It’s a confusing issue. Trail Now is here to help.

We hope the following frequently asked questions (FAQs) help explain the issues behind the trail, the train, and ultimately, why the current plan won’t work. 


What are the goals of Trail Now?

Our goal is to increase awareness and educate our Santa Cruz County community about the current plans for the Santa Cruz County coastal corridor. We advocate converting the corridor to a world-class pedestrian and bicycle trail. Why? The corridor is not suited for efficient rail transportation or correctly positioned geographically to accommodate a passenger train.

What is the Santa Cruz County coastal corridor?

The coastal corridor is 32 miles of land owned by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (SCCRTC or RTC). Stretching from Watsonville to Davenport, the corridor passes through remarkable terrain with over 20 bridges and trestles and over 40 street-level crossings. Along the way, there are stunning ocean vistas, rural farmland, forests, meadows, creeks, rivers, lakes, and coastal lagoons. The narrow, single-track corridor passes through La Selva Beach, Rio Del Mar, Aptos, Capitola, Live Oak, and Santa Cruz. It winds through some of the most diverse and interesting land in not only Santa Cruz County but also the country.

What’s wrong with the current plan for the trail?

The current plan, known as the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail Network (MBSST), calls for the trail to be built next to the train tracks (Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail Network Master Plan 80MB PDF, 399pg.). This is known as a rail-with-trail. A traditional rail-trail would have the trail built in place of the train tracks. By accommodating the train tracks, the result is an expensive trail that is too narrow and falls far short of the corridor’s true potential.

If we remove the tracks, won’t it take longer than if we just build a trail parallel to tracks?

No. Trail Now has provided the RTC cost estimates and construction schedules from Iron Horse Preservation Society, a company who constructs rail-trails across the country.

The process to remove the tracks is:

  1. Buyout the lease from Iowa Pacific, the current train operator
  2. Return funding to the California Transportation Commission (CTC)
  3. Submit an abandonment application to the Surface Transportation Board (STB)

Once the abandonment application is submitted, the removal of the tracks can begin immediately

Doesn’t it make sense to preserve the rail for future use?

Prior to purchase of the coastal corridor, the Santa Cruz Master Transportation Plan was establishing Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and improvements to Highway 1 to make it an effective alternative to driving. Based on the 2015 Rail Transit Feasibility Study by the RTC (Santa Cruz County Rail Transit Feasibility Study 11.5MB PDF, 323pg.), a train is not as effective as BRT along Highway 1. Preservation of the coastal corridor is important and is what Trail Now promotes, but we advocate for alternative transit modes such as bikes and e-bikes.

The rail itself is in poor condition and most or all of it would need to be replaced for safe passenger train travel.

Is there an example of what Trail Now is proposing?

Yes. There are over 22,000 miles of rail-trails across America. However, the best example for Santa Cruz County is actually Monterey County. This is not a coincidence. Monterey County considered passenger rail and determined that it was not economically viable. Instead, they built an amazing trail that has become a tremendous benefit to the entire community. Winding along the Pacific coast, the 18-mile Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail offers breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and a great way to tour Monterey and adjacent communities while enjoying the outdoors.

Is there an example of what the Santa Cruz RTC is proposing?

No. There are many successful rail-with-trail projects throughout the United States; however, none are similar to what is being proposed for Santa Cruz County. The Rails to Trails Conservancy published a study surveying 61 rail-with-trail projects (National Survey of 61 Rail-with-Trail Projects 60KB PDF, 2pg). None capture the characteristics of what is being proposed in Santa Cruz.

Would a rail-with-trail work in our corridor?

No. In August 2002, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) published the document Rails-With-Trails: Lessons Learned (8.8MB PDF, 181pg.). This document remains the most comprehensive and authoritative resource for rail-with-trail development.

In the document, it states:

“A rail-with-trail in very steep or rugged terrain or with numerous bridges and trestles simply may not be feasible given the need to keep a minimal setback from the tracks, meet ADA requirements, allow railroad maintenance access, and still have a reasonable construction budget.”  - USDOT Rails-With-Trails:  Lessons Learned

The quote above describes the Santa Cruz County coastal corridor. Our corridor has over 20 bridges, with two freeway crossings. Setbacks will be 8.5 to 10.5 feet. There are miles of physically constrained narrow segments.

Is it true that only 1% of the corridor is not wide enough?

No. While the width of the corridor may be 40 to 80 feet wide, the track sections are often very narrow or sloping, making the placement of a trail difficult.

How many people would use the trail?

The trail will be the backbone for bicycle and pedestrian transportation for Santa Cruz County. When Monterey County developed their Master Plan, annual users were estimated at nearly 2.5 million, or 6,800 per day. Using known trail counts from similar projects throughout the United States, we estimate that approximately 7,000 to 10,000 people a day would use the trail in Santa Cruz County.

How many people would use the train?

Per the 2015 Rail Feasibility Study, passenger train ridership is estimated to be from 1,100 to 5,500 people per day depending on the scenario. The study projects ridership would increase to 1,300 to 6,800 people by 2035. Ridership forecasts are discussed on page 108 of the RTC Rail Feasibility Study[4]. A boarding represents a one-way trip. One person equals two boardings

How wide should the trail be?

As a general guideline, Caltrans indicates that width for a heavily used trail should be 12 feet or more. Our trail is expected to be one of the most heavily used in California, and we’ve estimated that the width should be 16 feet or wider given the expected number and type of users. Many segments of the current RTC Plan propose a trail that is only 8 feet wide. Per Caltrans, an 8 foot wide trail is the legal minimum and should only be used in rare circumstances where there will be limited use. To view the Caltrans requirements for shared use paths, refer to Topic 1003 in the Highway Design Manual (1MB PDF, 26pg.).

Would the proposed rail-with-trail be safe?

No. There are many examples of successful rail-with-trail projects throughout the United States. However, these trails are typically set back 25 feet or more from the centerline of the train tracks. The national average setback is 33 feet. Since our corridor is so narrow, the current plan will have 8.5 to 10.5 foot setbacks from Santa Cruz to Watsonville. These narrow setbacks are typically reserved for railroad workers, or short bottleneck sections. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has stated that the setback distance for the general public should be much greater than the 8.5 foot setback allowed for railroad workers. Please refer to page 63 in the USDOT document, Rails-With-Trails: Lessons Learned[3].

Why is the trail so expensive?

The current plan is extremely expensive, estimated to cost $127 million, or approximately $4 million per mile. By accommodating the train, the rail-with-trail plan would require over 20 new bike/pedestrian bridges to be built. Hillsides would need to be excavated, expensive retaining walls would need to be built. Portions of the corridor are so narrow that the tracks would need to physically be moved to make room for the trail.

Is the $127 million cost estimate realistic?

No. The cost is grossly underestimated. For example, the cost of two freeway crossings and two major bridges in Aptos is estimated at $900,000 each. This is considerably lower than comparable projects. Additionally, the plan does not appear to take into account the costs of excavation and reinforced embankments that would be required for large portions of the corridor.

What about the Capitola Trestle?

The historic Capitola Trestle is not included in the $127 million dollar estimate for the trail and that portion of the trail would require a surface street reroute.

How many trains would there be?

Per the RTC Rail Feasibility Study, trains would run from 6am to 9pm with up to 60 trains per day. Economic feasibility for passenger rail is based on train ridership and train ridership is based on the number of trains per day. More trains...more riders. Please refer to page xi of the RTC Rail Feasibility Study for a breakdown of the proposed scenarios[4].

How fast would the trains be going?

Peak speed for the trains is between 45 to 55 miles per hour, with an average of 25 to 35 miles per hour. Train speed is discussed on page 64 of the RTC Rail Feasibility Study[4].

Would the trains be electric?

No. The feasibility study and estimated costs were based on diesel-powered trains. Electrifying the corridor would add significant costs to the project. For additional information on rail technology, refer to page 29 of the RTC Rail Feasibility Study[4].

Would the trains reduce Highway 1 gridlock?

No. The Major Transportation Investment Study (MTIS) completed for the RTC concluded that passenger rail would not reduce congestion on Highway 1. Per the 2015 Rail Feasibility Study, passenger train ridership is estimated to be 2,750 people per day per day versus the 100,000 cars per day on Highway 1. Ridership forecasts are discussed on page 108 of the RTC Rail Feasibility Study[4].

Will the trains be noisy?

Yes. Locomotive engineers must begin to sound train horns for at least 15 seconds and no more than 20 seconds, in advance of all public grade crossings. Train horns are sounded in a standardized pattern of 2 long, 1 short and 1 long blast. The pattern must be repeated or prolonged until the lead locomotive or lead cab car occupies the grade crossing. Horn volume is between 96 and 110 decibels, or about as loud as a live rock concert.

What about QUIET zones?

A January 2000 study by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) found a 62% increase in accidents at crossings where train horns were banned in areas labeled as quiet zones. Additionally, quiet zones require additional expensive equipment and the cost is not included in the RTC Rail Feasibility Study. 

How much would the train cost?

Costs vary depending on the scenario. Estimates range from $31.5 to $176 million to construct the railway. Annual maintenance ranges from $3.8 to $14 million per year. However, we believe these costs estimates are unreasonably low, making it less expensive than the nation’s lowest cost light rail system built (San Diego’s Blue Line), in which no rail was replaced (source: US Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis). A summary of costs are discussed on page xii of the RTC Rail Feasibility Study[4].

What’s not included in the cost for the train?

Estimated costs do not include: walking/biking trail; new auto/vehicle parking facilities for passenger vehicles; additional security; EMS services; train stations; road infrastructure; additional pedestrian bridge over freeway; additional shuttle buses from stations to connect UCSC, Cabrillo, and the general Watsonville area.

How would the train be funded?

The RTC Feasibility Study cites a number of sources. However, we believe that the train would not qualify for Federal funds and the majority of the costs would require new, ongoing local taxes. The current RTC plan is to include funding for the train in a 2016 transportation tax measure. It’s been reported that additional tax measures would be required in 2018 and 2020. A funding assessment can be found on page xii of the RTC Rail Feasibility Study[4].

When would we have a passenger train?

If the many issues were solved, optimistic estimates are that passenger train service would start in the mid to late 2020’s, in other words, about 10 years from now.

What would happen to the train tracks for the 10 years when there is no passenger train?

The RTC has not been forthcoming but we believe they are considering at least two options with Iowa Pacific:

  1. Tourist train. Such trains are rarely profitable but such a train would likely be used as justification to repair and upgrade the tracks.

  2. Oil tank car storage. Iowa Pacific is looking for storage space for hundreds of oil tank cars. Such cars typically have toxic materials inside and have caused massive accidents. Iowa Pacific currently stores 100 oil tank cars on Santa Cruz tracks.

NPR has a story on exactly the above scenario: Iowa Pacific losing money on a tourist train and looking to store oil tank cars on the track.

Don’t we have to use the corridor for rail service?

No. The corridor was purchased using $11 million of Prop 116 funds, which requires some type of passenger rail service. Currently, that requirement is fulfilled by the seasonal Train to Christmas Town. Ultimately, once rail service is determined not to be viable, the $11 million can be returned.

What can I do to help?

Educate yourself. Transportation in Santa Cruz County is complex and the train proposal about as complex as it gets. If you can, download the Feasibility Study and at least skim it. As you read it notice that the case for a passenger train to solve transportation issues in Santa Cruz County becomes weaker and weaker.

Spread the word. Talk to your friends and colleagues. Tell them about Trail Now. Subscribe to our Newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Contact the RTC. Please tell the RTC that the train is a mistake via the RTC website.


Reference materials

  1. Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail Network Master Plan, SCCRTC (download plan, 80MB PDF, 399 pages) November 2013.
  2. National Survey of 61 Rail-with-Trail Projects, Rails to Trails Conservancy (download report, 60KB PDF, 2 pages).
  3. Rails-with-Trails: Lessons Learned, U.S. Dept. of Transportation (download report, 8.8MB PDF, 181 pages) August 2002.
  4. Santa Cruz County Rail Transit Feasibility Study, Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (download plan, 11.5MB PDF, 323 pages) December 2015.
  5. Highway Design Manual, Caltrans (download manual, 1MB PDF, 26 pages) June 2006.

LAST UPDATED May 10, 2016