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A California Beach Town Holds Out Hope for a Rail Comeback

Santa Cruz voters hoping to see the return of passenger rail to the beachside city prevailed in a ballot measure to decide the fate of a recreational trail project.  

A poster advertising the “Suntan Special,” a Southern Pacific excursion train that ran from San Francisco to Santa Cruz in 1950. Rail boosters in the beach town now hope to revive passenger service — but they face long odds. 

A poster advertising the “Suntan Special,” a Southern Pacific excursion train that ran from San Francisco to Santa Cruz in 1950. Rail boosters in the beach town now hope to revive passenger service — but they face long odds. 

Photo courtesy Santa Cruz Boardwalk

Parallel to California’s Santa Cruz coastline, before the sand dissolves into sea, there’s a train track being slowly overtaken by brush.

The Santa Cruz Branch Line was built in 1876 and runs across 32 miles of the county, which sits about 70 miles south of San Francisco. While still technically designated as active for industrial and recreational uses — in the middle of the 20th century, the Southern Pacific ran “Suntan Special” excursions to the beach along the line — storm damage in 2017 made parts of it unusable for freight, and no regular passenger trains have rolled down in decades. The question of what to do with the underused tracks has been a recurring debate in the region — one that came to a head this month in the form of a ballot measure that will influence its fate.