That shortcut to the beach across the railroad tracks is not only dangerous, it could be expensive.
Trespassing on North County Transit District property is a misdemeanor offense with a minimum fine of $400, plus court costs, Sgt. Jason King of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department said recently.
Or the violation could be considered an infraction of the public utilities code, which is only a $50 fine. Officers usually start with a warning, King said, and after that they have options depending on the situation.
Many coastal residents consider that short hike over the tracks to the beach a personal right, not a punishable offense.
But as the region’s population grows and Coaster commuter trains become more frequent, transit and law enforcement officials are looking for new ways to limit access to the tracks.
Last year, about 14 people died on the tracks between Oceanside and San Diego, up from eight in 2016, according to news articles. It’s unknown how many of those deaths were suicides.
Crossing on foot is hazardous enough for pedestrians. More than that, it’s destructive to the plants and terrain of the fragile coastal cliffs, where the possibility of a sudden bluff collapse can threaten an entire train.
“Over the last year, we probably did about 20 (enforcement) operations,” King said. “We probably issued 1,200 or 1,300 warnings and maybe a couple hundred citations.”
People seem to think they can easily jump out of the way of a train, King said. But sometimes it approaches quickly and quietly, especially when the locomotive is at the rear of the train.
“When the engine is in a push mode instead of a pull mode, it’s actually pretty quiet until it gets right on top of you,” he said.
Trespassing on the train tracks also causes other problems.
Footpaths to the beach crisscross the bluffs and accelerate the erosion that occurs naturally in places like Del Mar, where the tracks are at the edge of the ocean.
Bluff collapses occurred in August, September and October in Del Mar, twice stopping rail traffic for hours before safety inspections determined the trains could resume.
Even a near-miss involving a pedestrian can mean a long delay, King said. Any time an engine locks up its brakes for an emergency stop, which can include spraying sand onto the rails to increase traction, inspectors must be called to make sure the tracks are safe before the train can start again.
To improve safety in Del Mar, the transit district recently proposed fencing the railroad right-of-way to keep people off the tracks.
That idea did not sit well in the wealthy coastal enclave, where illegally crossing the tracks has long been a fact of life for many otherwise law-abiding residents.
“A fence is not the right answer to address safety and liability issues,” Ninth Street resident Francesco Tedeschi wrote to the Del Mar City Council, which voted last month to oppose the barrier. “Over 100 years of public use of the bluffs and beach access via the railroad right-of-way establishes a strong precedent and argument against any kind of fencing.”
Transit district officials appeared to have second thoughts about their initial proposal, and now are considering other options for Del Mar.
Solana Beach solved the trespassing problem decades ago by placing the downtown tracks in a trench below street level. Carlsbad also has studied that idea, which would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but would greatly improve safety, reduce noise and increase property values.
Del Mar has pushed for years to get additional pedestrian crossings, without success. State and federal agencies generally oppose new at-grade crossings, and underpasses or overpasses, though safer, are hugely expensive.
Even more costly is what many people consider the only long-term solution for Del Mar, which is to move the tracks away from the bluffs, possibly to a tunnel built under the city. Rough estimates of that cost are $2.5 billion to $3.5 billion.
Illegally crossing the tracks, which the transit district considers trespassing, is more of a problem in coastal communities where the tracks cut people off from the beach and popular business areas.
In Oceanside, trespassing most frequently occurs on the tracks from Oceanside Boulevard south to Cassidy Street, said Sean Loofbourrow, the district’s chief of safety and security.
In Encinitas, the problem area is from La Costa Avenue south to Leucadia or Encinitas Boulevard. And in Del Mar, it’s south from the Coast Boulevard crossing at Powerhouse Park along the bluffs to the Torrey Pines bridge.
“It’s the proximity to water and businesses,” Loofbourrow said. “Also, it’s a beautiful area.”
Train operators or other district employees usually are the first to report people trespassing on the tracks, he said.
“As with most safety issues, there’s myriad things you can do,” Loufbourrow said. “We focus on three areas — engineering, enforcement and education.”
Education is the best prevention, he said. For example, the district sends employees to local schools to talk in classrooms and assemblies about the importance of rail safety.
Enforcement is through contracts with local law enforcement agencies, primarily the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.
Engineering, which includes the construction of additional crossings and fencing, is often the district’s last resort, Loofbourrow said.
Some areas already have extensive fencing, such as the entire Sprinter commuter line that began service in 2007 between Oceanside and Escondido, he said.
The Defense Department has fenced the coastal rail route through Camp Pendleton, a busy stretch used by Metrolink commuter trains, Amtrak passenger trains and freight trains.
Also, the state Transportation Department has fenced parts of the tracks along the Interstate 5 right of way in Oceanside.
Fencing also has been added recently in additional areas, such as the pedestrian underpass installed as part of the construction of a second set of tracks at Santa Fe Drive near Swami’s Beach in Encinitas.
“You are trying to get channel people to use the underpass,” Loofbourrow said. “We just want people to cross the tracks safely and legally.”
--Phil Diehl is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune