Emergency repairs to shore up Del Mar bluff expected to cost $10.5 million

A bluff collapse on Feb. 28 has brought new attention to the need to reroute the stretch of train tracks in Del Mar.
A bluff collapse on Feb. 28 has brought new attention to the need to reroute the stretch of train tracks along the coast in Del Mar, seen here on Friday, March 19.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

New seawall, pilings, tie-backs needed to safeguard critical coastal railroad


Emergency repairs to safeguard the railroad tracks on the Del Mar bluffs will cost about $10.5 million, regional planning officials said this week.

A 288-foot-long seawall will be built to replace the one that collapsed in late February. Since then, because of safety restrictions, passenger trains crossing the bluffs can travel no faster than 15 mph and freight trains are limited to 10 mph.

The slow speeds delay traffic on a vital component of the only north-south rail corridor between San Diego, Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo. Together, Amtrak’s Surfliner intercity passenger trains and Coaster commuter trains serve 7.6 million passengers a year on what’s often called the LOSSAN corridor, according to the San Diego Association of Governments, the regional planning agency.

The rail line also carries freight trains, usually at night, from the Port of San Diego and other destinations within San Diego County. Loaded with new automobiles, construction supplies and other goods, freight trains contribute $1 billion annually to the region, SANDAG says.

The threat of losing that link in the coastal rail route has planners, engineers and geologists working overtime, nights and weekends, to protect the route on the Del Mar bluffs.

The original seawall, built in 1910, was about 60 feet long and 18 feet high, and held back soft material used to fill a canyon or ravine when the railroad was constructed. Soil in that section remains loose and hazardous.

“It’s very poorly compacted soil,” said John Haggerty, director of engineering and construction for the San Diego Association of Governments in a presentation Thursday, March 18, to the North County Transit District’s board of directors.

The entire section of fill material will have to be dug out, replaced and compacted again before the reinforcement structures can be added, Haggerty said.

Also, about 18 vertical concrete-and-steel support columns, or soldier piles, will be installed parallel to the tracks at the top of the bluffs and as deep as 60 feet into the ground. The piles will be tied into horizontal anchors into the soil and connected at the top by concrete band just below the surface.

Work began with grading the slope on March 13 and 14 during one of the transit district’s regularly scheduled “all work windows,” when train service is suspended for the weekend to provide access for maintenance and construction. Another rail service suspension is planned for this Saturday and Sunday.

“We will work nights and weekends, and we may ask for additional work windows,” Haggerty said. The work schedule is limited by the need to accommodate daily passenger and freight trains. Also, high tides reach the base of the bluff and prohibit access from the beach for several hours a day.

A schedule outlined Thursday, March 18, calls for additional preparation at the track level this weekend to prepare for the solider piles’ installation, which is expected in April and May, Haggerty said. Construction of the seawall, final grading and replanting with native vegetation will take place in June and July.

Much of the proposed emergency work was originally planned to occur in the fifth phase of the ongoing bluff stabilization project. The project began about 20 years ago, and the fourth phase was completed in January. The fifth phase was previously scheduled to start in 2023, but much of the work has been moved ahead because of the collapse.

Together, the fifth and sixth phases of bluff stabilization project are expected to cost about $100 million. The stabilization work is intended to protect the tracks on the bluffs until a new route can be built, possibly a tunnel bored beneath the streets and homes of Del Mar. Construction of a new route will cost at least $3 billion.

Earlier this month, a subcontractor hired by SANDAG began taking soil samples along the possible inland routes being considered.

Planning, design, and engineering, along with securing funding for an inland route are likely to take 10 years, officials have said. Construction could take an additional 10 years.

Completion of a new route will take widespread support from the public and their elected officials, especially if a county-wide ballot measure is needed to raise the money required. In the past, the Del Mar City Council has publicly supported the idea, but at least one new council member said Friday, March 19, he’s not on board.

“There needs to be much more critical discussion about the very low ridership numbers of the Coaster and Surfliner and their future ridership projections in light of the pandemic, post pandemic remote working trends, the arrival of self-driving electric vehicles and transportation-as-a-service, and the potential of such vehicles to operate as a clean and dynamic point-to-point mass transit system on our highways and roads,” said Del Mar Councilman Dan Quirk, elected in November and the city’s new representative on the NCTD board.

Ridership on the Coaster is down 90 percent from a year ago because of the pandemic travel restrictions, said Kimberly Tucker, NCTD director of service and planning. However, district officials expect riders to start returning as more people are vaccinated.

District officials plan to restore some of the trains in April that were cancelled during the pandemic, with hopes to fully restore service to pre-pandemic levels in June.

And while rail freight may bring the region $1 billion a year, that may not be worth the cost of drilling a tunnel beneath the city of Del Mar, Quirk said.

“Rail freight is minimal and accounts for about 0.5% of all freight in San Diego County,” Quirk said, quoting numbers from SANDAG. “The other 99 percent-plus is effectively on the highways.”

Quirk suggested the “highest and best use” for the train tracks from San Diego to San Luis Obispo is a pedestrian trail, an idea that has proved successful on a number of old rail lines in other parts of the United States.

That proposal does not fit with SANDAG’s Five Big Moves, announced by Executive Director Hasan Ikhratra in 2019.

Ikhrata said the county should spend less money on highway and freeway improvements so it can invest billions of dollars in mass transit, expanding rail lines and increasing train service. The coastal rail route is a key part of that plan.

His strategy has been a hard sell, especially in North County and East County areas where, until the pandemic, freeways were crowded with commuters. For the past year, like riders on passenger trains, the idea has stalled.

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