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Thousands of emails were written prior to a Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission meeting that showed two very divided sides in an ongoing debate on the future of rail service in the county.

Both camps agreed during the Feb. 3 RTC meeting that discussions that started about two years ago need to continue on.

“We need to have a better, more disciplined discussion regarding the financial reality of continuing with freight service along the corridor,” RTC commissioner and county Supervisor Bruce McPherson said.

Freight rail is much heavier, often wider, and generally runs at slower speeds, and is regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration. A commuter rail system that doesn’t have to accommodate freight will have different requirements for the design, operations and safety.

One of the rails up for debate is the Felton Branch Rail Line, which is owned by Roaring Camp Railroads, an iconic tourist railway that runs through the Santa Cruz Mountains.

With no freight operations currently on the Felton branch, the RTC is proposing a potential adverse abandonment for freight service only, meaning Roaring Camp would lose its rights to freight service.

But that’s not all and it becomes more complicated. In an effort to release the burden of cost to maintain a portion of the freight line of the Santa Cruz Branch Line, the RTC is proposing the portion of the line north of Watsonville to be railbanked, meaning the rail corridor could be used as a trail until a railroad might need the corridor again for rail service.

For Roaring Camp, which has its Felton branch connection to the Santa Cruz branch in downtown Santa Cruz, this would mean getting cut off from a connection to a main rail line and potential loss of current federal protection of the Felton branch.

Losing a safety net

Rosemary Sarka, a representative from Roaring Camp, expressed concerns over the loss of federal protection if freight service is abandoned on the Felton branch.

“The loss of federal protection is our safety net. That’s what we have counted on, that’s what we were promised,” Sarka said.

According to the RTC, in 2020 the freight operator, Saint Paul and Pacific (part of Progressive Rail), wanted to abandon the Santa Cruz branch.

“This is the third operator who has wanted to exit the contract, who thinks that freight hasn’t been financially viable,” McPherson said. “That’s just a fact. It’s why we are in this situation. They don’t want to do it. They can’t afford to do it. We need the public to understand how complex these options are.”

“This is the third operator who has wanted to exit the contract. … That’s just a fact. It’s why we are in this situation. …”

Supervisor Bruce McPherson

As the RTC gained information on the cost of repairing the rail line for freight and worked to find a new freight operator, it became apparent that the cost of maintaining the line for heavy freight was substantial, estimated to be more than $50 million.

“Perspective successors to the current operator, including Roaring Camp, were unwilling to assume those costs,” said Guy Preston, RTC’s executive director.

However, during the meeting, Sarka did hint that the possibility of Roaring Camp taking over as the new operator is not off the table.

“Roaring Camp did not reject an offer to take on the ACL [Administrative, Coordination and License agreement],” she said. “We were approached by the RTC and our response was that we prefer to discuss some of these details more clearly and we did not get a response back from that.”

More talks planned

The abandonment of freight service on the 8-mile-long Felton branch would have a domino effect with pros and cons for both sides of the argument. For now, Roaring Camp and the RTC have agreed to engage in further talks.

“RTC staff prefers to address Roaring Camp’s concerns through negotiations and to reach an agreement with them in lieu of any potential future decision for future adverse abandonment,” Preston said.

Following the meeting, Roaring Camp CEO Melani Clark issued a statement saying she will continue to vigorously oppose abandonment of the Felton branch, as well as any attempt to abandon the Santa Cruz branch.

“It is clear RTC staff and some commissioners don’t understand that forced abandonment of our line would be the start of a slow death for Roaring Camp,” Clark said.