The Shepherd Branch (aka Shepherd Industrial Spur) was built in 1874 by the B&O railroad as a response to Congress giving the Pennsylvania Railroad sole right to use the Long Bridge.
With the loss of through traffic, the 6.7 miles of B&O's line below the Pennsy connection evolved into the Shepherd Branch. There, the railroad delivered coal to the furnaces of Saint Elizabeths Hospital Complex and tank cars of aviation fuel to the Bolling Air Force Base. The Blue Plains sewage treatment plant, located at the end of the branch, opened in 1938.
By 2001, the only purpose of the Shepherd Branch was to deliver chlorine gas to the Blue Plains sewage treatment plant. After 9/11 it was realized that rolling trains filled with Chlorine, three miles from the Capitol, was a bad idea and the plant quickly switched to bleach. With it the Shepherd Branch was shut down. Since then the tracks across Pennsylvania Avenue have been paved over.
By 2004 the District was planning to build a light rail line on part of the 6.7 mile spur, and with it a parallel bike trail. They negotiated the sale and even had a groundbreaking ceremony in November of that year.
According to Tangherlini, after the ceremony “the wheels came off the wagon.” Two days after the groundbreaking, CSX filed paperwork with federal authorities, confirming that it would discontinue train service on the right of way but hold on to the rights—which meant that though CSX wouldn’t be using the line, nobody else would, either. The District had tentatively agreed to pay $16 million for the land, but when DDOT read the fine print, it rejected the deal. “Everything hadn’t been made clear to us,” says Tangherlini, adding that CSX had led the city to believe it owned the land the track sits on, when all it had were easements, which would have required the city to wage condemnation battles.
By April '05 the deal had fallen apart.
But city officials said yesterday that a thorough inspection of the property revealed that CSX does not own all of the right of way -- in fact, the District is among the property owners -- raising concerns about what the city was paying for and what it was getting.
The city made other plans for the light rail, all the while continuing to negotiate with CSX and trying to force CSX to sell the land, by forcing them to help pay for improvements to the 11th Street Bridges the rail line passes under. Nonetheless, it seems both groups have moved on. But the ROW still sits there ready for trail making (or a light rail with trail which is the best use, IMO).
The spur splits from the main line near the intersection of C St and 33rd St SE. It parallels a still-used track down to F St SE, and then the Anacostia Freeway to Berry Farm. It crosses Pennsylvania Avenue, Good Hope Road, Suitland Parkway, South Capitol Street; then enters the grounds of the Anacostia Naval Station, Bolling Air Force Base, NRL and finally ends at Blue Plains. All the while it passes parks, schools and the Anacostia Metro Station. An older spur off of that, from the intersection of Firth Sterling and Stevens Road SE, goes up the hill to the end of Ash Street on the campus of St. Elizabeths.
Because it was so recently discontinued (not "abandoned" - I'm not 100% clear on the difference. I think "abandonment" means the railroad is giving up its right to run a railroad on the line or sell it to another railroad to do so in return for not having to pay property taxes on it) it represents the best local opportunity for a rail trail.
The new Anacostia Rail Trail would start in the Greenway neighborhood (how far north depends on how close the trail can be to active CSX tracks) but certainly it could connect to E Street SE. Passing through Fort Dupont Park, Branch Park and Twining it would reach the most difficult grade crossing along the way, Pennsylvania Avenue. Room exists to build a bike/ped bridge over Penn similar to the CCT's bridge over River Road. Continuing on the west side of Fairlawn Avenue through the Fairlawn neighborhood, it would pass under the 11th Street Bridges. These bridges are to be replaced and any new bridge could include direct bike/ped connections to the trail. It could cross a low-traffic portion of Good Hope Road at grade and then cross Howard Road SE to the Anacostia Metro Station.
It could go over the Suitland Parkway on another bridge at a point where connections to the Suitland Parkway Trail could be found. The trail could proceed under 295 and across South Capitol Street at the Defense Blvd intersection. At this point it would connect with the planned South Capitol Street trail.
Carrying the trail onto the Navy and Air Force facilities would be impracticle and unnecessary.
At several points along the way (Howard, Good Hope, the bike/ped bridge at Q and 16th, Nicholson Street and Fort Dupont Park) the trail could connect to the parallel Anacostia Riverwalk Trail.
A trail along the St. Elizabeths spur could connect the trail to that facility and the Congress Heights neighborhood.
By agreeing to railbank the line, CSX would retain the opportunity to run rail on it at some other point. They could sell the (more valuable) rights to use the entire right-of-way instead of surrendering those rights and being left with only the portions they own (and avoid the legal costs of figuring out which pieces those are). They could avoid taxes and the cost of repairing the 11th Street bridges. The District would add a trail with transportation and recreation benefits in an undeserved area and retain the corridor for a possible light rail line - should they ever be able to come to an agreement with CSX.