Transit district seeks compromise on fence for Del Mar train tracks

A freight train on the tracks in June in Del Mar, an area frequented by trespassers.
(Jarrod Valliere/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Facing pushback, transit district designs lower, shorter, less-restrictive barrier


Transit officials have revised their proposal to build a fence along the railroad tracks in Del Mar, where residents oppose any barrier that would limit their access to the beach.

The new plan reduces the overall length of the fence by more than half, from 12,960 feet to just 5,698 feet. It also lowers parts of the proposed fence from 6 feet tall to 4 feet tall, depending on the geography of the location, and in some areas replaces the chain-link fencing originally suggested to post-and-cable.

The fence is needed to promote rail safety and ensure reliability, said North County Transit District Executive Director Matthew Tucker said in a statement issued Wednesday, July 21.

“Our collaboration with the Coastal Commission and the city of Del Mar seeks to develop a community-sensitive approach that furthers these goals until permanent, safe, and legal crossings can be constructed,” Tucker said.

The transit district, Coastal Commission and Del Mar also have agreed to postpone the federal Surface Transportation Board’s regulatory review of NCTD’s rail rights along the bluff in Del Mar, the district announced.

NCTD filed a petition Aug. 28, 2020, asking the Surface Transportation Board to “eliminate uncertainty” about the agency’s authority over railway maintenance including bluff repairs and the installation of a fence in Del Mar. Del Mar and the Coastal Commission both opposed the request, seeking to retain some control over bluff construction projects, and so far the board has made no decision on the petition.

The district also is working with the San Diego Association of Governments to determine possible locations for legal pedestrian crossings such as overpasses and underpasses in Del Mar.

It was unclear Thursday, July 22, whether Del Mar would accept the revisions, and Mayor Terry Gaasterland did not respond to an email asking about it.

Del Mar “will continue to advocate for safe public access and pedestrian crossings as the top priority to increase public safety,” according to a statement posted Wednesday, July 21, on the city’s website.

The fence is part of NCTD’s plan to improve safety along the Del Mar bluffs, where there were four deaths on the railway between January 2016 and October 2020, according to the agency. Trespassing is the leading cause of rail-related deaths locally and nationwide. They also delay service for passenger and freight trains.

While many of the fatalities are believed to be suicides, railroad officials say a high percentage are not. Examples in Del Mar include a person hit while walking along the tracks wearing headphones, and a person struck by a freight train while attempting to take a “selfie” on the bluffs.

Another study showed there were 40 fatalities, 50 accidents and 155 near-misses related to trespassing on the Coaster route between San Diego and Oceanside and the Sprinter route from Oceanside to Escondido from September 2017 to September 2020.

Encinitas and Oceanside also were identified as trespassing “hot spots” and candidates for fencing. The tracks are not as close to the beach and bluffs in those cities, and there was less resistance to the fence installation.

However, Del Mar residents have long insisted they have the right to cross the tracks, which are owned by the transit district, when and where they please.

“I am one of the tens of thousands of Del Mar residents or visitors ... aghast at any thought of a fence being put on Del Mar’s beautiful and yet eroding bluffs,” states an identical letter copied, pasted and sent by dozens of people in recent weeks to the transit district board and other local and state officials.

“Putting fence posts up on this narrow and fragile bluff is like taking a sledgehammer to the edge of the bluff,” the letter states, adding that the fence would block an escape route to the beach during a wildfire.

“Instead of a fence, it is widely known that flashing lights, signs, etc. will suffice as warning to the train approaching,” it states.

A geological review completed by Leighton Consulting, Inc., of San Diego found that the proposed fencing would “not impact the stability of the bluffs or the track-bed support, nor promote additional erosion/bluff retreat,” according to the transit district.

The transit district and SANDAG are working together on a long-term plan to move the tracks off the bluff to a new inland route through a tunnel beneath Del Mar. That solution is expected to take years and cost several billion dollars, and so far no money has been allocated for construction.

The tracks on the coastal bluffs are part of the 350-mile LOSSAN rail corridor that runs from San Diego to Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo, used by the Coaster and Metrolink commuter trains, Amtrak passenger trains and BNSF freight trains.