Schiffrin: Freight Abandonment Could Kill Rail for Good
Updated: Mar 30, 2022
Transcript by California Local
Andy Schiffrin, who served for 40 years as an administrative analyst for the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, delivered these remarks during SCCRTC’s Feb. 3 meeting, where the commission took up a proposal to close off Santa Cruz area rail lines to freight service. The meeting, which took place on Zoom, had more than 500 viewers, and RTC reports that it received around 6,000 emails on the topic.
Here, Schiffrin discusses the Greenway initiative, charging that its supporters “make a number of misleading arguments that only confuse the issue.”
Schiffrin is a longtime lecturer on land use planning in the Environmental Studies Department at UCSC. He serves on the SCCRTC as an alternate to County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Well, we have many members of the public who have been here before. We have also other members of the public who are here for the first time and it may be helpful to take a little time to put the issue into context.
The staff report, I think, was very detailed and provided a lot of information—but if you’re new to the game it could be very confusing. It was somewhat difficult to understand, even for me, who's been in the game for a long time, so I wanted to talk about: Why is rail abandonment even an issue, [and] why are we talking about it? It's really about, what do we want to do with the rail corridor? And in the end the choices are simple, although the details are extremely complex.
If I could give a little background: There are two types of transportation on railroad tracks—there’s freight service and there’s passenger service. Freight service is regulated by the federal government; passenger service isn’t. Historically the Santa Cruz Rail Line has been used for both freight and passenger.
A freight easement on a line gives a rail operator the right to run freight trains on the line. When the RTC bought the rail line it bought the property, but Union Pacific sold freight rights to a private company. The RTC has an agreement with the current owner of the freight easement where each party has rights and obligations.
A freight easement can be abandoned in two ways, but it must be approved by the federal Surface Transportation Board, the STB. The owner of the freight easement can voluntarily apply for abandonment, or a public agency like the RTC can apply for an adverse abandonment.
The company that holds the freight easement now has refused to apply for abandonment voluntarily. Ostensibly I think based on the opposition of Roaring Camp. The STB will only approve abandonment—again, as I understand it—based on evidence that freight service is no longer viable and won’t be in the future.
I think that’s the context in which we’re all dealing with this issue.
Here are a few what I think of as indisputable facts:
The rail line from Watsonville north is currently inoperable for either freight or passenger service. It needs significant repairs before trains can run on it again. We’ve heard a lot of testimony about how much those repairs may or may not cost, but they are needed. It’s inoperable now.
Secondly, there is a proposal from Greenway for a 20-foot-wide trail in the existing right-of-way. The Greenway is defined as including two lanes of wheeled traffic on a paved path, a divider, and a separate walkway for pedestrians, with a shoulder on both sides. As the Executive Director stated, the Greenway trail proposal would require the removal of the tracks for it to be constructed because the corridor’s right of way is not wide enough for both the Greenway trail and the railroad tracks.
The railroad tracks, however, cannot be removed as long as there is a freight easement. The only way to remove the freight easement is to abandon it—either voluntarily by the owner or through adverse abandonment. The Surface Transportation Board, as I said, must approve any application to abandon it. So in the end, the Greenway trail requires the removal of the railroad tracks, and this cannot occur without the abandonment of the freight easement.
This, then is where we get into the motives of the various participants in this discussion that we’ve been hearing from. It’s confusing because not everyone has the same motives for wanting abandonment. The RTC staff favors the abandonment, as I understand it, because it will make it easier to build the rail trail along the corridor. Greenway supporters favor abandonment, obviously, because the Greenway trail can’t be built without it.
Roaring Camp opposes abandonment because of the fear that it will eliminate their opportunity to provide rail service—freight service and maybe even passenger service in the future on the line.
So the arguments for the benefits of abandonment from the RTC staff perspective are that they would make constructing segments of the rail trail easier by dealing with liability issues and by reducing environmental impacts and costs. And of course the supporters of rail service oppose abandonment because they see it as the first step to removing the tracks.
Greenway advocates, as seen in the definition of the trail itself, recognize and support the removal of the tracks so that a trail can be constructed. However, unfortunately, from my perspective Greenway advocates make a number of misleading arguments that only confuse the issue.
They argue that the RTC only wants to remove the freight easement because the cost of preparing the tracks for freight is expensive and it’s not about the kind of passenger service Roaring Camp provides. This is true but ignores the fact that by removing the tracks no train service will be possible.
Greenway advocates also argue that abandonment does not require removal of the tracks—this is probably, from my perspective, the most disingenuous argument since, while it is legally true, it doesn’t admit the fact that without abandonment there can be no Greenway.
Greenway advocates argue that even if the tracks are removed, they can be put back if funding for rail service becomes feasible. How likely is that, especially should the Greenway initiative pass?
Greenway advocates argue that railbanking requires that the rail corridor be preserved. This only means that the right-of-way can’t be sold off. With railbanking, the track can be ripped up.
The Greenway initiative has now qualified for the ballot and will be voted on in June. It’s related to the abandonment issue because the supporters of the initiative have made and will continue to make the argument that the initiative would not prevent rail service from returning to the corridor even if the Greenway trail is built. Is it realistic to think that public transit would ever return if the initiative passes, since it adopts the trail as county policy and all but eliminates references to rail in the county general plan?
Despite the misleading rhetoric, if the freight easement is abandoned, Greenway supporters will undoubtedly advocate that the rail tracks be removed. And if they succeed, the likelihood of rail service ever returning between Santa Cruz and Watsonville is zero to none.
Based on all this, I do not support the adverse abandonment of freight easement. And if we could vote on it today, I would be voting no.
Finally, in a fundamental way, this whole debate, as some speakers have said to the commission, seems like an exercise in futility.
Among the over 6,000 emails I’ve received opposing abandonment was a letter from the San Lorenzo fire districts opposing abandonment based on the potential need of an operable rail line during an actual emergency like a devastating wildfire. There has also been email and testimony from private companies indicating that they would use the line to move their products if the line was in operation.
Given these, and the strong opposition from Roaring Camp, I think it is extremely doubtful that the STB would approve an adverse abandonment application.
The most important point to remember, from my perspective, is that the Greenway will require the removal of the tracks and that can only occur if the existing freight easement is abandoned.
If there is to be a solution it will be based on compromise and cooperation.
I urge us to move forward in that direction and I hope staff, as indicated by Commissioner McPherson, will take up the Roaring Camp offer to negotiate and see if it's possible to work out a mutually acceptable agreement.
Thank you very much.
See a video of Andy Schiffrin delivering his remarks during SCCRTC’s Feb. 3 meeting here.