NCTD prepares to fence Del Mar train tracks

An Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train heads south near 6th Street in Del Mar on May 11, 2020.
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)

Transit agency and city have failed to reach a compromise


North County Transit District is preparing to proceed with its fencing of the Del Mar train tracks after failing to reach a compromise with the city on its opposition to the intended safety measure.

The NCTD Board of Directors has placed the fencing project on its Jan. 20 meeting agenda, states a letter emailed Tuesday, Jan. 4, to city officials by NCTD board President and Encinitas City Council member Tony Kranz.

Del Mar had until Dec. 31 to agree to proposed modifications to the plan that would have reduced the overall length of the fence, adjusted the positioning and lowered the height in places to a 4-foot-high post-and-cable design.

The lack of an agreement could send the transit district back to its original plan to install a 6-foot-tall, vinyl-coated, chain-link fence on both sides of the right-of-way along most of the 1.7-mile route, Kranz said.

Transit officials also have asked the federal Surface Transportation Board for “expedited consideration” of a petition before that would give the transit district sole authority over the project, Kranz said in the letter.

“As there is no other proposal that will be considered, NCTD staff will move forward with a board agenda item ... that will support the consideration of various fencing options to include, but not limited to, NCTD’s standard fence design requirements,” he said.

Del Mar Mayor Dwight Worden said by email Thursday, Jan. 6, the city is preparing a response to the NCTD letter, and that it will be made public when completed. The Del Mar City Council is scheduled to discuss the fence and related litigation in a closed meeting Monday afternoon, Jan. 10.

Also Monday, Jan. 10., the City Council will discuss a proposal by Council members Dan Quirk and Tracy Martinez to adopt a resolution to study “long-term train viability” and alternative uses for the tracks. Quirk has said at previous meetings that rail traffic, including passengers and freight, is too low to warrant the continued expense of maintaining the tracks.

Del Mar residents and city officials have said for years that a fence along the tracks would ruin their ocean views, prevent their easy access to the beach, and hasten the erosion of the crumbling seaside bluff.

Transit officials say the tracks in Del Mar have one of highest trespassing rates in San Diego County, and a fence would reduce the number of people hit and killed by trains.

“Our approach throughout this process has been to work constructively and collaboratively to develop a community-sensitive solution for the bluffs that promotes rail safety and ensures reliability, while providing safe and legal access,” said NCTD Executive Director Matt Tucker in a statement issued by the agency.

“Unfortunately, our extensive discussions with the City of Del Mar and the Coastal Commission did not result in an agreement,” Tucker said.

Del Mar residents have been fighting the fence proposal since at least the 1990s. During that time, the number of trains has steadily increased and more are on the way.

NCTD began Coaster commuter service between Oceanside and San Diego in 1995 with six morning and six evening trains, and today runs 22 trains or more daily. The route is the only rail connection between San Diego and Los Angeles and also carries Amtrak passenger trains and BNSF freight trains.

The increasing frequency of trains, along with recently purchased newer, faster locomotives, compounds the dangers of trespassing on the tracks, transit officials say. Long-term plans call for the eventual relocation of the route to an inland tunnel beneath Del Mar, but that solution will cost several billion dollars and is probably at least 20 years away.

In addition to injuries and fatalities, trespassing can damage railroad equipment, traumatize employees and passengers, delay service two hours or more per incident, and lead to legal liabilities.

San Diego County was one of the top 10 national locations for railroad trespasser casualties from November 2013 to October 2017, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

A risk reduction study by the district in 2020 identified Del Mar as one of the top three locations in San Diego County for trespassing events and incidents. The other two areas were in Oceanside and Encinitas.

NCTD awarded a contract to fence the Oceanside segment in June and construction is underway, with completion expected in February. An Encinitas contract was awarded in November, with work expected to start in February and be completed in May.

However, Del Mar continues to fight the fence. Hundreds of residents have written opposition letters to the NCTD board. Elected officials frequently question the need, and in 2018 unanimously voted to oppose it. Supporters are few in the wealthy coastal enclave.

Letter writers often point out that many of the fatalities on the tracks are suicides, which they doubt would be prevented by a fence. The most recent suicide in Del Mar was Dec. 6 at the end of 12th Street, a few blocks south of the city’s only legal crossing at Powerhouse Park.

Del Mar had four train deaths between January 2016 and October 2020, according to the NCTD website.

One of the most noteworthy incidents as documented by news stories occurred in 2014, when former Del Mar Mayor Lou Terrell was fatally struck as he attempted to save his off-leash dog from an oncoming train.

Other fatal incidents have included someone posing at the edge of the tracks for a selfie and a person jogging along the railroad while wearing headphones.

The petition filed Aug. 28, 2020 with the Surface Transportation Board seeks sole authority over the fencing and other safety and maintenance projects on the Del Mar bluffs. The district suspended the petition in December 2020 to continue negotiations with Del Mar and the California Coastal Commission.

The petition’s suspension ended Dec. 31 and a day earlier, Dec. 30, NCTD asked the federal agency to return the petition to active status and “expedite” the proceeding because of the upcoming project.

“Despite significant efforts by NCTD to address the parties’ concerns, negotiations have not been successful,” states the transit agency’s request. “As a result, NCTD sees no choice but to proceed with this matter in an expedited manner to resolve the disputes at issue.”

Transit officials have long maintained they have the legal right to install safety measures, and that city and state approvals are more of a formality. Emergency bluff repairs are routinely approved after they are completed.