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Transit district downsizes Del Mar railroad fence, amid continuing protests

A surfer crosses the railroad tracks Tuesday along the bluffs in Del Mar.
A surfer crosses the railroad tracks Tuesday along the bluffs in Del Mar, where North County Transit District has proposed installing a fence to improve safety.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Latest plan would move fence closer to rails and replace chain link with a more aesthetically pleasing post-and-cable design.

North County Transit District released new information this week to show that its plans to install a fence along the railroad tracks in Del Mar will have minimal effects on beach access and views from blufftop homes.

Yet the maps, visual simulations and other data presented by the district’s consultants, CivilPros, a national engineering consulting firm, appear unlikely to sway Del Mar residents, who have fought the fence since the district proposed the idea in the 1990s. They say the fence is unnecessary because people have learned to look for trains and safely cross the tracks or walk the trails beside the railroad.

“The sketches I saw yesterday would be devastating to our entire region if they move forward,” Del Mar Mayor Terry Gaasterland said in an email Thursday, Oct. 14.

“The fencing does not solve the problems they say they want to solve,” she said. “And it will be terrible to lose this last stretch of accessible coastal bluff in San Diego County with its vistas and trails.”

The district announced in October 2020 that by the end of the year it would build a 6-foot chain link fence at the edge of the right-of-way on both sides of the track from Coast Boulevard to the North Torrey Pines bridge, a distance of about 1.7 miles.

Del Mar residents were outraged, and the plan stalled for further negotiations with the city. Hundreds of people wrote letters to the NCTD board of directors opposing the fence. So far no contract has been awarded to build the fence, and construction is unlikely until at least next year.

Earlier this year the transit district announced plans to reduce the overall length of the fence from 12,960 feet to 5,698 feet, lower some sections from 6 feet to 4 feet tall, and replace some sections of the chain-link style with a lower and more aesthetically pleasing post-and-cable design. The revisions also moved the chain link fence off parts of the upper bluff and down to the track level where it will be out of sight from the coastal homes.

NCTD’s consultants will present the latest information on the fence at Monday’s, Oct. 18 Del Mar City Council meeting and again at Thursday’s, Oct. 21 NCTD board meeting.

The most recent plan has 4-foot-high, four-strand, post-and-cable fence instead of the chain-link barrier along the top of the bluff east of the track for almost a mile from Ninth Street south to Fourth Street.

“That fencing is not needed,” Gaasterland said. “No one has fallen from the upper bluff where the trail is wide and dense vegetation provides a natural delineation.”

Transit officials say the fence will improve safety and reliability as trains on the route continue to increase. The Coaster commuter service runs an average of 22 trains each weekday between Oceanside and San Diego, a total that is expected to increase to 44 trains each weekday by 2025, according to a district staff report.

Adding to the need for security, the district purchased new Coaster locomotives that went into service this year and are quieter, more fuel efficient and potentially faster that the previous 30-year-old engines. That makes the trains more difficult to hear coming, especially around a curve on the bluffs in Del Mar and when the locomotive is pushing instead of pulling the train.

Both Amtrak, which runs passenger trains, and BNSF, which runs freight trains, also plan to increase service on the only rail link between San Diego and Los Angeles.

Orange County’s Metrolink commuter train, which now only goes as far south as Oceanside, could begin trips to San Diego for special events under a recent agreement with NCTD. In all the San Diego County rail corridor could handle 100 trains per day by 2030, according to NCTD.

Encinitas councilmember Tony Kranz, chairman of the NCTD board, said the agency has gone the extra mile to satisfy Del Mar residents and still keep the railroad safe.

“We took a step back ... and made a smart investment to show we can work with a community to address their concerns,” Kranz said Friday, Oct. 15. “The new design does just that.”

The revised plan has less effect on views and allows people to continue using the trails that run parallel to the railroad tracks, yet still improves safety, he said.

“There is no question there is a different threshold of safety that comes with each height and material,” Kranz said. “The safest approach would be to build a 50-foot-tall cinder block wall. Even then some surfer would come along with his 50-foot ladder.”

Walking on the tracks or the adjacent right-of-way is considered trespassing by the transit district, although tickets are rarely, if ever, issued.

The only long-term solution is to move the railroad off the coast, Kranz said.

NCTD is working with the San Diego Association of Governments on a plan for an inland tunnel through Del Mar, but construction is at least a decade away and will cost billions of dollars. Preliminary studies are underway, but so far no money has been allocated for construction.

Until there’s a new route, the agencies will try to keep the tracks safe where they are.

“The modified fencing plan provides a safety barrier that doesn’t currently exist, while minimizing the visual impact and maintaining access,” NCTD Executive Director Matt Tucker said by email Thursday, Oct. 14.

“It represents a significant safety improvement and provides a barrier for trail users that they should not trespass,” Tucker said. “This is one part of comprehensive effort along the corridor promote rail safety and reliability. We have worked to be responsive to the concerns of Del Mar community and the California Coastal Commission as we make significant safety improvements.”

Types of fencing proposed for Del Mar

The transit district received a $1.3 million grant from the Federal Railroad Administration in 2018 to install additional fencing as a strategy to reduce trespassing, injuries, fatalities and train delays. The average delay when a train stops for a “significant event” such as a fatality is two hours, according to a district staff report.

Train traffic has been increasing for decades with the growth of San Diego County’s commuter rail system, along with pedestrian fatalities, injuries and near-misses.

Del Mar averaged one train-related death per year from 2016 through 2020, according to the district. In one instance a person was hit while walking along the tracks wearing headphones, and in another a person was struck by a freight train while trying to take a “selfie” on the bluffs.

The train tracks are fenced off in most parts of San Diego County. Del Mar, where the tracks are closest to the ocean, is one of the few areas that still has no barrier.

Construction of the fence normally would require things such as building permits to be approved by the city, the Coastal Commission and other jurisdictions.

In an attempt to head off any problems with those approvals, the transit district filed a “petition for declaratory order” with the federal Surface Transportation Board in August 2020 asking the board to waive state and local permits for the project.

Del Mar and the Coastal Commission both opposed the request, and so far the board has made no decision on the petition.


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