The Sun Tan Special was the Bay Area's 'happy train' to Santa Cruz. Could it return?

Sun Tan Special arrives on "track one" at Santa Cruz beach, 1959.?

Sun Tan Special arrives on "track one" at Santa Cruz beach, 1959.?

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Picture it: A car-free trip to Santa Cruz, for an attractive fare, on a train that took you to the beach in the morning, back home that night, and showed you some great scenery along the way.

That describes the Sun Tan Special, operated by the Southern Pacific railroad between San Francisco, San Jose and Santa Cruz on summer weekends and holidays for most of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.

It was more than just a conveyance. “[It’s] a happy train, filled with people in a vacation mood,” says a 1940s Southern Pacific flyer. “It gives you six hours on the beach and there’s plenty of room.”

“Life on the Sun Tan Special?was an exciting affair,” says Santa Cruz rail expert Derek R. Whaley in his article “Curiosities: The Sun Tan Special” for Santa Cruz Trains. “Everyone was dressed for the beach.”

On-board food carts offered snacks and coffee, and an open-ended observation car at the rear offered views with fresh air. The Cocoanut Grove band played as passengers arrived at the Boardwalk. “The return journey … usually was quieter,” Whaley writes, “with many of the passengers sleeping off the salt air or relaxing with views of the mountains and ocean.”

The public’s growing enthusiasm for driving, plus improvements to Highway 17, doomed the train. The railroad officially ended the service after September 1959.

Mary Ann Arras of Boulder Creek modeling for promotional photos for the Southern Pacific's Sun Tan Special, 1958.

Mary Ann Arras of Boulder Creek modeling for promotional photos for the Southern Pacific's Sun Tan Special, 1958.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

But the coast is still stunning, the beach and Boardwalk continue to draw crowds, driving on Highway 17 is too often a nightmare — and so the idea of reviving the Sun Tan Special, and other passenger rail service in Santa Cruz, has never fully died.

Everything depends on the future of the only railroad connection into the county, the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line. Much of it has been unusable following storm damage in 2017.

One viewpoint in the county says keep the tracks for passenger and freight trains, plus build a trail alongside. This is the rail-and-trail option. Part of the trail has already been built.

Another viewpoint favors converting the route into a greenway, which supporters depict as “a beautiful linear park that spans the length of our county, connecting our neighborhoods, and showcasing all that we love about Santa Cruz County.” This is essentially a trail-only option, although in theory, trains could return someday. Greenway advocates say there’s not enough room on parts of the right-of-way for both tracks and trail, and the trail should come first.

The disagreement about the Santa Cruz Branch is years old. It’s heating up again this spring.

Through Los Gatos and the mountains

The Southern Pacific created the Sun Tan Special?for Bay Area summer day-trippers. It was a hit from the start.

The original route from San Jose went through downtown Los Gatos, then crossed the Santa Cruz mountains while passing through Alma, Glenwood and Felton. A severe storm in February 1940 walloped the line, prompting Southern Pacific to pull the rails between Los Gatos and Olympia, just uphill from Felton.

The railroad shifted the Sun Tan Special?to its other Santa Cruz connection, the still-existing Santa Cruz Branch. It splits off the main rail line from San Jose to Los Angeles at Watsonville Junction, then heads through Aptos, Capitola?and Santa Cruz, and ends in Davenport.

Scanned from a 1955 Southern Pacific train brochure. The gap between Los Gatos and Olympia didn't exist until 1940.

Scanned from a 1955 Southern Pacific train brochure. The gap between Los Gatos and Olympia didn't exist until 1940.

Courtesy of Bill Buchanan

Ridership on the Sun Tan Special?peaked at 15,485 in 1956, Whaley writes, then dropped by 3,000 in 1957. After Southern Pacific ended the train, it allowed chartered excursions on the branch until 1965. Then the railroad?downgraded the line to freight service only.

In the 1950s, the entire trip on the Sun Tan Special took about 3.5 hours each way. Passengers rode in utilitarian coach cars normally used for workday commute trains on the Peninsula. A ticket from San Francisco cost $2.25 round-trip in the late 1940s, or about $26.50 today.

Figuring it out in Santa Cruz

In Santa Cruz County in 2022, passenger trains are more of an idea than a tangible service. There have been concepts, proposals, demonstrations, studies, and one enduring success, the Roaring Camp Railroads of Felton.

The company runs the Beach Train between Felton and the Boardwalk on the Felton Branch, a remnant of the original Sun Tan Special?route. It also operates the Roaring Camp and Big Trees tourist railroad and park in Felton.

Roaring Camp says it carried 200,000 to 250,000 riders per year before the pandemic, with the Beach Train representing about 30% of that total.

Rail advocates scored a major advance in 2012 when the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (SCCRTC) bought the Santa Cruz Branch for $14.2 million from the Union Pacific, which had inherited the line after merging with Southern Pacific?in 1996. The purchase tapped a state bond for passenger rail projects.

Christmas trains, commuter service and electric trolleys have been proposed or sometimes operated on the Santa Cruz Branch. Last October, the Coast Futura demonstration, presented jointly by California streetcar company TIG/m, Roaring Camp and others, offered free rides on wireless electric trolleys in Watsonville and between Capitola and Santa Cruz.

Freight trains are supposed to be part of the traffic mix, too, although the last major shipper north of Watsonville was a cement plant in Davenport that shut in 2010.

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit system, operating between downtown Santa Rosa and San Rafael, began inaugural service on August 25, 2017, in Santa Rosa, Calif.

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit system, operating between downtown Santa Rosa and San Rafael, began inaugural service on August 25, 2017, in Santa Rosa, Calif.

George Rose/Getty Images

Since 2012, a succession of three shortline railroad companies have contracted with the SCCRTC to operate trains on the Santa Cruz Branch. Two have pulled out. Roaring Camp has a subcontract with the third, Progressive Rail, to serve freight customers in Watsonville on the active part of the line.

The SCCRTC estimates that repairs to the Santa Cruz Branch north of Watsonville for freight service would cost another $50 million to $65 million. An existing county sales tax for transportation can cover part of the expense. Finding a means to pay all of the cost, or whether the potential train service is worth it, is part of the dispute.

If trains do return, they won’t be the first to come back in the Bay Area. The Capitol Corridor, Altamont Corridor Express and Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit have all been created on Bay Area rail lines during the past few decades. Caltrain service on the Peninsula has expanded to Gilroy. In the purely recreational category, the Napa Valley Wine Train reactivated an old Southern Pacific branch from Napa to St. Helena.

Freight fight

The latest standoff in Santa Cruz focuses on freight trains. Freight is important because “any successful common carrier on the line will want to use it for both freight and passenger service,” said Whaley, also author of the book “Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains.” “A seasonal tourist train alone will not justify the cost of continual maintenance of the line. The line must haul freight.”

In a meeting of the SCCRTC on Feb. 3, commissioners heard about an idea to force the abandonment of the freight easement on both the Santa Cruz Branch north of Watsonville and on the Felton Branch. “Adverse abandonment” is a complex legal process involving ownership and use of a railroad right-of-way.

“Filing the adverse abandonment action for the Felton Branch Line,” the SCCRTC said in a January 2022 post on its website, “will provide clarity on whether the RTC might be able to railbank the Santa Cruz Branch.”

Railbanking means taking the tracks officially out of service, at least for freight in this case, while legally preserving the route for future possible use by trains. Railbanking would save repair costs, the SCCRTC said, plus “ensure the RTC’s property rights to use the railroad easements for the construction of trail segments without the potential need to buy additional property rights” — in other words, to help create a trail along the route.

The SCCRTC says it wants Roaring Camp to keep operating the Beach Train regardless. That service uses a small part of the Santa Cruz Branch to reach the Boardwalk.

Roaring Camp calls railbanking a fantasy that would effectively preclude the return of trains on the Santa Cruz Branch, and says it would fight to keep its freight easement on the Felton Branch. “The RTC’s proposal represents an aggressive attack on our railroad and rail transportation in our county,” Roaring Camp CEO Melani Clark said in a press release prior to the RTC meeting, “fueled by special interests that are lobbying hard to end rail in Santa Cruz County.”

Arrival of Southern Pacific Sun Tan Special at Beach, greeted by Santa Cruz Beach Band.

Arrival of Southern Pacific Sun Tan Special at Beach, greeted by Santa Cruz Beach Band.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Roaring Camp wants the SCCRTC to repair the Santa Cruz Branch. If the line closes for keeps, then the Felton Branch will have no connection to the national rail network. The railroad also says it has prospects for freight customers north of Watsonville, and anticipates a need to ship in building materials as property owners rebuild from the CZU Lightning Complex fires of summer 2020.

Santa Cruz Greenway, a pro-trail nonprofit organization, dismisses the potential for freight traffic. “It is clear after the last nine years that the Santa Cruz Branch Line north of Watsonville is no longer financially viable for freight,” Greenway says in an online Q&A.

Although the SCCRTC agenda item was informational only, it drew a storm of comments. Commissioners said they received thousands of messages about the subject. For at least part of the meeting, 184 people were watching online. Among other points, people talked up the environmental benefits of trains or a multi-use greenway?and the value of the Felton Branch when fighting fires or evacuating people during forest fires.

After hours of opinions, questions and comments, SCCRTC Executive Director Guy Preston told the commission he will keep working with Roaring Camp to find a solution.

In an email the next day to its customers and supporters, Roaring Camp said, “The RTC is still considering all options, including adverse abandonment, but your voices led to their suggestion to re-approach Roaring Camp to discuss options. As this develops, we will keep you in the loop.”?

Meanwhile, the Greenway Initiative — a ballot measure that would refocus the county’s General Plan on building a greenway on the Santa Cruz Branch corridor, instead of rail service — has received enough signatures from voters to qualify for the county’s June 7 ballot. The initiative will likely generate a lot of attention in the next several months.

A trail would be much better now, Greenway says

The Sun Tan Special “was definitely a product of its time,” says Jack Brown, spokesperson for Yes Greenway, the committee for the Greenway Initiative. “The roads over what is now Highway 17 were much more treacherous. It was something like a 6-hour drive.” The roads got better and eventually “the train became a burden for the operators, so it finally just went out. It was useful for its time.”

And a revival?

“I just don’t think it’s quite worth it. Basically we’ve got limited ways of getting people around in Santa Cruz, with [highways] 17 and 1, and that train is still going to take 3 or 4 hours, making that big V pattern [via Watsonville] to get here,” Brown said. “I think the number of people that could benefit from it would be very limited. Maybe 10,000.”

Sun Tan Special advertising poster featuring Dolores Cross of Santa Cruz at 3rd and Townsend, the Southern Pacific Depot in San Francisco, 1950.?

Sun Tan Special advertising poster featuring Dolores Cross of Santa Cruz at 3rd and Townsend, the Southern Pacific Depot in San Francisco, 1950.?

Southern Pacific Photo via Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

A trail, he said, would attract much greater use. He cited the 18-mile Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail, built on part of yet another onetime Southern Pacific?branch, from Pacific Grove through Monterey to Castroville. “They have more than 2 million visitors a year on the trail,” Brown said. It passes Fisherman’s Wharf, Cannery Row, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, beaches and other attractions.

“Imagine if we had something similar in Santa Cruz,” he said.

Complicated terrain

“A revived Sun Tan Special or [something] similar would be an exciting way to visit Santa Cruz, while avoiding driving, traffic and parking,” said Roaring Camp CEO Clark. The train “would help make a positive impact in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

“Roaring Camp would take a very serious look at operation of a new Sun Tan Special,” she said. The Coast Futura demonstration, she added, showed what’s possible on the Santa Cruz Branch.

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk supports the possibility of passenger trains returning to the Boardwalk, said spokesperson Kris Reyes, “but we also recognize that doing so is extremely challenging for a variety of complex reasons, so it has not been something we’ve actively pursued.”

The train “is a unique part of the Boardwalk’s rich history,” Reyes added. “We have always believed that renewed passenger rail service to the Boardwalk would be a popular and beneficial transportation option for our guests.”

Whaley said he would like the Sun Tan Special?to return, although whether it will or could is another matter.

“[It] would be a boon to the tourism industry and enhance the value of every place where the train stopped,” he said, “but it would only work if it were part of a system that also includes regular local passenger and freight services.”

Disagreements over freight, a trail, costs, jurisdiction, traffic and the best way to help the environment create a complex territory for a train that was created for larky summer weekend fun at the beach.

But if the Sun Tan Special returns, that's the terrain it will have to travel.

Bill Buchanan is a writer and editor who worked for newspapers in Colfax, Fairfield and Sacramento, and then switched to writing about tech and information security for UC Davis. He grew up in the Bay Area, has a degree in Journalism from UC Berkeley, and also volunteers as the host of a public affairs radio program at Davis community station KDRT.