where the ‘railroad’ is not really seen as a freight carrier, but either as a cultural resource or local tourism attraction, the ability of the site to draw visitors in mass numbers immediately changes that developer perception to more of a ‘transit-oriented development’, where developers compete to become as close to it as can be accomplished.

The Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad encircles downtown Portland, Maine. There are no fences or barriers that prohibit pedestrians from accessing the riverfront and the nearby train activity adds visual interest and appeal for trail users. Kevin Madore photo.

Multiple instances of this have occurred where former freight corridors, now involved in recreational/heritage railroading rather than either freight or pure transit, have spurred adjacent development rather that thwarted it. Stone Consulting has worked with:

1) Elkins WV – Where the rail line was actually reconstructed into a previously­ abandoned and environmentally compromised railroad yard; depot converted to a visitor center, resulting in new hotels, retail, commercial and West Virginia Railroad Museum site hosting the excursion railroad.

2) Astoria, OR – Hosts two miles of industrial track along the Columbia River waterfront, over a mile of it on wooden trestles serving the former cannery district. Track was preserved for potential freight use, but all bridges have been decked-over for joint rail and trail usage and hosts an active, seasonal, vintage recreational self-propelled trolley running on conventional track structure. Redevelopment along the industrial rail corridor for restaurants, condominiums, and retail has been extraordinary to the point that zoning restrictions had to be enacted for excessive development impacts from density and height:

3) Sacramento, CA – The hugely successful redevelopment of “Old Town Sacramento”, home of the Sacramento Railroad Museum (highest attendance railroad museum in the US with an active excursion railroad) created extreme controversy when adjacent new development pressure threatened the 1865-era Sacramento Shops buildings. Hotel and convention center development seek to locate directly in the historic district, requiring careful redesign of parking areas to allow existing historic tracks to remain yet allow new development to occur beside it.

4) Charlotte, NC – Restarting a vintage, volunteer-driven self-propelled trolley project on an abandoned freight corridor as a demonstration project triggered a development ‘rush’ along the corridor for condominium and commercial development, anticipating conversion of the corridor to actual full transit use. Years later, the complete redevelopment of the corridor – tightly packed along the railroad track – is complete, although the streetcar had to relocate as a result of the heavy transit traffic on the corridor that it triggered redevelopment on.

Therefore, while it is not necessarily true that the development of vintage, recreational rail facilities spurs a development boom, it is equally unfair to lump them in with typical urban freight and heavy-rail transit corridors that have earned a deserved reputation as undesirable neighbors that restrain it. Development organizations that recognize the sites are virtual ‘anchor stores’ for visitors immediately recognize that the typically ­depressed land values around what had been freight railroad corridors are an underpriced opportunity rather than a devaluing factor.

The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad is a seamless complement to the teeming visitors at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. There are barriers for vehicles, but not the railroad right-of-way. Craig Sanders photo.

Safety and Pollution Issues

The safety and accident issues that have occurred with heritage rail and museum attractions have been amazingly low considering the high number of visitors at the sites. The majority of minor injuries continue to slip and falls from the trains, and injuries from vintage train windows dropping on fingers. Actual serious accidents are rare, and those that have happened in the last five years or so have often been to volunteers working in train service rather than the general public.

High-volume operations in the hundred-thousands such as Strasburg and the California State Railroad Museum have had an excellent safety record with the general public. This is primarily due to the shorter trains, lower operating speeds (10mph and under in depot areas), and sufficient on-site supervision and staffing to clear the way and watch for visitor hazards. The true testimony to the relative safety of the operations continues to be that liability insurance for the operations continues to be available and affordable.

The final observation of development impact along recreational/ historic rail corridors is that one of the highest-ridership steam excursion operations in the northeast – the Strasburg Railroad, has become enough of a tourism magnet in Lancaster County PA that both the County and the Railroad have partnered to form a Land Trust to purchase adjacent undeveloped farmland to prevent further commercial and retail development that has attempted to crowd directly along the recreational rail corridor. This has become increasingly necessary as commercial interests have purchased parcels along the railroad for commercial development that has compromised the historic rural viewscapes.

Pollution Issues
Railroad attractions can actually mitigate smoke and emissions issues that concern the public, but they do require effort and advance planning.

The Charlotte Trolley arrives for passengers. Charlotte Trolley photo.

Most steam locomotive emissions issues originate from the choice of fuel, along with the quality of the fuel. Railroads long ago went to oil-fired steam locomotives to lessen soot, but good-quality coal makes just as significant a contribution. The real issues with vintage locomotives involve individual locomotives and how they are fired by the crew; fireman skill makes more difference than the fuel itself as a properly-fired locomotive emits a ‘gray haze’ rather than plumes of black smoke. Exhaust steam essentially has no color and is in direct proportion to how fast and hard the locomotive is working.

Headwaters plans relatively intermittent usage of the large locomotive – 765 – and seasonal operations of a smaller tank locomotive for occasional operations, balanced with more modern diesel-electric or a replica (battery powered) railcar. The only formal emissions studies of steam locomotives have been done by the National Park Service for the Grand Canyon Railroad, and the regularly-operating large steam locomotive was actually converted over to waste cooking oil for fuel. NPS came to the conclusion that petroleum oil-fired steam locomotive emissions, while different from busses due to lower combustion temperatures of the fuel, resulted in more soot content but fewer higher-temperature emission nitrogen oxides generally considered to be more of an undesirable pollution issue, and presented no special environmental hazard due to operation. A large steam locomotive continues to operation on NPS property today to the South Rim. Water consumption for steam, rather than exhaust smoke, has emerged as their major concern in Arizona.

Railroad equipment maintenance and repair requires good housekeeping, and a community with their railroad has a mutual responsibility for containment and monitoring of lubricants, paints, shop materials, etc. to professional industry standards to protect the public. In that realm, they are no different from any other commercial activity and need to be held to the same standards of inspection and accountability and expect no lesser treatment.

We encourage Fort Wayne to research these projects and consider the differences evident between what is being proposed for the Headwaters Junction project against the typical perceptions of the heavy railroading history of Fort Wayne. We can provide any assistance necessary with the contacts to appropriate development organizations involved, and we are proud in our participation of community development efforts by using railroads as a tool – for vintage streetcar, recreational rail and even railbike efforts.