Agencies request $5 million to make emergency repairs to Del Mar bluff

Workers repair erosion Nov. 30 caused by the recent rains on the bluffs next to the railroad tracks in Del Mar.
Workers repair erosion Nov. 30 caused by the recent rains on the bluffs next to the railroad tracks in Del Mar.
(Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Railroad tracks essential to protecting region’s economy and national defense interests, officials say


Up to $5 million is needed for immediate emergency repairs to stabilize the railroad tracks on the fragile Del Mar bluffs, transportation officials said Friday, Dec. 6.

A second round of construction is planned for next weekend to fix erosion caused by the November storms, said North County Transit District Executive Director Matt Tucker. Train passengers will be bused around the site for two days while workers build a steel-reinforced concrete retaining wall to solidify the crumbling cliff.

“I’ve talked to quite a few elected officials,” Tucker said Friday, Dec. 6. “There’s a strong consensus that something needs to be done.”

State officials need to commit to spending a total of about $100 million over the next four years to speed up the long-planned work to safeguard the bluffs, states a joint letter from executives at the North County Transit District, the agency that owns the tracks, and the San Diego Association of Governments, the region’s transportation planning agency.

“The need to stabilize the Del Mar Bluffs has been well documented,” states the Dec. 5 letter from Tucker and SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata to their boards of directors. “Significant severe weather events have accelerated the need to advance the implementation of these improvements. SANDAG and NCTD need financial certainty to enter into contracts to support the required capital work. The time to advance funding is now before an event occurs that could result in an accident and/or the discontinuation of rail services.”

Construction is expected to start in January on the fourth of six phases of bluff stabilization work, which began in 2003 and is designed to secure the 1.7-mile stretch of tracks through Del Mar through 2050.

The coastal corridor is the only rail route between San Diego and Los Angeles, and it carries about 50 passenger, commuter and freight trains daily.

Meanwhile, the accelerating rate of coastal erosion has shown an increasing need to find a new route to take trains off the hazardous bluffs, probably through inland tunnels beneath Del Mar. That solution would cost far more than the bluff stabilization, with conservative estimates up to $3.5 billion.

“Over the last few years, we have all seen the impacts of sea-level rise and we should expect that we will continue to see more weather-related events like this most recent rainstorm moving forward,” Tucker said.

He and Ikhrata are working with elected officials, including state Sen. Toni Atkins, who announced in June that NCTD would receive $6.13 million from the state Department of Natural Resources to plan the sixth phase of Del Mar bluff stabilization projects.

“We need to take a careful, critical look at how to deal with the current damage to the bluffs and the potential for further damage,” Atkins said Friday, Dec. 6, by email in response to questions about the bluffs.

“I will be convening a meeting with key stakeholders to discuss the best way to ensure that heavy rail traffic continues in our region’s vital rail corridor in both the short and long term,” she said. “This rail line is essential for the movement of goods and passengers and integral to the military in the movement of critical materials.”

Next year, SANDAG will begin further studies of ways to move the tracks off the bluff, Ikhrata said Friday, Dec. 6.

“I am confident we are going to get the funding,” he said. “We are looking into all the things available. This is as close to an emergency as you can get. State and federal agencies should allow for such things to be expedited.”

SANDAG also will look for ways to straighten sections of the corridor to increase train speeds, Ikhrata said.

“The whole corridor needs to be looked at for safety, capacity and speed,” he said. “Safety comes first.”

The heavy rains of Nov. 28 and 29 sent runoff from Del Mar streets and parking lots onto the railroad and clogged a number of storm drains that should have carried the water under the tracks. As a result, the runoff washed away soil at the edge of the cliff and threatened to collapse support for the tracks.

“Trash, sediment and vegetative debris, i.e., leaves, palm fronds, pine needles, limes, and oranges were observed accumulated against track structure and blocking existing storm drain outlets,” states a report done for NCTD by the consulting firm Jacobs Engineering.

The engineers said “proper monitoring of all drainage facilities on the railroad should always be at the top of the track maintenance list. Additional bluff failures could occur if the proper drainage next to the (main track) is not maintained.”

Del Mar city officials said earlier this week that they inspected and cleaned their storm drains for the storm, placed sand bags at critical spots, and provided sand bags for residents. However, the area received 2.5 inches of rain in two days.

The largest of the washouts was 6 to 8 feet deep, about 16 feet long and 5 to 8 feet wide, according to Leighton Consulting, Inc., a second San Diego-based firm hired by NCTD. The washout included about 1 to 2 feet of the ballast material, or gravel, next to the railroad ties and the timber lagging that held the ballast in place.

As background, Leighton noted that the washout occurred in the same place where previous repairs in 1996 installed concrete soldier piles, 2 feet in diameter and 40 feet deep, spaced 6 feet apart.

NCTD suspended rail service Nov. 30 to repair the worst of the recent damage by installing two 8-by-10-foot plates on the western side of the tracks and backfilling the space with a concrete slurry.

Transit officials said earlier that a second spot nearby would be repaired in January, but Friday, Dec. 6, that work was bumped up to next weekend.

The normal speed for trains on the bluffs is 50 mph for passenger trains and 45 mph for freight. Since the washout, the speed limit has been reduced to 30 mph for passenger trains and 10 mph for freight trains.

Also, NCTD has posted maintenance personnel in the area around the clock until further notice, Tucker said.

Rail traffic is expected to double by 2035, primarily from planned increases in Amtrak and Coaster commuter service to meet the region’s growing population.

— Phil Diehl is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune