What’s the best use of the old rail line that once carried passengers between Lansdale and Bethlehem?
A revived SEPTA commuter line, to Quakertown in upper Bucks County, and beyond to the Lehigh Valley?
A bucolic “rails to trails” walking path through the exurbs and small towns?
The old Reading Co. route is being pulled toward two different futures, separated by a county border.
In Bucks County, planners hope to restore passenger rail service to an area that lost it 29 years ago. Just to the north, in Lehigh and Northampton Counties, workers have removed the old rails to make way for an eight-mile-long Saucon Valley Trail.
In that corner of southeastern Pennsylvania, two national trends – for rails and for trails – converge. And SEPTA, which owns the old Bethlehem route, has a foot in each camp.
Yesterday, the SEPTA board leased part of the route, for $1 a year for 30 years, to the Boroughs of Coopersburg and Hellertown for the recreational trail. Last month, the board gave similar leases to neighboring Upper and Lower Saucon Townships for another part of the eight-mile trail.
At the same time, SEPTA is working with the Bucks County Transportation Management Association on a plan to restore rail service on the same rail line, from Lansdale through Quakertown to Shelly, just southeast of the Lehigh County line.
Throughout the Philadelphia region, competing hopes for long-dormant rail lines might collide, as the rails-to-trails movement meets revitalized efforts to restore train service.
SEPTA is spending up to $100 million in Delaware County to extend commuter train service 3.2 miles to Wawa on the R3 Elwyn line, its first move to restore service after three decades of reducing the Regional Rail network it inherited from the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Reading.
Some of that network, taken out of service years ago, already has been leased for trails.
In Montgomery County, two miles of the out-of-service R8 line between Fox Chase and Newtown is now the Pennypack Trail, a bike-and-pedestrian path along the edge of Lorimer County Park.
Also in Montgomery County, the Cynwyd Heritage Trail in Lower Merion is being built on a two-mile railbed that used to be part of the R6 Cynwyd line, from the Cynwyd station to the Manayunk Bridge.
In Delaware County, the Chester Creek Branch Rail Trail is planned for a long-unused line leased by SEPTA in 2005 to Friends of the Chester Creek Branch.
When SEPTA leases out-of-service railbeds for use as trails, it retains ownership and the right to bring back rail service. But it has never done so, and SEPTA officials acknowledge the presence of a popular trail could make a return to train service harder.
“It could be tricky. Legally, it’s still ours, but there would be an outcry from those who have gotten used to it as a trail,” said Byron Comati, SEPTA’s director of strategic planning and analysis. “But we haven’t waived our rights. We’re not abandoning it.”
“Rail-banking” – using a railbed as a trail – helps preserve an out-of-service corridor from deterioration, vandalism and development, he said.
“Better the right-of-way is being used for something than nothing,” Comati said. “We’re not abandoning it. We’re preserving its long-term viability.”
Jon Frey, a Bucks County resident who is leading efforts to restore service on the R8 line to Newtown, said the existence of trails would make it harder to bring back trains.