A railroad right of way is either the land on which a railroad is constructed or a type of easement granted by the federal government to a railway company. An easement is a right to use another's property for a specific purpose. A right of way can also be the specific land on which a railroad company builds its roadbed; in this context, the term refers to the land rather than the right to pass over it. During the Gilded Age, however, it conferred the right to use public lands for rail transportation purposes via the doctrine of eminent domain.
The easements for a railroad right of way were once classified as public land use. In the United States, public land use and the notion of the public domain began with the nation. All land the U.S. acquired on the North American continent was previously owned by foreign nations or Native American tribes; federal acquisition took place through a combination of cession, purchase or conquest. In the beginning, the public domain was vast, with various parties — states, developers and speculators — vying for possession, particularly in the unsettled West. Though much of the public domain passed out of national ownership, the property clause of the U.S. Constitution granted Congress the right to dispose of public lands as it saw fit; granting railroads a right of way became an important use of congressional disposition authority.
Congress began granting railroad right of way privileges to companies in 1835. Originally, this granted the railways 100-foot-wide (30.5-meter-wide) easements through public lands. In 1875, Congress adopted a general law codifying the practice, while also granting rail companies the use of land, stone, and timber from adjacent public lands. Eventually, the federal government granted more than 90 million acres (around 364,000 km3) of public lands to the railroads directly. Additionally, Congress granted another 40 million acres (around 162,000 km3) to several states for railroad use.
To facilitate the construction of the first transcontinental railroad, President Lincoln signed an act that provided the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railroads with construction loans and a 400-foot-wide (122-meter-wide) right of way. The changes produced by the railroads' grants had positive effects by encouraging and directing immigration and promoting tourism. Before the age of automobiles and highway systems, such easements were necessary to create a vast transportation network.
In the context of railroads, a right of way signifies not only a possessory interest, but a description of the land on which a railroad is constructed. A railroad right of way is also unique in that an easement is considered abandoned once a railway company discontinues rail service. Once abandoned, rights to the easement revert to the original owner, though many railway companies now own the land that was once considered merely a right of way. When a railway company purchases a right of way, its rights are unaffected even if rail service is discontinued.