Leucadians oppose plan to fence off railroad tracks

A southbound train passes a surfer about to cross the tracks illegally in Del Mar.
(The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Leucadians have joined the chorus of coastal residents opposed to plans by North County Transit District to fence off portions of the railroad tracks in Oceanside, Encinitas and Del Mar.

The transit district released plans in October to install a six-foot-tall, chain-link fence along open segments of tracks in areas of those three cities where people often trespass on the railroad right-of-way, sometimes leading to death or injuries.

Del Mar residents have been the most vocal opponents of the fence. Some people say any barrier would ruin the ocean view from their multimillion-dollar, bluff-top homes. Others believe it would interfere with their right to walk along the tracks or take a hike over the cliff to the beach.

In Leucadia, a neighborhood on the northwestern corner of Encinitas where homes are less expensive, the tracks are not as close to the beach. Instead, the railroad is a few blocks inland, just east of North Coast Highway. People there are more likely to cross the tracks to visit the nearby bars, restaurants, plant shops and yoga studios, an area often described as “funky.”

“My husband and I live in Leucadia and want to express our surprise and sorrow at the proposal to build a fence,” wrote Kristin Bisely in a Nov. 18 letter to the transit district board.

“Building a fence around the railroad track would degrade the charm we love,” she said. “Fences are erected to divide, to privatize and to keep people off and out. That is not charming and that is certainly not the Leucadia way.”

Transit officials said they had received 234 letters about the proposed fence at their board meeting Thursday, Nov. 19, and all but about five of the letters opposed it.

Despite the opposition, NCTD intends to proceed with the fencing. The Oceanside portion, where few people have objected, is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year. Contracts for the Encinitas and Del Mar sections will be issued early next year.

Trespassing on the tracks is the leading cause of rail-related deaths nationwide. San Diego County had 44 casualties, excluding suicides, from November 2013 to October 2017, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

In addition to the extensive human toll the deaths have on victims and their families, the incidents can affect the mental health of train crews, passengers and emergency responders. There’s also a huge financial cost, estimated at billions of dollars nationwide, just in terms of passengers and goods delayed by accidents.

People grow accustomed to crossing the tracks illegally, said district board Chairman Tony Kranz, an Encinitas City Council member.

“I grew up crossing the tracks every day to go to school,” Kranz said. “That was in the ‘60s and ‘70s and there weren’t nearly as many trains. We learned how to do it safely ... looking both ways.”

Today he sees the train tracks differently.

“In my service as a City Council member and a board member, one of the most difficult things I ever did was to counsel the mother of a 14-year-old boy who took his life ... and the devastation of that,” Kranz said. “I can tell you that in this particular case, a fence would have prevented the death.

“It’s important that we continue to work toward providing safe legal access across the corridor, with a fence that will channel people toward those legal crossings,” he said.

Encinitas installed a pedestrian underpass beneath the tracks at Santa Fe Drive that opened in 2013, and plans to start construction soon on another one at El Portal. However, underpasses and overpasses are expensive and, while grant money is available, much of the costs must be paid by the cities that build them.

Another issue is that without increased safety measures, including the fence, the transit district will have to pay higher insurance costs and is more likely to encounter additional legal expenses.

A 2016 incident in Del Mar, in which a man was hit by a train while attempting to take a “selfie” photo, resulted in a lawsuit that will cost $500,000, even if the defense is successful, officials said.

Train traffic on the coastal corridor is expected to increase significantly over the next decade, further adding to the need for the fence. Also, the trains will be faster, quieter and more difficult for trespassers to avoid.

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