Photo by Jacob Pierce.
Photo by Jacob Pierce.
Photo by Jacob Pierce.
Photo by Jacob Pierce.
The Sierra Northern Railway operates twice a week, usually on Mondays and Tuesdays, pulling cars of lumber or produce through Santa Cruz County. Photo by Jacob Pierce.
The Sierra Northern Railway operates twice a week, usually on Mondays and Tuesdays, pulling cars of lumber or produce through Santa Cruz County. Photo by Jacob Pierce.
Conductor Wes Swift, a life long train enthusiast, hopes the Sierra Northern Railway will expand its service to include a dinner train in the upcoming months. Photo by Jacob Pierce.
Conductor Wes Swift, a lifelong train enthusiast, hopes the Sierra Northern Railway will expand its service to include a dinner train in the upcoming months. Photo by Jacob Pierce.

The City of Santa Cruz will never be the same. When the railroad came to town, it brought carloads of tourists, bustling businesses, and a faster way to export the county’s most profitable goods, like leather, lime, gun powder, and lumber. That was in 1881.

Today, the rail line that built Santa Cruz, well before corridors like Highway 17 had ever been imagined, has all but been forgotten. The Santa Cruz Big Trees and Pacific Railroad still operates, taking eager, wide-eyed visitors on a trip winding through the Santa Cruz Mountains to the quaint town of Felton, tucked away in the hills.

All 120 tons of the Sierra Northern Railway’s steel locomotive runs twice a week between Santa Cruz and Watsonville, usually bringing back and forth refrigerator cars of produce to mid-county farms or lumber to the Pro-Build hardware shop on Thompson Avenue in Live Oak.

Conductor Wes Swift is a no-nonsense kind of guy. He likes his yellow, paint-peeled locomotive because it always stays on track. He watches the news and is tired of hearing about national “tea party” shenanigans and fringe radicals bringing their guns to political rallies. But more than anything, Swift, though a fiscal conservative at heart, was frustrated by the opposition to the idea of Santa Cruz County owning Santa Cruz’s rail line — even though supporters say it could be the best thing for the future rail transportation in Santa Cruz.

However, he put all the disagreements behind him on May 6, when the Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) approved the purchase of 32 miles of the local Union Pacific tracks, which stretch from Watsonville to Davenport. The $19.2 million deal includes both $14.2 million to Union Pacific, which has been leasing the tracks to the Sierra Northern Railway, $5 million for repairs to bridges, and retrofitting already planned for the line itself.

The millions of dollars in improvements will make future upgrades to the track more feasible. Ultimately, county ownership will make it easier to implement new passenger options for both commuters and tourists to the historic Santa Cruz rail line.

“This line has just unlimited potential for tourism,” Swift said, as the Sierra No. 48 rumbled at about 12 miles per hour down the scenic train corridor, sandwiched between Highway 1 and the beachside bluffs. “As a matter of fact, if you want to talk about the whole U.S., or probably continental U.S., there’s nothing that has as good of coast views as this.”

Now, the purchase only has to pass one last hurdle — it must be approved by the California Transportation Commission by June 30. Then it will be business as usual for the Sierra Northern Railway, but with fewer restrictions than they faced under Union Pacific’s thumb. Conductor Swift and Engineer Cliff Walters will go on pulling produce and lumber across the county. Most importantly, the funds do not dip into any local money.

Instead, it will be funded by Proposition 116, a voter-approved measure from 1990 that has specifically earmarked monies for rail transport projects like this one in Santa Cruz County.

First District County Supervisor John Leopold, who serves on the RTC, called it “the most studied purchase in Santa Cruz County in a long time, maybe ever.” The agreement was the culmination of 20 years of discussion and 10 of intensive study.

“We had over 20 people come here to our meeting,” Leopold said. “The vast majority of them [are] in support of this purchase.”

The main course

As the yellow locomotive ploughs forward, Swift has his eyes fixed on the tracks ahead. He is looking for wandering pedestrians, people passed out on the tracks — or “human chalks,” as Swift and Walters call them — and occasional tree branches that come ripping against the train.

“You want to check this view out as we’re going across this trestle,” Swift said, as he clenched his large hands on the glass window and pulled it open. “It’s fine, I’m tellin’ you.”

The scenic views have begun to spark new proposals. County leaders and the Sierra Northern Railway have both been talking for several months about the possibility of a dinner train running along the coast.

“I’m personally drooling about it, and I think it’s in the plans, but how soon it’s going to come into effect — who knows?” Swift said.

“Watch your head here. We’ve got a little bit of a close brush,” Swift added, as a thick green bough came tearing in and out of the open window.

He hopes the company might be able to get something together later this year, but Engineer Walters says a time frame of summer 2011 appears more feasible. The RTC has also discussed the possibility of the dinner train, and County Supervisors like John Leopold and Ellen Pirie are open to the idea.

David McGaw, president of Sierra Northern Railway, calls the project “something we’re looking at.”

For some, the dinner train would mean more than good eats and a nice view. It would mean more work, something the conductor would embrace. Swift, who has been forced to pick up extra work — he and his wife are working a total of five jobs between the two of them — would likely end up in charge of the tourist train.

An electrician by trade, Swift has seen many jobs go overseas for cheaper labor over the past few years. Dwindling business has been a mixed blessing and has lead him to pursue his lifelong hobby as a part time job.

Swift, an amateur train historian, also appreciates the rustic appeal of trains. He hopes the proposed rail update to the historic track may awaken a similar awareness about it in its passengers. Swift loves nothing more than to see an old photograph of a train snaking through tall grass across an empty field. He enjoys the mysticism of a large engine creeping through the wilderness.

“The only way you could tell whereabout the tracks were is there was probably a barbed wire fence around it or something. That, to me, is really appealing,” he said, as one more bay tree branch came popping in and out of the open train window past the head of a certain City on a Hill Press reporter.

“Oops, forgot to call that one,” Swift added.

Light at the end of the tunnel

If the RTC’s purchase of the rail is not approved before the Prop 116 funds expire at the end of June, it could put the tracks in jeopardy of being altered or developed. Many fear that one portion of the track being seized or sold could render all 32 miles of the track — not to mention all dreams of a dinner train — useless.

“The reason I’m supporting it is so that we don’t lose the rail as a transportation corridor,” said Ellen Pirie, third district county supervisor who serves on the RTC. “Passenger rail, in my opinion, is not feasible on [the tracks] now from a financial perspective, but it may be someday. But once we lose it, or even lose a piece of it, then we’ve lost the value of this uninterrupted corridor.”

Swift, in his arsenal of train knowledge, has horror stories of both fatal crashes and also local governments in California that failed to preserve their rail systems. During the 20th century, for example, a rail line connected Merced to Yosemite National Park. The rail line was abandoned in 1985, but if still around today, it would connect a busy suburban county with one of the most popular National Parks destinations in the country.

In Santa Cruz, a possible commuter train — like the one that Swift and Walters would like to see in addition to the dinner train — would link together parts of a county often thought to be disparate and disconnected. Research done by Bruce Sawhill, chairman of the Friends of the Rail Trail, shows that parts of Santa Cruz County actually have a high population density.

Sawhill says that rail transport typically does not work very well in areas with a population density of under 3,000 to 4,000 people per square mile.

According to census data he compiled, the parts of Santa Cruz County between Highway 1 and the coastline have a population density of about 7,000 to 10,000 people per square mile. Sawhill said that the portion of the county that extends about one mile from the railroad tracks on either side is more dense than many would imagine.

“It’s more urban. It’s more like a small big city — a miniature version of San Francisco — than a small city,” he said.

The entire city of San Francisco has a population density of 13,000 people per square mile. Seattle has an average density of 7,000 per square mile. Portland has an average density of about 4,500.

Both Sawhill and Conductor Walters would like to see passenger options for students to get to their classes at either UC Santa Cruz or Cabrillo Community College, which sit at either end of the most populated area.

Still, the $5 million in state funding to retrofit the line will not provide for any additional upgrades other than those that are absolutely necessary to the rail’s bridges and tracks. So, until more funds become available at either the state or local level, plans for increased commuter options will remain on hold.

“I think passenger rail service is a possibility, although it has a much longer horizon just because of the expense you need to build the system up and just acquiring those funds,” First District County Supervisor Leopold said.

In addition to increased commuter options, Wes Swift has other pipe dreams for ways to improve the Santa Cruz Rail Line. He suggests that one day, the train could be an avenue that transports recycling and trash to and from the landfill, which rests next to the tracks. He thinks it would be great to coordinate a deal with a local kayak company that could drop off a few carloads of boats and visitors to Harkins Slough and Watsonville.

Sierra President David McGaw calls all such plans “within the realm of possibility,” but adds “it’s not something we’re currently investigating.”

Regardless, Walters and Swift look ahead to the prospect of their dinner train a couple of summers from now. They swell with pride to think that their train could serve visitors from around the world, sitting on the edges of their seats to see the majestic forests and sweeping coastal views of Santa Cruz County.

But, as far as pride goes, the aesthetic value of their paint-peeled, classic yellow locomotive is just as important.

On the day the RTC approved purchase of the rail line, Swift said, “We’ve already got plans for doing a paint job.”