EDITOR'S NOTE: During the final two weeks of 2012, the Sentinel is taking a look back at the most newsworthy stories and newsmakers of the year. The series will be published in ascending order, ending on Dec. 31 with the story selected by the Sentinel staff as the year's biggest.

SANTA CRUZ -- One day in October, Luiz Mendez woke up and he was done waiting.

As the top assistant in Santa Cruz County's Regional Transportation Office, Mendez has been tasked for a decade with shepherding through the acquisition of the 31-mile Branch Rail Line, a twisting decade-long saga that finally hit another mark this year when Mendez closed the books on the $14.2 million purchase.

But rather than ending an ongoing saga, it seems the purchase triggered more activity.

"There's definitely a lot of work. I know some people say 'Well, the project is finished. That's great,' " Mendez said "It's really one phase of the project. Now we move on to the next phase."

Though controversial from the start, the RTC sought the line not only to preserve freight and passenger service, but as the backbone of a future trail that largely follows the rail's path along some of the most picturesque stretches of earth anywhere.

Once escrow closed in October, things shifted fast. Iowa Pacific was chosen to operate the line, and it immediately established the Santa Cruz & Monterey Bay Railway. The Train to Christmas town now runs five days a week, joining Roaring Camp Railroad's Holiday Lights Train and Holiday out with Thomas as popular seasonal rail offerings. A dinner train could be in the works, too.


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It hasn't been a smooth ride, not before the purchase nor after. Many Westside Santa Cruz neighbors have complained about the return of rail to their neighborhood, saying the whistle is jarring.

Iowa Pacific has since replaced the train's whistles, but sounding them is a federal safety rule. They are helpful on the busy Westside, they say, where not all crossings are gate-controlled and a train totaled a car as recently as 2010.

"From the reports we're getting, the comments we're seeing, it seems that horn is more acceptable to the community," Mendez said. "There are some members of the community who don't like the additional noise, because there is additional noise."

Another development coming immediately after the purchase was the release of plans for an $82 million network of trails that would span the length of the county, relying on the rail line's right-of-way to provide a crucial path through dense coastal neighborhoods.

"The space to offer transportation along the coastal area from one end of the county to the other is very limited. We only have Highway 1 and basically Soquel Drive to do that," Mendez said.

The ambitious plan likely would take decades to complete, but it pulled few punches. It sees new bike and pedestrian crossings throughout the county, even across Soquel Creek in Capitola, giving travelers a spectacular flyover above a picturesque village.

The plan also pushes existing trails north beyond Wilder Ranch, seeing new ones through the largely undeveloped Coast Dairies property and up to the San Mateo County border, providing a critical alternative to Highway 1 along a route popular with cyclists.

"So far it has been received quite well," Mendez said, though it would likely take decades to answer the ambitious call for 50 miles of new trails.

Follow Sentinel reporter Jason Hoppin on Twitter at Twitter.com/scnewsdude