FROM RAILS TO TRAILS is the story of one of the most unlikely social movements in American history: the battle to convert thousands of miles of
private, abandoned railways into public trails for cycling and walking.
This conflict-filled tale of politics, economics, citizen activism and legal wrangling begins in the 19 th century, when cut-throat railroad barons constructed thousands of miles of track from coast to coast. It then flashes forward to the post-war 1950s, when the train started to be supplanted by the automobile and the truck, and some corridors began falling by the wayside. Next came efforts by early visionary “rail hikers” to save the old corridors who learned that the task was much harder than they supposed. Finally, the tale comes to a head as activists, lawyers and legislators join the fray, forcing court rulings and legislation that ultimately leads to a flourishing rails-to-trails movement.
The documentary touches on a range of high-profile contemporary issues and interests: resource and energy conservation, public health and fitness, environmental protection, urban transportation planning, rural economic development, the tension between public and private rights, and the role of citizen action in government decision-making.
The film is loosely based on Peter Harnik’s From Rails to Trails: The Making of America’s Active Transportation Network (2021), the first book
to recount the full history of the U.S. rails-to-trails movement.