Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line
The 32-mile Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line is a continuous transportation corridor — spanning the county, running parallel to the Highway 1 corridor, and connecting into the state rail line — offering tremendous potential for new mobility options for residents and visitors alike. Construction of the rail line from Santa Cruz to Watsonville was completed in 1876. 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). In October 2012 the RTC took ownership of the line, bringing this transportation resource into public ownership to increase transportation options. Potential uses include the following:
- Increased freight rail service
- Seasonal or recreational passenger rail service
- Passenger rail transit
- Bicycle & Pedestrian path in conjunction with rail services
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 a number of structures on the line. The RTC has awarded a construction contract for work on both timber and steel trestles, with construction starting this year. This work includes upgrades to the La Selva trestle.
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.
- Maps of the Branch Line are available online at the Santa Cruz County GIS map gallery under transportation. Hard copies are available for viewing at the RTC offices
- History of rail transportation in Santa Cruz County
- Rail Line Purchase
- Rail line acquisition due diligence documents including appraisals, funding applications, inspections and agreements
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