Thursday, September 8, 2022

Curiosities: Travel Times and Speeds

Railroads do not operate in a vacuum—they run according to schedules. For large-scale railroad companies such as Southern Pacific, these are extraordinarily complex schedules that must take into account hundreds of its own trains as well as the schedules of other railroad companies and various bus systems. Thus, it should be unsurprising that railroad timetables, both public and internal-use, are invaluable sources of information to railroad historians. Yet, in the end, the primary purpose of any timetable is to keep a schedule. In fact, the entire standarization of time itself into zones was done for this precise purpose: to make it possible for railroads to run on time. And like all railroads, those that operated in and around the Santa Cruz Mountains ran according to these published schedules.

Men at the ticket window of the Santa Cruz Union Depot, 1911. [University of California, Santa Cruz, Digital Collections – colorized using MyHeritage]

Travel times for regularly-scheduled trains can vary greatly depending on the length of the route, the terrain, the gauge of rail, and the type of train. In the Santa Cruz Mountains, the terrain was a major factor, with many sharp curves and steep grades. Travel speeds through the forest were also often quite slow due to the risk of debris falling on the track that could potentially derail the train. As a result, Southern Pacific passenger train speeds were limited by 1940 to:

• 30 miles per hour between Vasona Junction and Los Gatos
• 20 mph between Los Gatos and Eva
• 25 mph between Eva and Santa Cruz, with a brief 15 mph section between Wright and Glenwood
• 20 mph between Santa Cruz and Davenport
• 30 mph between Santa Cruz and Watsonville Junction (Pajaro)
• 20 mph between Felton and Boulder Creek
• Between 40 and 75 mph (depending on locomotive type) between Gilroy and Watsonville Junction

In the earliest days of travel in Santa Cruz County, most trains ran as mixed, which means they carried both passenger and freight cars. On the other hand, the South Pacific Coast Railroad and the Southern Pacific Railroad both ran dedicated, regularly-scheduled passenger trains from the early 1880s. They did continue to operate mixed trains, but many of their trains were either regular or express passenger trains. Regular trains could stop at any registered station or flag-stop, as well as various recognized but unrecorded stops. These are, therefore, the slowest trains. Express trains, in contrast, usually only stop at a few locations along a line in order to achieve a faster travel time. Some express trains, such as the Del Monte Limited, Santa Cruz Limited, San Francisco Limited, and the seasonal Sun Tan Special were given names due to their popularity.

Early Santa Cruz County railroads, namely the Santa Cruz Railroad and the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad, were narrow-gauge and rather crudely-built. This meant that they had slow travel times and often experienced delays or outright cancellations of service due to problems with the line or mechanical failures. When the railroads were operating normally, though, they were much better means of conveyance than the alternative of wagons or walking between destinations.

Santa Cruz Railroad's Santa Cruz depot on Park Street (now Chestnut Street), ca 1880. [Harold van Gorder Collection, Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History – colorized using DeOldify]

Santa Cruz Railroad and Branch

The earliest schedule that exists for a county railroad is that of the Santa Cruz Railroad, published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel on May 15, 1875. At this time, the line was only completed between Santa Cruz (Park Street Station) and Aptos on a journey that took about 50 minutes to cover 8.7 miles of track resulting in a train running at about 10.4 miles per hour. The first full timetable for the 21.5-mile-long Santa Cruz Railroad from Santa Cruz to Pajaro was released on June 10, 1876. At the time, an express train from Santa Cruz to Pajaro took 1 hour, 50 minutes, which translates to an average speed of 11.7 mph. The regular mixed train, in contrast, took 1 hour, 55 minutes, resulting in an average speed of 11.2 mph. Both of these trains were scheduled to meet with Southern Pacific passenger trains travelling along the Coast Division line between San José and Salinas. By 1879, the schedules had become drastically reduced, with the regular having a 1 hour, 45-minutes run and the express 1 hour, 25 minutes, resulting in speeds of 12.3 mph and 15.2 mph respectively.

When Southern Pacific took over in 1881, it immediately set about streamlining the system. The regular passenger train's time was reduced to 1 hour, 40 minutes run, while the express train was reduced to 1 hour, 3 minutes. On the final timetable before the line was standard-gauged in 1883, the time of the regular train was reduced further to 1 hour, 30 minutes, while that of the express increased slightly to 1 hour, 10 minutes. These meant that regular trains were running at 14.3 mph and express at 20.5 mph at the end of the narrow gauge era.

The upgrade to standard gauge tracks made trains larger but slightly safer to operate. Over time, this led to a gradual reduction in travel times across the Santa Cruz Branch. In 1890, regular trains took 1 hour, 25 minutes to travel from Pajaro to Santa Cruz, but express trains could make the distance in only 53 minutes. That resulted in speeds of between 15.2 and 24.3 mph. These were reduced further to 1 hour, 10 minutes for regular trains and 50 minutes for express trains by 1909. The speeds by this time, therefore, reached an average of 18.4 mph and 25.8 mph. These times remained the standard for the next 29 years, until regular passenger service ended along the Santa Cruz Branch.

Southern Pacific Railroad schedule published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, February 10, 1883.

San Francisco to Santa Cruz via Pajaro

The Santa Cruz Railroad was the first system in the county with the ability to connect to the Southern Pacific Railroad's Coast Division mainline at Pajaro, later Watsonville Junction. Once Southern Pacific took over and upgraded the line, a fluid exchange could happen linking Santa Cruz directly to San Francisco, although in reality there was rarely a through line between the points. Most of the time, passengers had to detrain at Pajaro and board a local train.

Passenger travel between Santa Cruz and San Francisco via the Coast Division mainline was never fast. In 1882, travel between the points—a distance of 121 miles—took around 5 hours, 10 minutes. This meant that the average speed of a journey to san Francisco was 23.4 mph. Around 1890, an express option was added that took just over 4 hours, which averaged 30.1 mph.  Over the next twenty years, the time was cut down further, eventually reaching 3 hours, 35 minutes in 1913. That brought the average speed up to 33.8 mph. From there, though, times increased again since all through traffic to San Francisco was directed north along the former South Pacific Coast route and then via the Los Altos Branch, popularly called the Mayfield Cutoff. By the end of passenger service along the Santa Cruz Branch in 1938, travel time from Santa Cruz to San Francisco via Watsonville Junction was 4 hours, 11 minutes, averaging a speed of 28.9 mph. Sun Tan Specials running from 1940 used this line to bring people to the Santa Cruz Beach and its travel time was 3 hours, 30 minutes, essentially the same as the regular passenger trains of the early 1910s.

Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad Time Table No. 2, from the Sentinel, February 10, 1877.

Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad

In some ways, the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad was the shortest-lived of all the railroads in the county since it was wholly absorbed into the South Pacific Coast Railroad's mainline system in May 1880. It also did not formally engage in passenger service until several months after it began freight service in late 1875. But during the four years that it operated as a passenger railroad, it had a set scheduled that appeared in the local newspapers. Its No. 2 timetable, published in February 1877, gave travel time between Santa Cruz—then located at the Railroad Wharf—and Felton—near the Mountain Community Resources—as 1 hour exactly. This means that the 7-mile-long route transported passengers at a speed of...7 miles per hour. The Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad offered three runs in each direction. Later in the year, this was reduced to two runs, and in mid-1878 only one run each direction. This remained the status until the South Pacific Coast took over.

Cover of South Pacific Coast Railroad time table no. 3, March 28, 1886.

South Pacific Coast Railroad and Railway

The opening of the South Pacific Coast Railroad to Santa Cruz in 1880 heralded the first (nearly) seamless direct service between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. Nearly because a ferry was still required to transfer passengers from San Francisco to the Alameda Mole near Oakland. The South Pacific Coast was a narrow-gauge railroad that ran directly through the Santa Cruz Mountains, passing through Fremont, San José, Los Gatos, and eight tunnels before reaching the seaside town. Little changed along the line even after Southern Pacific acquired it in 1887, by which point it had reincorporated as the South Pacific Coast Railway. The entire line was not standard-gauged until spring 1909, after which most Santa Cruz–San Francisco traffic went via the Mayfield Cutoff rather than by the original Alameda route.

In the nearly thirty years from 1880, travel times between Alameda Junction and Santa Cruz remained remarkably stable. The speed of the train was always fastest between Alameda and Los Gatos, after which trains encountered a meandering track of steeper grades and sharper curves. Nonetheless, the route as a whole made good time. The April 4, 1881 timetable gave the travel time as 3 hours, 37 minutes, which resulted in an average speed of 20.8 miles per hour across 75.3 miles of trackage. Two years later, the time was reduced to 3 hours, 19 minutes leading to an uptick in the average speed to 23 mph. The timetables soon stabilized for the next decade at the slightly faster time 3 hours, 22 minutes, with trains travelling at an average speed of 22.4 mph. Perhaps due to safety concerns or constant repairs along the line, Southern Pacific eventually moved the time up around 1894 to 3 hours, 30 minutes, averaging 21.5 mph, which it retained until the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake shut down the line and it was standard-gauged.

Passengers boarding a South Pacific Coast Railway train at Ben Lomond, ca 1907. [UCSC Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Felton & Pescadero Railroad and Boulder Creek Branch

Travel time on the 7.30-mile-long Felton & Pescadero Railroad, a subsidiary of the South Pacific Coast Railroad, varied depending on which direction the train was travelling between Felton and Boulder Creek. If the train was heading north, it took 45 minutes to reach Boulder Creek. If it was heading south, possibly because trains needed to use their brakes more, it took 50 minutes to reach Felton. This meant that trains were travelling 9.7 and 8.8 miles per hour respectively. When Southern Pacific took over the line in 1887, it managed to cut the average travel time down to 33 minutes, which more or less remained standard for the next twenty years. Trains, therefore, could transport passengers between the two termini at a speed of 13.3 mph.

In 1908, when the line shifted to standard gauge, trains were finally able to run at a faster clip. For the first year, trains transported passengers between Felton and Boulder Creek in only 22 minutes! This meant the trains were running at an average speed of 19.9 mph. Clearly this was deemed unsafe, or perhaps the company changed to less efficient locomotives, since in 1909 the time was moved back to 30 minutes. Over two decades, the speed bounced between 25 and 30 minutes for the remainder of its time as a passenger line, which ceased around May 1931. Taking an average travel time of 27.5 minutes, the trains during the final years of the Boulder Creek Branch ran at a speed of 15.9 mph.

Ocean Shore Railway timetable no. 19, July 16, 1911.

Davenport-bound Railroads

Two railroads traversed the northern marine terraces of Santa Cruz County: the Ocean Shore Railway, later Railroad, and the Coast Line Railroad, a subsidiary of Southern Pacific. Both standard-gauge railroads were built at about the same time—between 1905 and 1907—and both had the stated, though unrealized, goal of linking Santa Cruz to San Francisco via a coastal route. The Ocean Shore did make it as far north as Swanton, 15.5 miles from Santa Cruz, but the most important destination along the line was Davenport, at least in the earlier years. This location was 10.8 miles from Santa Cruz on the Ocean Shore Railway, and 11.4 miles on the Coast Line Railroad.

The Ocean Shore's short, fourteen-year existence running passengers along the coast was a relatively consistent affair. All of the company's regular trains were mixed and trains took 28 minutes to run between Santa Cruz and Davenport. This resulted in an average speed of 23.1 miles per hour. The Coast Line, in contrast, began running incredibly slow trains. Initially, mixed trains took up to 1 hour, 15 minutes to transport passengers from Santa Cruz to Davenport, probably due to the number of freight stops trains along the way. So much time resulted in a dismal 9.1 mph speed. This soon picked up, though, and Southern Pacific managed to cut the time to 1 hour in late 1909, allowing trains to run at 11.4 miles per hour. By 1913, enough passenger traffic had picked up that dedicated passenger trains could operate, and these only took 30 minutes, matching the Ocean Shore's travel time and running at a far more comfortable speed of 22.8 mph. Both railroads retained this time for passenger trains until each ceased regular passenger service, in 1920 for the Ocean Shore, and in 1932 for Southern Pacific.

Southern Pacific's morning Santa Cruz express train arriving at San Francisco, August 19, 1937. Photo by Wilbur C. Whittaker [Jim Vail – colorized using DeOldify]

The Mayfield Route

The most efficient service that ever ran between Santa Cruz and San Francisco was the direct trains that Southern Pacific ran along the Los Altos Branch, commonly called the Mayfield Cutoff. What it "cut off" was San José, saving trains a major bottleneck of a station and saving several miles of track miles travelled. The Los Altos Branch, between Vasona Junction and Mayfield near Palo Alto, opened in 1908 and allowed through service from Santa Cruz beginning in mid-1909. The route proved so efficient that the mile markers along the Santa Cruz Branch were actually reversed so that they oriented north through the mountains rather than south toward Pajaro. By 1909, the latter route had been reduced to 120.5 miles between San Francisco and Santa Cruz, while the new Mayfield route was a trifling 79.2 miles.

In the early years of the Mayfield route, trains running between the two termini took 3 hours, 20 minutes to reach their destination. That meant they ran at an impressive average speed of 23.8 miles per hour. As with the South Pacific Coast Railway before it, the speed would have been considerably faster north of Los Gatos and slower through the mountains. In the early 1920s, Southern Pacific managed to shave off nearly half an hour from travel, reducing the time to 2 hours, 52 minutes, resulting in trains running at 27.6 mph. Over the subsequent twenty years, this time only got faster. By February 1940, just prior to the sudden shutdown of the route, regular trains travelling on the Mayfield route could reach San Francisco from Santa Cruz in only 3 hours, 9 minutes at a speed of 26.0 mph. But more incredible was the travel time of express trains, which could make the morning commute in 2 hours, 38 minutes at the then-incredible speed of 30.1 mph.

This was the end of regular or express commuter service in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Except for the occasional excursion train and the seasonal Sun Tan Specials, locals who wished to travel anywhere by train first had to drive or take a bus to Watsonville Junction, Los Gatos, or San José. An era of efficient, comparatively rapid transport had ended.

Citations & Credits:

  • Nanney, Duncan. Personal correspondence.
  • Santa Cruz Sentinel. Various articles, 1875-1940.
  • Southern Pacific Railroad Company, various records. California State Railroad Museum.

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