Del Mar bluff collapse drives concerns about railroad


A Del Mar bluff’s recent collapse provided new impetus to a campaign to relocate a railroad track that sits atop seaside cliffs lining the city’s shore.

Frank Stonebanks, who leads Citizens for Access to Del Mar Beach, Bluffs and Trails, said the Aug. 22 incident illustrates the urgent need for action.

Yet, regional plans don’t call for moving the tracks eastward off the promontories between Solana Beach and Sorrento Valley for another three decades.

“It’s going to take people waking up one morning and seeing, ‘Pacific Surfliner crashes into the ocean; 50 people dead,’” Stonebanks said. “Unfortunately until something like that happens, I don’t think anybody’s going to do anything about it.”

The collapse of an approximately 60-foot-wide sandstone cliff face near the foot of 11th Street occurred shortly before 3 p.m. No one was present underneath the dirt and debris that fell on the beach and no injuries were reported.

Train traffic between the Solana Beach station north of Del Mar and the Sorrento Valley depot to the south was halted for a couple of hours, while the tracks were inspected to ensure safety.

The bluffs that line much of the coast from Oceanside to San Diego are notoriously unstable. Collapses occur periodically and have caused fatalities. Officials warn beachgoers to avoid lingering close to the fragile cliffs.

Built more than a century ago, the coastal railroad continues to provide service between San Diego and Los Angeles. In addition to Amtrak trains, the tracks in San Diego County are used by Coaster local commuter trains operated by the North County Transit District.

While much of the route has been or is in the process of being double-tracked to expand capacity, that is impossible through Del Mar because the bluff tops are too narrow to accommodate another track.

Del Mar residents have fretted for years about the potential for crumbling hillsides resulting from erosion they believe is exacerbated by vibrations of the locomotives zooming along rails a few steps from the cliffs.

Yet, bluff collapse is not the only issue presented by the the rails and train traffic through Del Mar.

Stonebanks learned that firsthand about two years ago, he said. Like many residents for whom it is a daily ritual, Stonebanks crossed the tracks to access a path down to the beach, only to be slapped with a citation and $400 fine by a sheriff’s deputy.

“I saw warning signs that said it was dangerous, but I had no idea it was illegal,” Stonebanks said.

The experience motivated Stonebanks, who moved with his family to Del Mar from New York City four years ago, to explore the issue of the railroad and beach access.

Contrary to most California coastal cities, Stonebanks learned, most of Del Mar lacks legal access to the beach.

For about a 2 1/2-mile stretch from 15th Street to Torrey Pines State Beach at the city’s southern border, people cross the tracks to get to the beach at risk of either tickets or mortal injury.

On average, 11 people a year are killed on the tracks between San Diego and Oceanside, Stonebanks said. He acknowledged the majority of the victims are suicides, but contends the lack of access in Del Mar exacerbates the danger.

Stonebanks’ inquiry led to the formation of the citizens’ group and the creation of a petition presented to the Del Mar City Council, the North County Transit District, which oversees the tracks, and other agencies.

The petition calls for more leniency in enforcement of the railroad-crossing prohibition; the creation of safe, legal beach access points and a public park encompassing the bluffs, along the bluffs; and the eventual relocation of the tracks inland away from the bluffs.

As for the enforcement issue, Stonebanks’ point was amply illustrated while he was being interviewed at the foot of 11th Street.

A dozen or so pedestrians, mostly clad in bathing suits and toting surfboards, stepped across the tracks and disappeared down the path to the beach. The trail lies about 50 feet north of the collapsed bluff face.

“Here, you can get a $400 fine and a possible permanent mark on your record for going surfing,” Stonebanks said. “We’ve proven that (NCTD’s) enforcement actions don’t work. Handing out tickets and stuff is not working.”

The petition got results in regard to its point regarding beach access. Del Mar, the transit district and the San Diego Association of Governments jointly funded a study now in progress.

In his and his group’s quest, Stonebanks said he’s found strong support from the Del Mar City Council and Mayor Dwight Worden.

“I’d like to see at least one beach access installed in the next few years so people don’t have to risk citations and risk their lives,” Worden said in a recent interview.

As for moving the tracks, Stonebanks described it as a “big ask,” given the likely cost of more than a billion dollars and the requisite cooperation of local, state and federal agencies.

Despite the difficulties, Worden stressed it should happen, not only for bluff protection and safety, but for the economic benefit of increasing rail commerce.

“Some people say I’m tilting at windmills,” he said. “To me, that’s a tilting worth fighting for. ... I’m pushing to try to make it happen sooner rather than later.”

Stonebanks said he and his group will keep pushing for their goals and he plans to continue lobbying Del Mar, NCTD and other relevant agencies in his quest. Yet, he remains skeptical.

“Obviously one death a month is not enough to get everybody serious until something disastrous happens,” he said.