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NCTD proposal to fence coastal railroad tracks draws strong opposition at Del Mar council meeting

A Coaster train
A Coaster train on the bluffs in Del Mar, where the transit district plans to install a fence to keep trespassers off the tracks.

(Union-Tribune)

A proposal by the North County Transit District to install a 1.4-mile-long, 6-foot-high chain-link fence along each side of the railroad tracks atop Del Mar’s beachfront bluff drew an ocean of condemnation from city residents and council members at a council meeting on Monday, Jan. 11.

Residents and council members alike said the proposed fencing – from south of 4th Street to Seagrove Park - would obstruct beach access, denigrate pristine ocean views, and potentially lower property values and discourage tourism.

Representatives of NCTD, which owns and maintains the rail corridor from Oceanside to downtown San Diego, gave a presentation to the council, outlining a study the transit district commissioned about the risks posed by “trespassers” along the train tracks, and how to minimize those risks.

The council took no official action on the proposal at Monday’s meeting, and no firm date for construction of the fence has been established. Officials from the transit agency said negotiations regarding the project are ongoing between NCTD, Del Mar and the California Coastal Commission.

Dozens of Del Mar residents sent written objections to the proposal, and several members of the public also addressed the council via remote link during the meeting. The comments were unanimously opposed to the idea of a fence along the bluffs, where generations of residents and visitors have walked to enjoy ocean views and also used unofficial crossings to reach the beach below.

Currently, the city has only one official, legal pedestrian crossing of the train tracks, located in the northern end of the city at Coast Boulevard. However, also at Monday’s meeting, the council approved a grant-funded, $283,000 feasibility study of building additional legal track crossings in Del Mar.

Lurae Stuart, of the consultant WSP, said trains run through Del Mar at speeds ranging from 50 to 90 mph, and that over a recent five-year period there were 12 “strikes” in Del Mar, incidents in which a person was hit by a train. Stuart said there is a “terrible human cost” to these incidents, which generally result in the death of the pedestrian. In some cases, the victims intended to harm themselves while in others the strike was accidental, she said.

Without mitigation, she said, such as fencing, additional signage, cameras, more legal crossings and public education, the risk of catastrophic events occurring was found to be “very high” in the WSP study.

NCTD officials also said the strikes are traumatic for train engineers and cause costly delays to passenger and freight service along the rail corridor. Fencing is also planned for railway segments in Encinitas and Oceanside.

The study laid out three options for reducing risk along the tracks in Del Mar, ranging in cost from $1.68 million to $6.05 million. The more expensive proposals include additional safety measures such as cameras, warning speakers and lights that would be activated in the event of an “intrusion.”

But residents argued that the fence would be ineffective in keeping people off the bluff, and create a visual blight. Mayor Terry Gaasterland encouraged written comments regarding the proposed fence in a blast email to residents.

“This is a complete waste of money and will create an eyesore that neither serves its stated purpose (one can imagine determined people will circumvent it) nor justifies the expense for state funds that are needed elsewhere. It will also create a dangerous situation in the event local residents may have to flee a wildfire and would be unable to seek the protection of the beach,” wrote John Spelich.

Amy Cheshire wrote that an alternate rail transport route should be found to alleviate erosion of the bluff.

“I support immediately ending all railroad transportation between the Solana Beach station and the Sorrento Valley station. Removing the railroad tracks between these two points would free up land for bicycle paths, walking trails, parks and low-income housing units. Quality of life for all would be improved.”

“The proposed fencing is going to be an eyesore. Deterring beachgoers and surfers with a chain-link fence is going to lead to an ongoing war with vandalism. I know surfers: they are buying their bolt cutters as I write this,” wrote Rex Pickett.

Council members also criticized the proposed fence.

Councilman Dan Quirk started an online petition against the plan and it quickly gained more than 5,000 signatures. He said the Coaster commuter train operated by NCTD is a failure because few people ride it, and transportation of the future will rely on clean electric and self-driving cars. “This seems completely upside-down to me,” he said.

Council members pointed out that hundreds of thousands of people each year walk along the bluff and cross the tracks, and are unscathed.

“We have so many people who use this shared resource safely every day,” said Gaasterland. “Fencing may cause more harm than good and not prevent accidents.

Councilman Dwight Worden said public transit is needed to reduce freeway congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. “NCTD is not the enemy,” he said.

But moving the tracks inland from the bluffs is the “ultimate solution” to the safety risk and other problems related to the coastal railroad tracks, he said.

Measures other than a fence, he said, could improve safety until the tracks are moved, such as improved signage, warning devices and slowing down the trains as they traverse the city.

“I think there is a solution here, for NCTD to recommit itself to collaboration” with Del Mar, the San Diego Association of Governments and the Coastal Commission, Worden said.


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