Column: The need to move train tracks off Del Mar bluffs was clear decades ago. We’re still waiting

Bluff collapse near railroad tracks.
Workers repair the site of a bluff collapse in Del Mar next to the railroad tracks, which was caused by a heavy rains in November 2019.
(Hayne Palmour IV / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

SANDAG chief makes pitch to tap state high-speed rail funds to improve safety, capacity and efficiency of coastal rail route


On New Year’s Eve 1940, a train derailed near Del Mar, sending the locomotive and eight of the 40 freight cars over the bluffs.

Three members of the engine crew were killed.

Water seepage had undermined the bluff, causing the rails to separate.

Fortunately, there has been no similar accident since. But the stability of those beach cliffs — and their suitability as a foundation for train tracks — has been a concern for decades. Only recently has an effort to move them to a safer area nearby gained traction.

The bluffs collapse regularly, at times bringing the edge of the cliff within feet of the tracks. Various agencies have been engaged in a yearslong program to shore up the area to keep the route safe, but most everyone agrees that’s not a long-term solution.

Another major bluff failure on Feb. 28 again underscored the severity of the situation. It will happen again, maybe even more frequently, with continued erosion from rain, wind and sea-level rise.

Five potential alternative routes have been proposed and soil studies are being conducted. Yet the prospects of realigning the tracks to a more stable area still may be a couple of decades or more away and will cost billions of dollars, according to Phil Diehl of The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Engineering and funding challenges must be overcome. Then there’s the politics.

Hasan Ikhrata dove into all of that this week. Ikhrata is the executive director of the San Diego Association of Governments, which serves as the regional transportation planning agency, among other things.

Under his guidance, SANDAG has developed a $177 billion transportation plan that would move future generations around the region with an interconnected system of trolley and bus lines, highways and high-speed rail that would incorporate emerging technologies.

The coastal train route is a key component of that plan. The rails running up the San Diego County coast make up the southern portion of the LOSSAN Rail Corridor, which stretches from downtown San Diego through Orange and Los Angeles counties all the way to San Luis Obispo.

It’s the second busiest intercity rail corridor in the United States after the one that connects major cities in the northeast. The West Coast rails carry about 8 million passengers and $1 billion worth of freight in a typical year.

Ikhrata covered many of these points Wednesday, March 10, during an Assembly transportation budget subcommittee hearing on California’s troubled high-speed rail project. He emphasized the high-speed rail element of the SANDAG plan and mentioned the recent bluff collapse that threatened the tracks in Del Mar.

“We believe LOSSAN could be a feeder to the (state) high-speed system,” he told Assembly members. He added a goal of that system should be a “connection of population centers from San Diego to L.A. to San Francisco.”

That was an early concept for the project, though the San Diego link would have been later in development. The priority always was connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco by high-speed rail.

Ikhrata wants to get state high-speed rail funding for the local projects, particularly the coastal train route. Whether that can be achieved is anything but certain, especially given the status of the state project.

The decision to build the first segment in the Central Valley was widely questioned and the project has faced cost overruns, delays and other problems. There’s growing doubt that much of a California high-speed rail system actually will be built, or, if it is, whether it will come close to what it was supposed to be.

Meanwhile, Ikhrata said in an interview he expects the new administration in Washington to spend big on expanding and improving travel by train. President Joe Biden is setting his sights on a major infrastructure package for the nation, which could be dominated by transportation projects.

Some of those hopeful that rail will get favorable treatment note that when Biden was in the Senate, he commuted daily by train for years between his Delaware home and the nation’s capital.

Whatever the potential is for state and federal funding, a local financing source has always been envisioned for the SANDAG plan. Ikhrata has talked about asking voters to raise the sales tax within the next couple of election cycles, though what kind of increase has not been determined.

In the effort to persuade voters, Ikhrata said improving the safety and service on the coastal train route likely would be a focus of a campaign, if not the centerpiece.

“This will be one of the top projects listed,” he said.

Many San Diegans are familiar with the route, riding occasionally or regularly on Amtrak, the North County Transit District’s Coaster, or both.

They also know about the slowdowns resulting from the remaining single-track portion along the coast and delays because of work on the bluffs.

Beyond the safety concerns, moving the tracks a bit inland as proposed would get rid of that bottleneck by allowing for the completion of double-tracking.

One thing that’s certain about the future of the coastal train route is that there are a lot of unknowns. Rerouting seems like a must, but there’s bound to be intense opposition from affected homeowners and businesses, and possibly environmentalists, depending on the impact.

Funding, including Ikhrata’s pitch for high-speed rail funds, is a question mark. How fast a rerouted train would go is also unclear.

Critics of the broader SANDAG plan are skeptical about how much, or even whether, high-speed rail could be used for what essentially is a commuter system. The regional agency says it will conduct a study to “evaluate different modes of transportation to determine which mode provides the optimal mix of speed, access, and cost effectiveness.”

There’s no little irony that high-speed rail — and state funding for it — is being discussed for the coastal train route.

Moving the tracks was going to be part of a high-speed rail project in the 1980s, when the proposal was known as the “bullet train.” The disputed plan eventually fell apart amid local opposition and questions about financing.

Four decades down the line, the rails have remained precariously perched on the edge of fragile ocean bluffs.

— Michael Smolens is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune