After more than a decade of discussions, the rail line known as the Brilliant Line will become a pedestrian and bike trail spanning the Allegheny River, from Homewood to Aspinwall.
The trail-to-be starts in Homewood, running parallel to Washington Boulevard before crossing the Allegheny River into Allegheny RiverTrail Park.
“It’s a neat trail that will bring more folks to the city as far as I’m concerned. And vice versa — it’ll bring more folks from the city to our park, which will be fantastic,” says Bill Strome, chair of the Allegheny RiverTrail Park board of directors.
“It goes across a fantastic rail bridge. … It’s pretty cool because there are four other massive stone bridges that support [the Washington Boulevard] part of the trail. So it’s pretty neat — you could argue it’s historic.”
The acquisition, announced in an Aug. 17 press release, comes as a result of a partnership between the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County, Allegheny RiverTrail Park and Allegheny Valley Railroad. Strome — and the release — give special praise and thanks to Susan Crookston, a co-founder of Allegheny RiverTrail Park and advocate for the trail’s creation for the past 12 years.
“Trails preserve and create open spaces, encourage physical fitness and healthy living, provide transportation corridors, and strengthen our local economies,” County Executive Rich Fitzgerald says in the release. “We’re grateful for everyone who was involved in bringing us to this point.”
Turning a railway into a trail can appear convoluted, Strome says. Once a railroad company notifies federal and state agencies, in addition to the public, of its intent to transfer the property, it will file a Notice of Exempt Abandonment to the Surface Transportation Board.
“Every rail-to-trail bike path that you may have been on or are aware of has gone through this process,” Strome says. “In this country, they don’t want to give up rail, because rail is a valuable resource. At the same, you don’t want rail just sitting there doing nothing.”
The seller, the Allegheny Valley Railroad, determined that there is not much need for the line because there are no longer industrial customers along it, Strome says. Due to the increasing number of unused railways, congress established so-called railbanking in 1983.
“They call it railbanking because what it means is in the future if this rail or another rail wants to reactivate the line — assuming they can demonstrate that there is a freight need for it — they can do that,” Strome says. “So, in theory, they can come back in 10 years from now after you build out your bike trail and say ‘Hey, we want it back.’ If they go through a process, it’s possible they could get it back.”
Strome clarifies that reclaiming a rail is uncommon — it has never happened to his knowledge. If the Brilliant Line was reclaimed by a rail company in the future, Allegheny County would be reimbursed the cost of the trail.
Railbanking approval for the line is expected by the end of this year, according to Strome, at which point Allegheny County can begin work on the trail.
Strome remains excited about the potential city connectivity the trail offers.
“Aspirationally, I’m sure the county is thinking about this; if you can find a way to get from the trailhead at Hamilton [Avenue] to the East Busway — which is not that far, it’s not even a city block — imagine being able to ride that whole area all the way into town,” notes Strome. “Now, you obviously wouldn’t do that while the buses are running, but perhaps on the weekends you could figure something out.”
An opening date has not been confirmed, but Strome hopes the trail will be open by the summer of 2025.
The Outdoor Guide Series is underwritten by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council as part of its effort to promote the outdoor recreation economy in Pennsylvania and neighboring areas.