About the Rail Trail
What is the Rail Trail?
The Rail Trail is the common name given to the multi-use, walking and biking path planned for construction alongside the existing railroad tracks. The Rail Trail is the central spine of the trail network described in the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail (MBSST) Network Master Plan adopted in 2013.
Where does the Rail Trail go?
The Rail Trail is within a mile of 92 parks, 44 schools and half the county’s population. The Rail Trail runs approximately 32 miles along the coast from Davenport through Santa Cruz, Live Oak, Capitola, Aptos/Seacliff, La Selva, Watsonville to Pajaro. Click here for a quick tour of the rail corridor from the west side of Santa Cruz to the Pajaro Junction.
What are the benefits of the Rail Trail?
The Rail Trail will provide Santa Cruz County a safe, car-free corridor for trips on foot, skateboard, bike, e-bike or other means, bringing a variety of benefits for Santa Cruz County’s health, environment, economy, and quality of life. Visit our Benefits section to read more. The Rail Trail will be a spectacular public asset for everyone to use and enjoy.
Will the Rail Trail be wide enough for bicycles and pedestrians?
Yes, with a width of 12 to 16 feet the Rail Trail will be wide enough to safely accommodate both bicycles, pedestrians and other users. Compare the 12-foot minimum width of the Rail Trail to the 8’ paved width of the Arana Gulch trail, to the 8’ wide Wilder Ranch trail, to the 8’ wide Watsonville Slough trails feet wide, to the average 10’ width of the San Lorenzo River Levee path and it is easy to see the Rail Trail will be plenty wide enough.
Is the rail corridor wide enough for both the trail and the rail?
Yes, the rail corridor is wide enough to accommodate both trail and rail. The average width of the rail corridor is 70’ and the space needed for a train is only 17’ which leaves about 53’ for the trail, plenty of room. While the average corridor width is 70’, there are a few spots where the existing corridor is narrower. The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) has studied the corridor and found that of the 32-mile corridor, only 0.3 miles is less than the minimum required width. Because those few narrow sections are adjacent to other public holdings, solutions have been identified to address the additional space needed for the trail.
Is it safe to have a trail next to the rail?
Yes. Several safeguards will be installed to separate trail users from trains. Fencing and/or landscape buffers will separate the trail from the tracks. For more information on the Rail Trail design, see Section 5 of the trail master plan design section. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy reports the addition of a separate trail actually reduces the number of incidents involving pedestrians and cyclists as users naturally prefer the paved path away from the tracks. In fact, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy reported that only a single trail user fatality occurred on all rail-with-trail facilities across the United States in the 20 years preceding their 2013 report titled “America’s Rails-with-Trails”. This outstanding safety record stands as a remarkable testament to the ability of trains and trails to safely coexist.
Will other trails connect to the Rail Trail?
In addition to the 32 mile Rail Trail, the MBSST Network Master Plan includes 18 miles of spur trails connecting the Rail Trail with other destinations. Including these spur trails brings the total length of the MBSST trail network to about 50 miles of total trail length.
What is the timeline for completion of the Rail Trail project?
The goal is to see the entire Rail Trail completed within 10 years. With the passage of Measure D, it appears all the funds needed to build the Rail Trail can now be secured. The Rail Trail will be built in sections, a few miles at a time. Presently, a 2-mile section in Santa Cruz is scheduled to begin construction in 2018 and a 1-mile section in Watsonville is scheduled to begin construction in 2019. The design process has begun on 10 additional miles of the Rail Trail with construction to follow ASAP.
Will the Rail Trail be diverted on to roads to leave room for the tracks?
During construction, cyclists and pedestrians will need to use existing bike infrastructure to get between sections of completed trail. While the 2013 MBSST Master Plan does indicate some sections need to be diverted to surface streets, with the passage of Measure D, funds may now be available to keep the entire trail off surface streets. Friends of the Rail & Trail is advocating for the completed trail to be free of diversions to surface streets to the maximum extent possible.
Who will build the Rail Trail?
The Rail Trail will be constructed by qualified professional contractors selected through a rigorous and competitive public bidding process.
When will construction of the Rail Trail begin?
Construction on the first section of the Rail Trail is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2018.
What is the fastest way to get the Rail Trail open so everyone can use it?
Because the Rail Trail master plan is already approved, following the master plan is the fastest way to have a trail built in the rail corridor.
Who will use the Rail Trail?
The Rail Trail will be used by everyone who wants to enjoy a safe car-free path from one end of the county to the other. Users will include commuters, tourists and recreational users. People will bike to and from work rather than drive. It will help kids bike and walk to school safely. Visitors and tourists will be able to use it to see our county. Families, seniors, and people with disabilities will be able to cross town away from cars at their own pace. Given the City of Santa Cruz has one of the highest bike commuter rates in the country at some 9%, the number of people biking to work in the City and throughout the County will only increase with a safe, direct and convenient Rail Trail.
Who will pay for the Rail Trail?
The rail trail will be paid for using 2016 Measure D funds along with matching local, state and federal funds, and, private donations from a variety of sources including the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, Friends of the Rail & Trail, Ecology Action and Bike Santa Cruz County.
How can I make a donation to support FORT’s advocacy and work on the Rail Trail?
You can support this legacy project by contributing to Friends of the Rail & Trail effort to prioritize funding and construction of the Rail Trail. Your financial support will be used engage and educate the public and local agencies to keep the momentum going toward rapid completion of the Rail Trail. Your donation to Friends of the Rail & Trail is 100% tax deductible. Our website offers a secure online payment system. For more details, visit our Donation page.
Rail Trail and the Community
Who is the owner of the Rail Trail?
The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) is the owner of the rail corridor and is therefore the owner of the Rail Trail described in the MBSST Network Master Plan. The MBSST Network includes 18 miles of spur trails and other bike/ped facilites connecting the Rail Trail to other trails, parks, schools, other destinations and activity sites. The spur trails are generally owned by a variety of other public entities.
Is the Rail Trail endorsed by municipalities and elected officials?
Yes! The MBSST Master Plan was endorsed by every city through which the rail corridor passes (Watsonville, Capitola and Santa Cruz), as well as by the County of Santa Cruz and the RTC. You can see a full list of public agency and elected official supporters here.
Is the Rail Trail endorsed by community-based nonprofit organizations?
Yes! In addition to Friends of the Rail & Trail, the following organizations support the Rail Trail: Ecology Action, the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, Bike Santa Cruz County, Santa Cruz County Cycling Club, Bike Friendly Watsonville, Regeneración Pajaro Valley and the Santa Cruz Sierra Club have all endorsed the Rail Trail. See more supporters here and here.
Is the Rail Trail endorsed by local businesses?
Yes! Our business supporters include many local businesses, such as Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, Java Junction, Discretion Brewing and Kelly’s Bakery, as well as property managers and tech companies! See the full list here.
Rail Trail and the Environment
Will the Rail Trail project harm ecosystems or require significant changes to the landscape?
The net environmental impact of the Rail Trail will be strongly positive for Santa Cruz County and the world. Every fossil fueled car trip replaced by a trip on the Rail Trail will reduce our collective carbon footprint and our greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. Because transportation accounts for about half our County’s emissions, building the Rail Trail will help protect our fragile coastal environment from the adverse effects of global warming. The Rail Trail will make a difference here and for the entire world.
Cars and their fluids contribute other pollutants to our environment as well. You can read more about the environmental benefits of the Rail Trail here.
What climate change goals are addressed by building the Rail Trail?
The Rail Trail will directly contribute to greenhouse gas emission (GHG) reductions. Half of our counties emissions come from transportation. For every car commuter who can safely become a bike commuter with this trail, the Rail Trail will make a positive environmental impact. A county wide survey indicated that some 60% of those polled would bike for transportation if there was a safe, car-free place to do so.
When public transit is added along the rail corridor, an even bigger dent will be put in our carbon emissions. The combination of rail and trail is estimated to be 5-10 times more effective at reducing GHG emissions than the trail alone. One of the City of Santa Cruz’s 2020 Climate Action Milestones is to “ensure the rail corridor provides transit and trail service” because of its value to Santa Cruz’s carbon reduction goals. Other climate action milestones are directly facilitated by implementing the Rail and Trail plan, such as doubling bike ridership, reducing in-town car trips and reducing single-occupancy vehicle commutes by 10%.
Rail Transit Questions
Why do we need rail transit in Santa Cruz County?
A look at Highway 1 at rush hour is the best way to be convinced of the need for public transit in Santa Cruz County. There are tens of thousands of people wasting their time sitting in traffic while their cars pollute the environment every day. Rail transit is a way to address this problem without spending the many hundreds of millions of dollars (not to mention the environmental damage) it would cost to widen Highway 1.
For better or worse, our population will continue to grow. According to the 2040 Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Plan, another 30,300 people will be living in Santa Cruz County by the year 2040. Adding 33,300 people is equivalent to adding three more cities the size of Capitola (current pop 10,200). Adding rail transit will provide an attractive alternative to wasting hours (and contributing greenhouse gas emmissions) sitting in traffic.
What type of public transit is realistic and achievable in Santa Cruz County?
While there are several possibilities for public transit along the rail corridor, at this point it is important to keep our options open for the future. Because the Santa Cruz Branch Line (SCBL) is specifically integrated into the 2018 State Rail Plan (SRP). The SRP identifies substantial new funding to speed development of rail transit across the state, with passenger rail transit (light rail, trams, streetcars or similar) that could be implemented along the SCBL within the next decade. The SCBL connects to the entire statewide rail network at the Pajaro Junction, providing easy access to the entire Bay Area, Monterey, Salinas and other popular destinations.
Has the feasibility of rail transit in Santa Cruz County been studied?
Yes, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission completed the Rail Transit Feasibility Study in 2015, establishing the potential value of rail service to Santa Cruz County and the need to keep our options open. You can learn about this study on the RTC’s website.
Why is it important to keep the tracks?
Because rail transit is the most efficient, environmental and equitable way to move people and compliments other transit modes such as travel by bus, bike, or foot. In addition, keeping the tracks is the fastest way to get the trail built.
The recently published 2016 National Transit Summary and Trends report published by the Federal Transit Administration indicates the operational costs of rail transit are about 60% of the operational costs bus transit. Santa Cruz needs to improve its transportation system and using the tracks for passenger rail service is probably the best way to make the most improvement at the least possible cost.
Furthermore, rail service would complement bus service by freeing bus commuters from being stuck in traffic on Highway 1. Rail service would also attract many new users to public transit due to the much faster travel times offered by rail service.
Lastly, keeping the tracks in place reduces the risk of expensive “property taking” litigation. With only 31% of the rail corridor owned outright and the other 69% of the rail corridor existing only as “rail” easements, abandoning the tracks would likely lead to protracted litigation as underlying property owners assert their rights on the “extinguished” rail easements.
What sort of travel times are possible with rail transit?
The 2015 Rail Transit Feasibility Study (RTFS) predicted passenger rail travel times would be much faster than auto or bus travel times, especially during peak commute periods. For example, here are some predicted travel times:
- Watsonville to Santa Cruz – 39 minutes
- Aptos to Santa Cruz – 18 minutes
- Capitola to Santa Cruz – 12 minutes
Would the trains be electric?
In keeping with the goals of the 2018 State Rail Plan, FORT expects new passenger rail service will be fully electric or some type of hybrid electric, but the exact type of transit vehicle has not yet been determined. While many think a light rail system makes sense today, we expect options will grow as new train technology is rapidly being developed.
Will there by an operational train as part of the Rail Trail project?
No. The Rail Trail will be built parallel to, not in place of, the operational rail line so that passenger light rail service may be provided when the time is right. The purchase of the Santa Cruz branch rail line by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) included a requirement to maintain the line as a freight common carrier and initiate passenger rail service. Accordingly, there are no plans to remove the tracks. The RTC acquired the rail line over a 20-year long public process using funds dedicated by Santa Cruz and California voters (Proposition 116) to expand rail transit uses in the future. The RTC is currently studying the highest and best transportation uses of the rail corridor as part of the Unified Corridor Investment Study (UCS). The UCS will be finished in late 2018. For more information see the Unified Corridor Investment Study Fact Sheet.
About Friends of the Rail & Trail
Why does Friends of the Rail & Trail advocate for the Rail Trail?
- Because the Rail Trail is located within a mile of 92 parks, 44 schools and half the county’s population, the Rail Trail will transform the way we get around.
- The Rail Trail will provide a car-free, safe place to walk or ride from one end of our County to the other.
- The Rail Trail plan is fully approved, fully funded and all 32 miles could be completed and open for everyone to use within 10 years.
- The Rail Trail will be 12 to 16 feet wide, the widest, longest continuously paved trail in the County.
- Abandoning the current Rail Trail plan will delay constructing any trail by 10 years or more, denying everyone but especially our children a safe place to ride their bikes.
- The Rail Trail preserves the existing tracks keeping all transit options open for the future.
- The Rail Trail will help us address our climate action goals by reducing GHG emissions that are causing global warming and threatening our fragile coastal ecosystem.
What are Friends of the Rail & Trail’s goals?
Our #1 goal is to see the Rail Trail completed within 10 years.
How does Friends of the Rail & Trail use the money it raises?
Donations are used engage and educate the general public and local agencies to stay the course and build the trail ASAP and keep the rail for later. The Friends of the Rail & Trail website offers a secure online payment system. For more details visit our Donation page.
Mythbusting the Rail and Trail Plan
Myth: We need two tracks for commuter rail service and there isn’t enough room for two tracks.
Fact: Single track is most common rail system. Trains pass each other by using short passing sidings where needed. For our line, two passing sidings would be needed to provide bi-directional service with 30 minutes between each train. Passing sidings could be conveniently located at station stops. Lastly, all new passenger rail systems are required to be furnished with Positive Train Control System to prevent collisions.
Myth: The proposed rail system goes up the north coast and into the Santa Cruz Mountains, where few people live. These do not address anybody’s needs and will not displace/eliminate any auto traffic.
Fact: None of the passenger rail transit scenarios considered in the 2015 Rail Transit Feasibility Study (RTFS) included service to Felton or to Davenport. Only passenger rail transit service between Watsonville and Santa Cruz is considered in the RTC’s study.
Myth: A light rail system will be costly to build, operate and maintain. The investment in rail will never be worth the benefits.
Fact: Rail is actually one of the least expensive options to dramatically improve Santa Cruz County’s transportation system. Construction of HOV lanes on Highway 1 is estimated to cost $600M dollars, more than 4 times the $133M estimated cost of constructing a robust passenger rail transit system between Watsonville and Santa Cruz (Scenario G in the 2015 Rail Transit Feasibility Study). The many benefits for rail transit users include much lower transportation costs (estimated to be less than a quarter the cost of car ownership); dependable, fast transit times; and, a travel mode 15 times safer than automobile travel.
Myth: The proposed commuter rail system will disturb quiet residential neighborhoods. The noise will negatively impact property values and quality of life.
Fact: These concerns will be top of mind when it comes time to choose the type of rail transit system. Given our community’s values, current technology and the current rapid pace of innovation, rail transit vehicles will be quiet, all-electric light rail, tram or streetcar-type vehicles with motors not diesel engines. Street crossings will be fitted with quiet zone technology which use subtle signal sounds, not traditional train horns. The rail and trail will positively impact neighborhoods and property values by improving mobility and decreasing surface cut-through traffic, as people opt to ride the train instead of drive and by providing a safe, car-free path for cyclists and pedestrians. Overall, neighborhoods will be safer, quieter, experience less pollution and have better options for car-free travel in our county and beyond.
Myth: It’s dangerous to have trains crossing residential streets and running close to parks and play areas. Children and pets will be at risk.
Fact: Safety features are required by law to prevent these types of incidents. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy reports the addition of a separate trail actually reduces the number of accidents involving pedestrians and cyclists, as users naturally prefer the paved path away from the tracks. In fact, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy reported that only a single trail-user fatality occurred on all rail-with-trail facilities across the United States in the 20 years preceding their 2013 report titled “America’s Rails-with-Trails.” This outstanding safety record stands as a remarkable testament to the ability of trains and trails to safely coexist.
Myth: Trains are big and clunky, with no new technology being developed. On-demand electric vehicles would be a better solution for seniors and others who are unable to bike around town.
Fact: In the United States we don’t see examples of modern trains very often, but Europe and China have been making leaps in rail technology. Modern rail transit vehicles (some of which are now being built in California) are very quiet, efficient and safe. While the idea of on-demand electric personal transit is great, it’s not an alternative to public transit even in theory and it has never been implemented. Both Caltrans and the RTC expect any rail transit vehicles used on our line to be electric. Furthermore, any future electric transit vehicle will use 100% carbon-free electricity from our new electric power provider, Monterey Bay Community Power.