The ‘Rail Trail’ Movement, Explained—and What it Means For Rail in Santa Cruz County

The heated controversy over what to do with abandoned railroad tracks

PUBLISHED FEB 10, 2022 12:00 A.M.
Share this:  
Over two weekends last October, residents of Santa Cruz and Watsonville  participated in demonstration rides aboard an electric streetcar on rails.

Over two weekends last October, residents of Santa Cruz and Watsonville participated in demonstration rides aboard an electric streetcar on rails.

Sometime in 1865, 15 years after Santa Cruz became one of California’s original 27 counties, a group of the region’s richest men led by merchant and real estate tycoon Frederick Hihn and sugar magnate Claus Spreckels—both German immigrants who became millionaires in their Californian business ventures—led a push to build a railroad along the coastline. After considerable wrangling and political back-and-forth, by 1871 they’d convinced voters to back a bond measure to finance construction of the railroad.

The Southern Pacific Railroad, by far the most powerful corporation of any kind in the state at that time, began the process of surveying land for the rail line the following year. But a European stock market crash that led to a widespread railroad bond sell-off, and ignited what came to be called the Panic of 1873, spooked even the mighty Southern Pacific.

But not Hihn and Spreckels. They persuaded a group of local businessmen to back the rail line themselves, and even put some of their own cash into the endeavor, on top of the $100,000 in previously approved county funding (about $2.3 million in 2022 money). Construction got underway, carried out mostly by Chinese laborers who were paid one dollar per day for six 10-hour days per week, with two dollars deducted for meal expenses.

There was a brief roadblock in 1874 when lawyers for the city of Watsonville, understandably upset that the rail line would bypass their city, obtained a court injunction against county funds going to the rail line. Spreckels himself covered for the stalled county funds, pouring more of his own personal fortune into the project, and construction continued anyway.

A couple of years later, Hihn decided to extend the line into Wastonville after all. The city dropped its injunction. The first freight train on the tracks, pulled by a locomotive named Betsy Jane, delivered two loads of potatoes to the city of Santa Cruz. The Santa Cruz Railroad after more than a decade was up and running.

Betsy Jane is long gone, and even the seemingly indomitable Southern Pacific Railroad has faded in the mists of history thanks to a 1996 corporate takeover by its competitor, Union Pacific Railroad. The railroad tracks laid down almost 150 years ago are still there.

Trains keep running along parts of the railway, some carrying freight, others carrying tourists. And yet, today, the Santa Cruz Rail Line is at the center of one of that county’s most heated, longest-running and complicated controversies.

What is the ‘Rail Trail’ Movement?

Put simply, “Rail Trail,” or as it’s sometimes called, “Rails to Trails,” is a type of environmental conservation movement whose aim is to convert unused or underused rail corridors into scenic trails for hiking, biking and other types of outdoor recreation. The movement can trace its origins back to 1960, when the state of Wisconsin bought a segment of railway owned by the Chicago and North Western Railroad running between the cities of Elroy and Sparta. The state then converted the former rail corridor into a public trail perfect for mountain biking, snowmobiling, cross country skiing or plain old walking. Still popular today, the 39-mile Elroy-Sparta State Trail stands as the first “rail trail” in the United States.

In 1980, Congress passed the Staggers Rail Act, largely deregulating the rail industry, which had been in steady decline for much of the 20th century thanks to the automobile and the growth of commercial air travel. In the immediate postwar years, from 1944 to 1949, rail traffic dropped by 28 percent, after an earlier 50 percent collapse in the Great Depression. By the 1970s, 21 percent of the country’s railroad track was controlled by railroad companies in bankruptcy.

The Staggers Rail Act changed all that. Named for its sponsor, West Virginia Democratic Rep. Harley O. Staggers, described by the New York Times as an “old-style liberal,” the law took the authority to set railroad routes and service away from the government and put it into the hands of the railroad companies themselves. The Staggers Act is credited by experts for restoring the railroad industry to a healthy financial state with better, more efficient services and even reduced prices. A report by the Brookings Institute 25 years after passage of the act found that it had “accomplished its primary goal of putting the U.S. rail freight industry on a more secure financial footing,” and proven “a great boon for shippers as rail carriers have passed on some of their cost savings to them in lower rates and significantly improved service times and reliability.”

The law, however, also led the rail companies to abandon thousands of miles of track on poorly traveled routes in their campaign to increase efficiency.

There appear to be no reliable figures on exactly how many miles of abandoned track now exist in the United States. But tens of thousands seems like a reasonable estimate. The site Forgotten Railways, Roads & Places has compiled a crowdsourced, continually updated Google Map showing the exact locations of almost 10,000 individual stretches of abandoned track throughout the contiguous United States.


As railroads streamlined their operations by dumping poorly traveled routes and the tracks on which those routes were traveled, Congress began to worry that the country was losing too much railroad track. In 1983, federal legislators passed a set of amendments to the 1968 National Trails System Act—a law that created a network of federally managed trails—which allowed for a process that came to be known as railbanking. 

Rather than allowing tracks to be simply abandoned, they could be conveyed to another owner, such as a state or county government, or even a private organization, and be held and maintained for possible future railroad use. Until that time (if it ever came), the right of way associated with the old tracks could be used as public bike and hiking trails—or other uses, as long as they did not prevent the tracks from re-converting to railroads if needed at some point down the line.

In February of 1986, a longtime environmental activist and avid bicyclist named Peter Harnik, then 36 years old, opened the Rails to Trails Conservancy (RTC) in Washington, D.C. The group would be dedicated to converting abandoned and railbanked tracks into trails for cycling, hiking, roller skating and whatever other recreational use came to mind.

While most of the projects RTC supports involve replacing tracks with trails, there are a growing number of trail AND rail projects, as electric trains become more efficient and affordable.

So, What’s Going On in Santa Cruz?

In 1990, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (SCCRTC), the county’s Regional Transportation Planning Agency created by state legislation in 1972, started its effort to buy out a segment of the old Santa Cruz Railroad, running from Watsonville to Davenport. It wasn’t as easy as plunking $10.2 million on the counter and walking away with 32 miles of railroad track. The purchase wasn’t complete for another 22 years.

Why did the SCCRTC want the tracks so badly? “To expand transportation options for everyone in the community now and into the future,” the SCCRTC says on its website. “The goal is to maximize use by preserving a range of possible options including: a bicycle & pedestrian trail, transit, goods movement and recreational train activities.”

The SCCRTC’s plan was to maintain the tracks for use by freight trains, as well as commuter and/or tourist trains, while adding a trail alongside the existing railbed. The $10.2 million in state funds used to purchase the tracks—public money generated by 1990’s Proposition 116, the Rail Transportation Bond Initiative—specifically targeted that dual use.

But the final decision may not be up to the SCCRTC. A nonprofit known as Greenway Santa Cruz County has another idea—get rid of rail service altogether to create a “Greenway,” that is, “a wide pathway that safely separates people with small children and dogs from people traveling at higher speeds on bicycles, e-bikes, e-boards, and in wheelchairs—providing both healthy recreation and convenient transportation.”

Greenway has a petition that the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors took up at a Feb. 1 meeting. The nonprofit asked the supervisors to place its petition before voters as a ballot measure in June, 2022, leaving the decision on the future of the Rail Trail project up to county residents. The supervisors at that meeting decided not to decide, putting off the question to a later meeting.

SCCRTC Wants to Railbank the Old Tracks

The SCCRTC plans were also intensely controversial. At a Feb. 3 meeting, at which no action was taken, the commission presided over a lengthy public discussion of its plans to railbank the Santa Cruz Railroad line that it has owned since 2012. If it goes ahead with the railbanking project, the line would isolate the Felton Branch Line now used by Roaring Camp Railroads, a tourist rail company that has been in business taking passengers from its property in the Santa Cruz Mountains to the beach since 1985. Roaring Camp’s Felton Branch Line would be completely cut off from the national rail network.

The proposed railbanking would also mean the end of freight service on the Santa Cruz line, another business in which Roaring Camp is engaged. Railbanking would reportedly save $50 million to $60 million in maintenance costs for the train tracks, and put the tracks under the complete control of the SCCRTC, and away from federal regulators. SCCRTC says it is also considering “adverse abandonment” of Roaring Camp’s Felton Branch Line, which would preclude freight service on its tracks for good.

“Loss of our rights to freight service on the Felton Branch Rail Line line will mean a loss of current federal protection of our line,” wrote Roaring Camp CEO Melani Clark in a public statement. “Loss of federal protection will mean that our ability to reach the Boardwalk with our tourist trains will be entirely controlled by the [SCCRTC] and subject to the whims of the current [SCCRTC] board and leadership, as well as those of the future.”

Alternate SCCRTC Commissioner Felipe Hernandez at the Feb. 3 meeting said that railbanking would also have a potentially devastating effect on Watsonville’s economy.

“If we lose freight and the possibility of a passenger train, Watsonville’s 56,000 residents—85% of which are Latino—stand to lose everything, from jobs to transportation equity to (an acceptable) quality of life,” Hernandez said, as quoted by the Santa Cruz Sentinel. “We need to preserve the rail lines, protecting our county’s gems like Roaring Camp as well as our economic assets like Big Creek (Lumber).”

So when will the SCCRTC make the decision on whether to go ahead with the railbanking of the Santa Cruz Railroad line—the process that clears the way for railbaking the tracks, and which according to Clark will lead to the “slow death” of her company?

“I don’t really feel comfortable putting a timeline on it,” said SCRTC Executive Director Guy Preston, in an interview with Santa Cruz Local. “It may never happen.”

Support California Local

$10 • $25 • $50 • Our Impact

Long form articles which explain how something works, or provide context or background information about a current issue or topic.

This article is tagged with:
Related Articles
A screen capture of Director Preston beginning his presentation at the Feb. 3 SCCRTC meeting.
RTC Director Preston: Railbanking Will Preserve the Santa Cruz Branch Line
Guy Preston explains why he believes railbanking is financially necessary, and would result in the preservation of the line.
A screen capture from video of the SCCRTC meeting of Feb. 3, 2022.
Schiffrin: Just Say ‘No’ to Freight-Rail Abandonment
Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission Alternate Andy Schiffrin recommends keeping the freight easement, and says Greenway supporters ‘make a number of misleading arguments.’
All aboard.
Annals of Democracy: Trains
It was a short train ride, but it was decades in the making.
Image for Explainer: Roaring Camp and freight rail in Santa Cruz County
SC Local: RTC Meets Amid an Uproar
Controversial proposal to halt freight-rail service to be discussed.
Join Us Today!