MILFORD - A couple in their 20s glides by on roller blades, heading
south where the trail runs beside Louisa Lake. They pass a couple in
their 40s, on a leisurely stroll headed north. A family - two parents,
two kids - ride by on bicycles.
This is the park for the 21st century, built on the back of 19th
railroads. If your town doesn't already have a rail trail, there's
probably one in the works.
A century ago, we built parks to give hard-working people in crowded
tenements a place to go where they could sit in the shade of a tree and
have a picnic. We added ballfields of varied shapes to accommodate
organized games, and we're still adding them as more kids get organized
into more teams.
But most of us have backyards and decks for our picnics. We don't need
places to sit; we need places where we can get the exercise we no
get on the job.
Hence the rail trail, the best kind of park for a sedentary age. The
linear park gives people an environment to be enjoyed while moving.
a playing field that allows each player to participate at his or her
pace, a way for people, whether on legs or wheels, to get farther from
traffic and closer to nature.
This section, which runs 3 1/2 miles from downtown Milford to the other
side of Rte. 495, connects parks and conservation lands. It goes by
Field, the site of carnivals and American Legion Baseball games, and
alongside the marshes of Cedar Swamp. A spur connects the trail to the
Milford Senior Center, for good reason. We've got an aging population,
and walking is great exercise for the elderly. The trail is wide and
nicely paved - a great place for those who use wheelchairs.
On a leisurely walk on a recent weekend, I pass a pickup volleyball
game. A man is fishing off a bridge near Cedar Swamp, his tiny daughter
sleeping in a stroller nearby. The trail passes by a small town-run
teeming with youngsters.
The Milford section, the first part of the Upper Charles Rail Trail to
officially open, is being put to good use. Eventually, the trail will
form a 20-mile loop through Holliston, Sherborn, Ashland, Hopkinton and
The Assabet Valley Rail Trail has been getting good use for more than
two years. The section from downtown Marlborough through downtown
features scenic riverside rides, bridges over the Assabet and a bright
blue caboose. The initial six miles will eventually be extended through
Stow, Maynard and Acton.
The most interesting rail trail project in the works may be the
Cochituate Rail Trail, which will run from Framingham's Saxonville
neighborhood to downtown Natick. Like all rail trails, it will be a
great recreational amenity. But it also holds the potential to be a
significant transportation asset.
The Cochituate rail connect important destinations, like Framingham
School, the Natick Mall and Cochituate State Park. It will connect to
transportation hubs, including the downtown Natick commuter rail
station, the Mass. Pike and Logan Express. It will pass by Natick's
three largest employers: the mall, Boston Scientific and Natick Labs.
will also connect the residents of 1,000 units of new housing planned
the Speen Street area to, well, wherever they want to go.
Think of all the car trips that could be removed from the overcrowded
roads of the Golden Triangle if people made their connections by the
rail trail. Because of its transportation potential, Natick officials
have begun exploring whether the trail could accommodate some kind of
small, electric buses by people who don't want to work up a sweat on
their way to the office.
The Cochituate Rail Trail is many years from completion - the process
getting a rail trail built is "tectonic," Natick selectman and trail
backer Josh Ostroff says - but progress is being made. Rails and ties
have already been removed on the Framingham section, and CSX, which
the Natick section, will start removing rails and ties this month. New
developments, including the Natick Collection - also known as the mall
are incorporating trail access into their plans.
The toughest part is locking up the rights-of-way. The railroads have
been abandoned for decades - and no one envisions them coming back on
these lines - but nobody wants to give away something for nothing.
years of negotiation, the Mass. Turnpike Authority leased trail access
to its part of the Framingham section and the MBTA is moving in the
direction. CSX, which owns the Natick section, wants more than $14
million to give it up, a figure town officials hope is just a
negotiating tactic. That figure may come down, especially if the
transaction can piggyback negotiations between the state and CSX over
the commuter rail line to Worcester.
There are other hurdles. Building a good rail trail can cost from
$400,000 to $1 million a mile even once the right-of-way is secured.
There's often resistance from neighbors who prefer de-facto ownership
the abandoned tracks at the foot of their backyards over the prospect
hundreds of hikers and cyclists disturbing their peace.
Weston shot down a rail trail years ago amid fears that poor people
Waltham would cart off their TV sets on the back of their bikes. Some
residents in Concord and Sudbury are resisting a trail that would
eventually run from Lowell to Framingham, protesting that the rail bed
isn't scenic enough for a good trail and that the bike-riders will
disturb spotted turtles along the way.
Now, we're hearing reports of "bikeway rage" along the Minuteman
Bikeway, which runs from Cambridge to Bedford. An estimated 2 million
people a year use the 11-mile trail, making it one of the busiest in
country. That can make for some jostling among users in the busy spots,
as lycra-clad cyclists speed around seniors on canes, youngsters on
training wheels and dogs with their owners in tow.
A recent Boston Globe report on the phenomenon seemed more than a
overwrought. After all, crime is often a problem in public parks - so
have the police patrol them. Incidental physical contact happens in
soccer games and doubles tennis, but it's no reason to lock up the
playgrounds. Users are perfectly capable of teaching and enforcing
The good news is that rail trails are being used, which is more than
can say for many of our older parks, which are often deserted. Today's
kids turn down their noses at the town beach if they can use a friend's
pool instead. The days when children spent summer days playing pickup
baseball on the town fields are long gone. Outside of Little League
season, the fields mostly grow grass, not Major League dreams.
But the rail trails are hopping, providing fresh air, sociability,
scenic views and a cardio workout to people of all ages. This summer,
get out and give one a try.
Rick Holmes is opinion editor for the MetroWest Daily News. He can be
reached at email@example.com