Facts: The government granted a landowner fee simple title to a parcel of land subject to a right-of-way issued to a private railway company under the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875. The railway company later removed the tracks and discontinued their use of the land, abandoning the right-of-way over the landowner’s property. The government attempted to gain possession of the abandoned right-of-way over the landowner’s parcel.

The landowner sought title to the portion of the right-of-way which cut through their land, claiming the government was not entitled to possession of the right-of-way since the right-of-way, as an easement benefiting the railway company, was extinguished by the company’s abandonment, thus granting the landowner full title to the right-of-way area as the underlying property owner.

Counter claim: The government claimed title to the land underlying the right-of-way was restored to the government after the railway abandoned it since the 1875 Act implies the government retains a reversionary interest in the right-of-way it issues to private railway companies.

The United States Supreme Court held the landowner held full title to the right-of-way since the government’s grant created an easement over the landowner’s land but not a more enduring property interest which would survive the abandonment of the underlying property. [Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States (2014) _U.S._]

Editor’s note – The holding in this case was further influenced by the precedent set in Great Northern Railway Co. v. United States, 315 U.S. 262 (1942). In Great Northern, the government made the opposite claim, arguing the 1875 Act creates an easement, not a property interest in the right-of-way. The government ultimately prevailed in Great Northern, creating a historical precedent for the interpretation of a right-of-way issued by the government for a railway company. The knife, it seems, cuts both ways.