Why Is There No Train From Silicon Valley to Santa Cruz?

“There has got to be another way.”

That’s what I muttered to myself at 5:15 each weekday morning for four long years, as I sleepwalked my way onto the Highway 17 Express for a very un-express-like two-hour bus ride to my high school, Bellarmine College Preparatory. Let’s just say my daily sojourns over California’s famously dangerous highway weren’t the highlight of my teenage years. Sometimes I’d arrive at school hours late, and sometimes not at all. There were no other options for a 15-year-old commuter.

Never having been a fan of Highway 17, traffic jams, or buses in general, I decided to investigate the restoration of an old train route linking Santa Cruz County to Silicon Valley. The idea of passenger service along this route is one of the area’s great transportation “what ifs” of the last decade, and depending on whom you ask, those old tracks may even represent a “what someday could be.”

Deep in the wilderness along the Southern Pacific Railroad route, the Glenwood Tunnel sits quietly near the summit of the Santa Cruz Mountains. At 5,793 feet in length, it’s one of two mile-long tunnels along the historic route. Inside, near the entrance, huge chunks of debris have fallen from the ceiling, blocking the path deep into the belly of the cavernous chamber. Most of the Glenwood Tunnel has collapsed, as it was dynamited for insurance reasons.

The topic of a hypothetical rail line over the hill comes up from time to time in transportation discussions, especially given that the Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission has been considering the addition of passenger service along the coastal rail corridor. County leaders decided more than 20 years ago, however, not to pursue the idea, given that the cost could end up being $1 billion. And although the concept isn’t currently being studied, there’s little doubt that the idea of a train stopping in San Jose—one of the world’s top-tier population centers—could have been a game changer. Even Manu Koenig, who works on the anti-rail campaign via the nonprofit Greenway, says he would “probably be for building” a train system if the route ended in San Jose.

However, some Santa Cruz politicians and other locals have long shown a leeriness toward linking themselves too closely with their counterparts over the hill, as the prospect of a direct rail line from Santa Cruz to Silicon Valley makes many people uncomfortable.

Former Santa Cruz County Supervisor Gary Patton recently told me via an email that “once a rail connection existed, Santa Cruz would cease to be as nice as it is now, since it would be flooded with people demanding that our nice residential neighborhoods be turned into high-rise, high-density dorm rooms for Silicon Valley workers, with more traffic congestion, and air pollution. Housing prices would be raised even higher.”

Unused Potential

Local historian Derek Whaley supports the reestablishment of the once-popular and historically important railway. In his book Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Whaley traces the history of trains in and around Santa Cruz, starting with the first blast of steam whistle in the 1800s. The 34-year-old Whaley tells me that restoring the train route from Santa Cruz to Silicon Valley would have tangible benefits. “To start with, it would provide much-needed relief to many of the commuters who travel Highway 17 each day,” he says. “Getting from Santa Cruz to Diridon Station would be much faster during commuting times.”

Santa Cruz Trains is an in-depth investigation into every tunnel, trestle, twist and turn of the 26.5 miles of track between Santa Cruz and Los Gatos. “The route, abandoned in 1940, is almost entirely intact in one form or another, and most of it is not in use,” Whaley says. “The fact that the route hasn’t been used for anything significant in 78 years makes me want to believe it will be restored some day.”

Growing up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Whaley admits that he didn’t give the tunnels and abandoned train tracks around his home a second thought. Sure, they were cool and slightly creepy places to hike and explore, but their rich history was completely lost on him. Now they’re his obsession. He’s spent much of his adult life poring over the dozens of proposals, pitches, feasibility studies and other attempts to restore railroad service over the mountains between Santa Cruz and Santa Clara Valley via the abandoned Southern Pacific corridor.

He says most of the earlier studies showed that restoration would be feasible—energy-efficient, environmentally conscious and cost-effective.

The Lockheed Pilot Study in the late 1970s estimated that 27 percent of the track between Santa Cruz and Silicon Valley could be easily repaired, 37 percent of the route was still intact, 26 percent required new construction, and 10 percent involved tunnels that were generally intact, Whaley says.

Lockheed’s report concluded that restoring the railroad had clear advantages over highway expansion, something the Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commision was considering at the time. It promised greater energy efficiency, lower greenhouse gas emissions, lower accident rates and a lower cost. Rebuilding the rail route from Santa Cruz to Los Gatos would cost hundreds of millions of dollars less.

Setting the stage for years of future battles, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors dismissed the Lockheed report outright. The board took the position that an over-the-hill route “would not be consistent with the planning objectives of Santa Cruz County.”

Out of Steam

A 1994 feasibility study was the last real attempt to revive rail service over the Santa Cruz Mountains. It came after Fred Keeley of the Santa Cruz Board of Supervisors met with Santa Clara Valley Supervisor Ron Diridon Sr. in 1991 and expressed a shared interest in restoring the railway.

But their enthusiasm was met with resistance from other supervisors. “Do we really want to invest $100 million in order to increase our ties to Santa Clara Valley?” Patton asked in an email at the time, according to correspondence Whaley shared with me.

Keeley fired back that Santa Cruz already was a bedroom community to Silicon Valley and that it was “right, proper, and intelligent to try to provide better and safer transportation for the people who are already here.”

The study concluded that approximately 4,400 riders could be expected to take the light rail train each weekday, including 3,400 commuters traveling each direction. It was estimated that at least 15 percent of vehicular commuters would eventually hop aboard the train for their daily commutes. This, the study found, would significantly lower traffic congestion and accidents on Highway 17.

Dollar estimates studied were a bit higher than anyone had guessed, and ranged from $612.4 million to $1.07 billion, which was still less than the estimated cost of widening Highway 17.

The study concluded that the environmental impact of a train route from Santa Cruz to Santa Clara County would be minimal, but that local communities in the Laurel and Glenwood areas could be negatively affected by noise levels and changes to the environment. It would cost $10.6 million to $15.8 million a year to maintain the line, depending on the route.

Santa Cruz county officials dismissed the study’s recommendations in February 1995. Instead, they opted to improve bus service along Highway 17 and add truck-climbing lanes along the road. The climbing lanes, which would have cost upward of $4.8 million per mile, never materialized.

Luis Mendez, deputy director of the regional transportation board, says via email that, if leaders seriously considered pursuing a rail line over the hill today, “any cost numbers shown in the study would need to be increased significantly.”

Diridon, however, says money was never really an issue.

“In most cases, it just takes money,” says the former chair of the California High Speed Rail Authority. “In this case, though, all we needed was determination.”

Lost in the Hills

I’ve got to admit I’ve become a bit obsessed myself with the ghost of the fabled Southern Pacific route, as I had fun taking pictures and imagining a steaming locomotive chugging through the stone walls almost a century ago.

Will the Glenwood Tunnel, also known as Tunnel 3, ever feel the roar of an engine again? Maybe not. Rebuilding the route would require a web of government agencies, businesses and landowners on both sides of the hill to work together toward a controversial goal. Even so, Whaley is optimistic about future possibilities. When it comes to relieving congestion on Highway 17, there are few options available. He believes that if the cost were shared with voters of Santa Clara County, the price tag could be manageable.

“For me, it would really be a sign that California is really taking alternative transportation seriously,” he says, “and is considering all of its options.”

Diridon says he’s still holding out hope because it is a matter of life and death.

“That highway is a blood alley right now,” the elder statesman says. “And building this railway would save lives.”

28 Comments

  1. The Metro bus goes fairly directly and often from Scotts Valley or Santa Cruz to downtown San Jose and has wireless internet so riders can get a little work done or read email or whatever. But some folks just have a thing about trains.

    The Bellarmine website has detailed directions for how to make connections various ways. The author and his parents must have considered all options carefully and decided that was worth four years with a two-hour trip one way. He said nothing about where in Santa Cruz County he lived at the time. For some, that trip would take three hours, with connections on both ends. My kid rode the Metro to a public high school.

    Trains are 19th century technology. Electric cars are already here, solar roofs to make your own electricity are already here, and self-driving cars are around the corner. In the 21st century, investing in infrastructure that can be shared by individuals, groups, freight (in other words, state highways) makes more sense.

    A map of the old rail line would be helpful. to understand where people could possibly make connections. The Lockheed Pilot Study sounds interesting — why not post a link?

    • > Trains are 19th century technology. Electric cars are already here, solar roofs to make your own electricity are already here, and self-driving cars are around the corner. In the 21st century, investing in infrastructure that can be shared by individuals, groups, freight (in other words, state highways) makes more sense.

      Amen!

      You speak wisely, Vaquero.

  2. Some Googling will get you a map:

    https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=186saGnFfQAfGo0Ht1_kpRJe8nzE&ll=37.10960677399302%2C-121.96974818057555&z=13

    At San Jose Bubble, explain how electric cars will reduce traffic on the 17?
    Highways have a much lower carrying capacity that rail, period, full stop. There are efforts to *remove* multi-use from existing highways (eg freight) as it’s interaction with other vehicle types make it interfere with passenger traffic. Additionally, highways are more expensive per mile per unit transported. The article itself mentions this.

    Extending your logic, should we get rid of airplanes and just use highways? I mean, why not use one transportation system and just expand it?

    The correct answer is to use what’s appropriate for the need based on cost and efficiency. Neither highways, rail nor aircraft are “always the answer”.

    This is pretty clearly a case of rail being the answer to increase throughput, increase safety while reducing relative cost and reducing traffic on the 17.

    • > Highways have a much lower carrying capacity that rail, period, full stop.

      I don’t accept your assertions.

      Rail is very expensive to build and very inflexible. Exhibit A: The Stupid California High Speed Rail.

      There might not be enough money in the western hemisphere to pay for the Stupid High Speed Rail.

      Also, government policies — promoted by lobbyists and special interest groups — very much determine the efficiency of highway/roadway transportation. “Commuter lanes” and “road diets” are screaming examples of how politicians undermine auto transportation to promote their stupid collectivist “mass transit” schemes.

      To understand how much better highway transit COULD be, you have to cleanse your brain of progressive hivemind and think outside the box.

      Visualize self-driving cars driving on dedicated lanes between San Jose and Santa Cruz, one hundred miles per hour, bumper to bumper, providing Uber-type individualized, on-demand transportation.

      MUCH FASTER THAN TRAINS! MUCH GREATER CARRYING CAPACITY!

      We’re Silicon Valley. We can make this happen. It’s so obvious that this is GOING to happen. Why not us.

    • The Lockheed report concluded that one of the advantages of the train would be lower greenhouse emissions. That’ll go away with electric cars. And apparently it only contemplated Santa Cruz to Los Gatos, not downtown San Jose.

      Some of the numbers in the story are scary. $1 billion construction cost for 4400 riders? Or $16 million/year maintenance cost for 4400 riders? (Actually, there must be at least 60,000 commuters, so if the train could ever get 15%, that’d be more like 10,000.)

      Thanks for the map. What a boon a train would be for anyone within 10 minutes of Felton (like Derek Whaley?). But would they really build it down the San Lorenzo River gorge to Santa Cruz? It’s so steep CalTrans can’t even keep that stretch of Highway 9 open.

      • Hi, Cowboy!

        You quoted the Lockheed report, adding that greenhouse gas emissions will go away with electric cars.

        Correctomundo, compadre. But CO2 makes no difference, it’s just a media boogieman, intended to scare the public. Because when the public is scared, they open their wallets…

        Big Media’s nightly newsbabes endlessly repeat the “Carbon… carbon…” mantra, until the public begins to head-nod along in blissful agreement. Most of them don’t even understand that “greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions” means carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions (plus a tad of methane).

        But all they know is that Algore is Saving Planet Earth™.

        So let’s help those head-nodders arrive at a sensible conclusion, by giving them some facts that they’ll never hear from the Big Media folks.

        (There will be an open book test following today’s lesson.)

        Facts:

        • CO2 has risen by ≈40% over the past century (depending on the starting point).

        • The rise in CO2 has caused a measurable greening of the planet.

        • There is no conclusive evidence showing that most of the rise in CO2 is due to human industrial activity.

        • Changes in atmospheric CO2 follow changes in global temperature (they reversed cause and effect).

        • Over the past century, CO2 has risen by only one part in 10,000.

        • The UN/IPCC admits that the human fraction of CO2 is only about 3% of annual CO2 emissions. The remaining ≈97% comes from natural sources (decomposing organic matter, ocean outgassing, volcanoes, etc).

        • Almost all global warming caused by rising CO2 happens within the first few dozen parts per million (ppm). But atmospheric CO2 has been around 280 – 300 ppm for thousands of years, and it recently passed 400 ppm. So all the global warming caused by CO2 has already happened, and anthropogenic (human) CO2 emissions cannot be the primary cause of global warming at current levels.

        Any global warming caused by rising CO2 is too minuscule to measure at current levels. That is supported by empirical measurements; satellite measurements show no global warming, and those measurements are corroborated by tens of thousands of weather balloon records.

        Conclusion: Big Gov’t is lying to the public. Whodathunkit?

        Carry on…

  3. Patton has that nasty “Santa Cruz/Oregon” bug. “Santa Cruz would cease to be as nice as it is now, since it would be flooded with people demanding that our nice residential neighborhoods be turned into high-rise, high-density dorm rooms for Silicon Valley workers, with more traffic congestion, and air pollution.” In other words – – I’m here now in this beautiful place and it would be ruined w/ more people so lets shut the door now – – Oh the Hubris of the privileged.
    these Dill Weeds don’t grasp that its their people driving over to the other side to get a pay check and the weekenders who show up to keep their quaint business’ and restaurants going. and yet they don’t want the hustle/bustle of the dirty masses – – eeewwwww

    build the flippin’ train and throw Patton and his ilk under it – – what makes them so special?

    • Wow Hugh, sounds like you need a few more anger management sessions! Leave the folks in Santa Cruz alone! They don’t want to be part of the Silicon Valley circus! Look what the profiteers did to what was once a beautiful valley and then turned it into a parking lot. Pretty disgusting, right?

      • > They don’t want to be part of the Silicon Valley circus! Look what the profiteers did to what was once a beautiful valley and then turned it into a parking lot.

        The smug tribalists currently encamped in Santa Cruz need to remind themselves how tribalism works.

        Stronger, richer tribes with more warriors, sticks, clubs, spears, and guns live where the fishing, hunting, foraging and beaches are better.

        The stronger tribes run off the weaker tribes.

        If the profiteer tribe of Silicon Valley decides that they want to live in Santa Cruz, the pot head tribe in Santa Cruz will just have to surf in Coalinga, next to the cattle feed lots.

  4. Stopping progress and improvements to transportation is a bit like people saying they liked the dark ages. Santa Cruz is not an island it amazes me how this isolationist attitude survives in what is supposed to be a progressive society, amazing.

  5. Trains are old tech & anyways it’d be a whole lot easier, cheaper & just about as fast if the tracks rolled down to Watsonville then headed up to SJ, hitting Gilroy & Morgan Hill along the way (simpler geography with already higher population density plus much more room to grow).

    • Excellent point.

      It’s how trains work. They really don’t go from point A to point B. They go around things that are in their way. Like the Santa Cruz mountains for example.

  6. The real issue is how many more people would take a train than take the current bus. Would that difference really justify the cost?

  7. Anyone who has been stalled along 17 on a summer weekend trying to get to not-so-sunny Santa Cruz knows that the problem is not just a weekday commute problem. Ask anyone who lives in Los Gatos, Monte Sereno, and Saratoga what their city streets are like all summer as people quit 17 and drive through their city streets to get a leg up on the trip over the hill, especially when the Los Gatos on-ramp to 17 is closed, and they’d vote for re-opening the rail line. But then reality sets in–each bug, banana slug, and salamander found along the line would derail the project for years.

    • Ask any of the Los Gatos residents how much they would pay for this train and the answer will be zilch.

  8. LOL! Gary Patton is 100% right. LOL rebuild the line for 1.3 billion LOL! It would be a government project typically cost over run is 300% or more. BART from Fremont to Berryessa last time I looked was 5-6 billion and a few year past do. Anyone out there have the exact figures so far?

    Now just for a minute think about tying the line to our light rail system and running a single track with some passing lanes, not that I have any respect for the cost of that system to the taxpayer but at least it would be connected to some existing infrastructure that going someplace.

    How about paving the crossing and running a bus system that would be much more flexible than a rail system and can still be electric to please the oil haters. Busses get to speed over the hill and then fan out using already avalible roads.

  9. Do we really wish to Los Angelize our beautiful coastal areas by building freeways and rail lines to the coast?? I sure don’t. It shouldn’t be easy to get to the coastal areas…they should be destinations for special trips, not daily commutes. Those who live along the coast but work elsewhere should just endure the commutes over the existing roads. If they they don’t like it they should move.

  10. This train would certainly be preferable to Gov. Moonbeam’s über-expensive Train to Nowhere. That’s not saying much, but anything that reduces traffic congestion is welcome.

    There was a very similar argument back in the ’70’s, when CalTrans proposed upgrading Hwy 17 to 4-lanes each way because of the numerous traffic deaths from improper grading, and various other problems. Most folks were in favor of the upgrade, since just about everyone used 17, if not every day, then at least very often.

    But the tree huggers got organized, and they convinced CalTrans that they didn’t want San Jose folks coming over the hill and spoiling their hippie paradise. CalTrans finally said, “OK then, we’ve got lots of other places where we can spend that money.”

    But those San Jose folks still came over the hill, pushing up Santa Cruz property prices up nearly to San Jose levels—and the bad grading and congestion is still a problem.

    And their hippie paradise? Santa Cruz has its good points, even though it always seemed to be a little bit like West Virginia On The Pacific. Now it just seems like a bigger version because of all that Silicon Valley spondulax being spread around by frustrated drivers from Silicon Valley. At least when they arrive in town, driving around isn’t nearly as frustrating as it is in San Francisco.

    So, what will they gain from their green eco-crusade? Tens of thousands of cars still struggle to get over the hill every weekend. But the traffic congestion on 17 is even more horrendous—and it’s getting worse.

    Was it worth it?

    This reminds me of the Auburn dam fiasco—a billion dollars wasted on what is now just an ugly hole in the ground, instead of a desperately needed addition to the NorCal water supply.

    Just about everything the “green” crowd touches turns to carp, doesn’t it?

  11. In the 1950’s we took the Suntan Special to Santa Cruz on weekends in the summer. This train went from south San Jose to Pajaro through Watsonville and directly to the Boardwalk, where a brass band would play as we disembarked. A nice easy level path from Santa Clara County to us, so WHY is everyone talking about reopening tunnels? We lived in San Carlos and took the Southern Pacific train to San Jose, where we would board the Suntan Special. I think it’s pretty silly to reopen the old tracks that actually have to trudge up and down the mountain. WHY DO THAT when there is a nice level already built rail system to travel from SJ to SC by the ocean? Anyone want to comment on that? [The old diesel trains could be replaced by light rail transit, getting us on board without the noise and dirt and higher costs.]

  12. What nearly everyone is missing in this debate is that the moderate solution, which is repairing the line to reasonable standards for hourly service in both directions during commute hours and sell often off hours. Using exceedingly fuel efferent RDC’s (Rail Diesel Cars), or locomotive hauled trains depending on demand.

    I’m guessing you could restore that line for well under 50 million. Good luck even adding a line to #17 for that price. And imagine what that would do for tourism!!

    Yet, we all know large bureaucratic organizations love over building and over spending. In this case, you have an asset that can be brought back to life relatively cheaply, if someone with some common sense took on the project.

    • What about streetcars,trams or even tram trains? They can operate on higher graidents and cross streets/public spaces easier than conventional rail (less need for expensive tunnels,bridges and signally equipment) they just use traffic lights at a normal intersection.

      You could potentially run a tram train along the route then track-share right up the VLT line as conventional rail to connect wirh BART at San Jose Dridrion (maybe even as far as Mountain View) The 700v DC electrification makes it easy.

      Given all the land banked railroad routes the US has, it’s surprising trams have not taken off more, often they can be used to provide a cheaper service on inactive railroad,route (with better placed stops) and use the savings to expand the route)

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