Carmageddon: Public gets a look at potential passenger rail vehicle types

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Quick Take

Two public input sessions last week saw Santa Cruzans overwhelmingly favor light rail and multiple-unit vehicles for a planned future passenger rail project. However, the agencies executing the project have to also study factors like capacity, speed and type of power source before making a decision.

What kind of train would you like to ride between Watsonville and Santa Cruz: a locomotive-hauled train, a multiple-unit train or a light rail vehicle?

Although the groundbreaking for passenger rail in the county project isn’t expected until 2032, planners are now asking about what kinds of rail vehicles locals might want.

So the public got to see and discuss possible vehicles at last week’s Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) open houses.

What’s the difference among the possible cars?

  • Multiple-unit trains can be built to a specific length to accommodate the level of ridership that an agency anticipates, and are often lighter, with cabs on both ends of the train to promote faster turnaround times than locomotive-hauled trains. That makes them an increasingly popular option for commuter rail vehicles. However, there are not many active suppliers of this kind of train in the U.S. market.
  • Light rail vehicles are lighter and smaller than both of the other types of train and typically more available than multiple unit trains, but can’t hold as many passengers and are costly to maintain.
  • Locomotive-hauled trains are the traditional style of rail vehicle, which can fit many passengers and is compatible with both freight and commuter rail systems, but have a somewhat limited range and tend to consume a lot of energy.
The three vehicles in focus, with pros and cons listed. Credit: Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission

It may be early, but RTC and the Nebraska-based engineering consultant firm HDR, Inc., are already chipping away at the project’s conceptual report as they shoot for a winter 2025 completion to complete it. They aren’t deciding on the train type just yet, but began public input very early so as to have plenty of time for the community to weigh in on the ambitious project. An initial decision on the kind of car to be used could come as early as 2025.

The two public engagement sessions last week were held on Monday and Tuesday — the first in Watsonville and the second in Live Oak. At the Live Oak session, when the agencies asked the meeting attendees to choose which vehicle they believe would best suit the community, participants exclusively favored the multiple-unit trains and light rail vehicles.

The 20 to 30 attendees placed their votes on a large printout with each type of vehicle, and both multiple-unit trains and light rail vehicles received about an equal number of votes. Attendees wrote on the printout that they preferred the lighter build and faster turnaround times that the two types can offer, and also were attracted to the better energy efficiency when compared to traditional locomotive-hauled trains.

RTC’s long-term project includes passenger rail service and stations on about 22 miles of the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line from Santa Cruz to Pajaro, and 12 miles of Coastal Rail Trail from Rio Del Mar Boulevard through La Selva Beach and Watsonville.

In February, residents had the opportunity to view the project overview and provide feedback on the general plan for the project, which current plans call the Zero Emission Passenger Rail and Trail Project. 

HDR, Inc. vice president Mark McLaren said that although understanding community preference is important, the organizations heading the project have to study all aspects of the vehicles before making a decision. That includes specificity around cost for operations and maintenance as well as characteristics including speed and capacity.

“Those are all pieces of a puzzle, and wrapped together, they’ll tell us what type of vehicle we’re going to need to provide the service,” he said.

McLaren added that the prospective train’s power source remains a question as well. The organizations are committed to a zero-emission train, but the intense storms over the past few years have raised questions about the reliability of battery power due to power outages.

“We talk about the ability for a train to run all day, the efficiency, and what equipment we need to have,” he said. “That’s why we have other options on the table as well, whether it’s hydrogen, electricity or another clean technology in the mix.”

More public engagement sessions are coming later this year as HDR and RTC work to refine the train’s possible route and its station and maintenance facility locations by the fall.

Latest news

Check out our Carmageddon road delay list here. This week, pay particular attention to:

  • Drainage work, tree work, and pavement work will cause one-lane traffic control on various sections of Highway 9 from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday. In these stretches, there will be one lane open with a traffic light controlling the flow of traffic in both directions. Those areas are the sections between Golf Club Drive and Exit Road, San Lorenzo Way and lower Glen Arbor Road, Alba Road and California Drive/Middle Road, and Kings Creek Bridge and Camp Campbell Entrance.
  • Through the end of 2024, various sections of Soquel Drive between State Park Drive and Paul Sweet Road could be reduced to one lane of traffic as the Soquel Drive Buffered Bike Lane and Congestion Mitigation Project moves forward. The sections of road will be intermittently closed as work continues at multiple sites. Specifically, look out for intermittent single lane closures between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

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