Condition of Del Mar, San Clemente train tracks worries Amtrak

An Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train heads south near 6th Street in Del Mar on May 11, 2020.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Company wants better information about erosion, bluff failures from local officials


Amtrak wants a seat at the table for discussions of the risks posed to the coastal railroad tracks by bluff failures and erosion in Del Mar and San Clemente, according to a report released Wednesday, Dec. 8, by the company’s Office of Inspector General.

At least six bluff failures since 2018 have caused temporary closures and speed restrictions in the Del Mar area just north of San Diego. Amtrak operated 26 Pacific Surfliner trains daily on the 351-mile route between San Luis Obispo and San Diego before the pandemic, and service is slowly returning to pre-pandemic levels.

The North County Transit District owns, operates and maintains the rail route from the Orange County border to the Santa Fe Depot in San Diego, and it operates Coaster commuter trains between Oceanside and San Diego. The Orange County Transit Authority has Metrolink commuter trains, and owns and operates most of the rail route in Orange County. Amtrak and freight carrier BNSF pay the host agencies to use the tracks.

Still, Amtrak, which is the country’s only national rail passenger service, was not among the federal, state and local agencies and companies that participated in recent studies of the Del Mar bluff failures, the proposed repairs and their potential effects on safety, ridership, speed and service, according to the report. The transit agencies, the San Diego Regional Association of Governments, state transportation officials and the Federal Railroad Administration were among the groups involved.

Amtrak also wants to be involved in planning and discussions that have been underway for years among local agencies to build a new route away from the eroding bluffs for the 1.7 miles of track in Del Mar. Five possible routes are being considered for a tunnel beneath the city of Del Mar. Construction would cost several billion dollars and take 10 years or longer.

“This is an urgent matter that requires close collaboration between local, state and federal government to ensure we protect this vital transit corridor serving San Diego, Orange, San Luis Obispo and Los Angeles counties for years to come,” said state Sen. Toni Atkins by email Wednesday, Dec. 8, in response to the report.

“As climate change continues to create new challenges for our oceans, our coastal communities, as well as our critical infrastructure throughout California, there is no time to waste,” Atkins said. “I look forward to further collaboration with Amtrak and our federal partners that secures the future of the LOSSAN rail corridor.”

Amtrak followed the recommended operating restrictions during the work in Del Mar, the OIG report states. But the company has “an opportunity to more fully understand the specific geological conditions, risks, and short- and long-term mitigation efforts underway by participating in regional forums dedicated to addressing Del Mar bluff issues.”

In addition to the service disruptions in Del Mar, Amtrak shut down Surfliner service between Orange County and San Diego for three weeks in September during repairs needed after coastal erosion and high tides shifted the tracks 14 inches in San Clemente.

An Amtrak expert in slope stability and drainage visited the San Clemente site and met with Orange County transit officials and contractors to better understand the efforts to safeguard the tracks there. As a result the parties established an effective working relationship and confirmed it was safe to resume Surfliner service on Oct. 4, 2021.

Company officials say they hope the process followed in San Clemente will set a precedent for future responses to local incidents.

“Within the past year, two separate and significant track events on host-railroad owned tracks caused service interruptions along the Pacific Surfliner route,” the OIG report states in its conclusion. “Both events raise concerns about evolving coastal conditions and are spurring high-level discussions among stakeholders about long-term remediation effects ... Without current information on these efforts, the company may not be well positioned to determine when circumstances warrant additional company actions.”

The most recent bluff failure was when a 60-foot seawall collapsed at the base of the tracks in Del Mar in February 2021. The slide came within 35 feet of the railroad ties and required $11 million in repairs that are still being finished.

“The two separate and significant track events on host-railroad owned tracks causing service interruptions along Pacific Surfliner routes highlighted opportunities available to Amtrak to proactively manage risks,” said Amtrak Executive Vice President and Chief Operations Officer Scot Naparstek in a Dec. 2 memo to company administrators.

He said he would designate a representative of the company’s Operations Department immediately to participate in any discussions of evolving coastal conditions, remediation efforts and the potential realignment of the Surfliner route. That representative will work with “the appropriate Amtrak subject matter experts” to determine any actions the company may need to take.

“NCTD is actively working with all stakeholders on the rail corridor about the Del Mar bluffs stabilization project, including participating in this Amtrak review,” the district’s Executive Director Matt Tucker said by email. “The railway is critical infrastructure for the entire region. As the report recognizes, collaboration and transparency among stakeholders is essential.”