Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line
The 32-mile Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line is a continuous transportation corridor offering tremendous potential for new mobility options for residents and visitors alike. The rail line spans the county from Davenport to Watsonville, running parallel to the Highway 1 corridor and the coast, and connecting into state and other regional rail lines in Pajaro. This important transportation corridor is within one mile of more than 80 parks, 25 schools and over half of the county’s population (per census blocks). Construction of the rail line from Santa Cruz to Watsonville was completed in 1876. In October 2012, the RTC took ownership of the line, bringing this transportation resource into public ownership to increase transportation options.
Passenger Rail Service Study Now Underway
Could passenger rail transit service work in Santa Cruz County? The RTC is studying the feasibility of passenger rail transit service along the 32-mile Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line which roughly parallels Highway 1 and the coast in Santa Cruz County. The Passenger Rail Study will include: ridership projections, capital and operating costs, varying service scenarios and technologies; integration with other rail corridor uses; and connectivity to other bus and rail services.
Potential Transportation Uses of the Rail Corridor
The rail corridor was purchased using $11 million from the voter-approved Proposition 116 (Clean Air and Transportation Improvement Act of 1990 — California Public Utilities Code Section 99600 et seq.) which stipulates that the rail line be used for “rail projects within Santa Cruz County which facilitate recreational, commuter, intercity and intercounty travel. Potential uses include the following:
- Increased freight rail service
- Seasonal or recreational passenger rail service (Santa Cruz & Monterey Bay Railway, Santa Cruz, Big Trees and Pacific Railway)
- Passenger rail transit
- Bicycle & Pedestrian path in conjunction with rail services
Even if some transportation uses are not immediately feasible, it is prudent to preserve future transportation options that would reduce congestion and travel times, move goods and people efficiently, reduce both vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions, advance sustainable transportation options, add travel capacity, and reduce sprawl to /preserve adjacent open spaces. Removing the tracks is not an option under consideration because purchasing a right-of-way for only a bicycle and pedestrian trail is not considered a “rail project” under proposition 116 and because it would be cost prohibitive to rebuild the tracks if they were removed. Development of the corridor for passenger and freight rail as well as the bicycle/pedestrian trail will move forward as they are feasible and fundable.
A printable Santa Cruz Rail Corridor fact sheet is also available.
Rail Improvement Efforts
As owner of the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line, the RTC hired a short line operator to operate freight and recreational rail service and maintain the rail line. In addition, the RTC is working with the community to reduce trash and graffiti on the line and is investigating short and long term options for maximizing this transportation resource.
Rail Structure Upgrades
As part of the purchase agreement between the RTC and the previous property owner, Union Pacific, $5.3 million in funding was set aside to upgrade structures on the line. Construction work on four timber and steel trestles, including the La Selva Beach Railroad Trestle, was finished in 2015.
Rail freight service is currently provided by Iowa Pacific Holdings, doing business locally as the Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay Railway, to a number of companies for commodities such as construction, agricultural products, and biofuels. Rail freight traffic and the tax revenue collected augment the county’s tax base thereby contributing toward vital services for residents.
The Santa Cruz & Monterey Bay Railway’s operator, Iowa Pacific Holdings, is based in Chicago and has eight other short line railroads with operations in Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York State. Through affiliates, Iowa Pacific also has railway and related operations in the United Kingdom and Peru.
Passenger rail operations
Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay Railway and Big Trees Railroad operate seasonal and special event recreational service on the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line. In the future, passenger service may include expanded recreational service, as well as intercity and commuter service.
The Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) was awarded a Caltrans Transit Planning grant to undertake an analysis of commuter and intercity passenger rail service. The study will provide recommendations for phased, cost-effective, and efficient rail service on the Santa Cruz Branch line. For more information on the study which began in 2014, please see Santa Cruz Passenger Rail Study page.
- View maps of the Branch Line online at the Santa Cruz County GIS map gallery under transportation. Hard copies are available for viewing at the RTC Office.
- History of rail transportation in Santa Cruz County
- Rail Line Purchase
- Rail line acquisition due diligence documents including appraisals, funding applications, inspections and agreements
- Federal Classes of Rail Track and Maximum Operating Speeds (see Section 213.9)