Clean energy Coast Futura rail demo met with excitement, hope for the future
Thousands of Santa Cruz County residents took a ride into the future of local public transportation in October during the Coast Futura streetcar demonstration event.
Spanning two weekends — one each in Watsonville and Santa Cruz — the clean-energy, all-electric light rail vehicle gave the community a tangible example of what car-free travel could be like in the region.
“What an amazing way to see Santa Cruz! Pretty stoked to see some alternative clean energy transportation,” Aaron Bistrin of Santa Cruz shared on Instagram, representing a sentiment echoed by many other users of Instagram, Facebook, Reddit and Twitter.
More than 2,000 people took rides on the Coast Futura, including families, people with limited mobility and local elected officials. The streetcar demonstration was produced with support from a collaboration that included about 120 local volunteers, Roaring Camp Railroads and TIG/m, which manufactures the streetcar.
“We are at an exciting time here with this rail demo, addressing both climate change and the public transit equity crisis. Every segment of our community benefits from a robust, zero-emission public transit system that provides access to jobs, medical care, education, cultural events, shopping and connecting with friends.”
— Lani Faulkner, Coast Futura volunteer
The demonstration event began in Watsonville with a 5.2-mile out-and-back trip that included expansive views of agricultural land, rolling under a Highway 1 overpass and taking in rarely seen vistas in remote areas of Watsonville Slough.
In Santa Cruz, the Coast Futura departed from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, traversing the San Lorenzo River Trestle as it headed out on a 7-mile round-trip ride across the Santa Cruz Harbor, past Simpkins Swim Center, to the Capitola Bluffs and back. The streetcar quietly passed through numerous neighborhoods, past parks and schools. Despite running at much slower speeds than the vehicle is capable of, due to the need for upgrades to the rail tracks, afternoon riders reached Capitola in half the time of driving while gliding by traffic.
In total, the Coast Futura demonstration event included 68 runs over six days, covering 433 miles.
“Over the last couple days we’ve been able to ride and watch the demo train ‘cruz’ the Boardwalk to Capitola and back! We are incredibly impressed with all the passion, education, good energy, and overall community building vibe the leaders of Coast Futura have displayed. Thank you!”
— Joe Downie, Capitola resident via Instagram
The demonstration event ran on tracks that parallel sections of the Coastal Rail Trail in both Santa Cruz and Watsonville, illustrating how the rail corridor is wide enough to support rail service and a world-class bike and pedestrian path. A half-dozen sections of the Rail Trail are already completed or in progress.
The Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) authorized the
demonstration as an opportunity for the public to see an example of a modern electric rail vehicle on two sections of the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line track.
Earlier in 2021, following a comprehensive study, the RTC designated electric
passenger rail as the preferred alternative use of the publicly-owned rail corridor, envisioned to be established alongside a wide trail. The RTC’s conclusion was based on a “triple bottom line” focus on sustainability, including equity, environment and economy. This approach remains popular with the general public, as evidenced by the RTC’s public release of letters of support for rail transit it has received throughout 2021.
Though the Coast Futura demonstration was not a proposal for rail service, it was presented as an accessible, tangible concept intended to inspire a community discussion about the future of rail transit in Santa Cruz County. Organizers hope that discussion will include potential funding scenarios that could include state and federal funding, especially following the passage of President Biden’s bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.