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February 8, 2023

Electric light rail demonstration draws crowds in Watsonville

WATSONVILLE—Residents flocked to the corner of Beach and Walker streets this weekend to experience an electric light rail streetcar that could one day be implemented in Santa Cruz County.

Coast Futura (CF), an alliance of people from various county organizations, scheduled the demonstration with Roaring Camp Railroads. The zero-emission streetcar made multiple trips to and from the train yard, traveling alongside the completed portion of the 18th segment of the Rail Trail, through farmlands and alongside the banks of Watsonville Slough. 

The vehicle, which was designed, engineered and built by California-based TIG/m, LLC, is wireless and carries most of the energy for a full day of service in the form of batteries. A hydrogen fuel cell charges the battery banks while in service.

“[This] streetcar is an excellent example of what an affordable, scalable rail system could be like in our county,” said Trink Praxel, a volunteer with CF. “It’s one that could actually be initiated in just a couple years on sections of the track. I would love to see this be a reality in my lifetime.”

Melani Clark, CEO of Roaring Camp Railroads, explained the demonstration in detail at a media event Friday. 

“Normally, I always talk about stepping back into history,” Clark said, “but I’m excited today to talk about stepping into the future.”

The Coast Futura Friday electric train quietly approaches Beach and Walker streets. — Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian

The streetcar has the capacity to reach speeds of up to 50 mph. However, the Federal Railroad Administration regulates that vehicles must follow a 10mph operation rule during such demonstrations. President of TIG/m Brad Read also explained how the current rail system is set to a freight alignment. If such a vehicle was implemented, the track would be remediated, resulting in a smoother ride.

CF volunteer Iwalani Faulkner highlighted the importance of bringing equitable public transportation to communities. With a robust transit system, she said, communities benefit from great economic mobility and lower household costs.

“Studies show that every segment of American society—individuals, families, communities and businesses— benefit from public transportation,” she said. “[It] provides … access to jobs, medical care, education, cultural events, shopping, and connecting with our friends.”

The growing effects of climate change, especially on underserved communities, was another hot topic during the demonstration.

“I have two granddaughters growing up in this county,” Praxel said. “I’m committed to doing everything I can to reduce the impact of climate [change] on their lives. It’s really important … that we have a serious community conversation about this kind of clean energy transportation. It’s time we start building that future for them.”

Another streetcar demonstration will be held in Santa Cruz this Thursday-Sunday. For information visit coastfutura.org.

Johanna Miller
Reporter Johanna Miller grew up in Watsonville, attending local public schools and Cabrillo College before transferring to Pacific University Oregon to study Literature. She covers arts and culture, business, nonprofits and agriculture.

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