Santa Cruz Big Trees and Pacific Railway, a subsidiary of Roaring Camp, announced the deal on April 30 in a press release.
Roaring Camp CEO Melani Clark said the two companies came to an agreement over roughly the last two months. The deal will allow local businesses such as Martinelli’s and Big Creek Lumber to move their products en masse via the rail line as they have for decades, Clark said.
She also said Roaring Camp, which has operated in Santa Cruz County since 1963, hopes to expand the number of companies that use the rail line to transport their goods in the near future.
“We’re really happy and stoked to be getting involved [in Watsonville],” she said.
Progressive Rail, through St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, has handled operations of the Santa Cruz Branch Line since 2018. The Minnesota-based company will continue to be responsible for operations, Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) Deputy Director Luis Mendez said. But the deal struck with Roaring Camp will task the Felton-based railroad to handle the day-to-day operations. It will also allow Phase I of the operating agreement between the RTC and Progressive Rail to continue.
That agreement is broken up into two phases. The first allows Progressive Rail to provide freight service on the south end of the line to existing freight customers in Watsonville.
Phase two of the agreement activates after the RTC makes a decision on the future use of the rail line.
If the RTC makes the decision to keep the tracks in place and pursue potential passenger rail service, then the agreement will remain in place for 10 more years and will include the entire length of the rail line. If the RTC makes the decision to remove the tracks beyond the Watsonville area, then Progressive Rail can opt out of the agreement.
Whether or not the RTC will move forward with passenger rail service, is still anyone’s guess. RTC Executive Director Guy Preston said at its most recent meeting that the agency will continue to seek funding for a pricey environmental review needed to determine the feasibility of the project.
Roaring Camp, in the press release, said it strongly supports the preservation of rail operations in the county.
Clark said the organization is not taking any “political sides” with the deal.
“We see (rail) as something that really provides flexibility for the community,” she said. “I think if you’re looking years down the road, having only two options, being the Highway 1 corridor and a trail, we feel as though the rail provides another opportunity going into the future.”