Transit district OKs fencing along rail tracks in Del Mar

A Coaster train heads north along the bluffs in Del Mar where a fence will be installed by North County Transit District.
A Coaster train heads north along the bluffs in Del Mar on Oct. 12, 2021, where a fence will be installed by North County Transit District.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Del Mar, Coastal Commission challenge transit district’s plan to keep people off railroad


Del Mar residents hoping to continue their century-old practice of illegally hopping the railroad tracks to reach the beach ran into a wall this week.

North County Transit District took a stance opposed by nearly all of the city’s 4,200 inhabitants, the state Coastal Commission, the environmental group Surfrider and probably others by saying no more. It will build a fence.

The decades-old issue of public safety on the tracks brought up many long-simmering issues, from property rights to environmentalism and local control.

Wealthy seaside property owners said the fence will destroy their view, their lifestyle and contribute to erosion on the fragile bluffs. Meanwhile, the district, as the regional agency responsible for the tracks, said the fence is essential to reduce deaths on the railroads and to protect taxpayers from the lawsuits that result.

Countywide there have been 64 fatalities and 315 near-misses on the tracks in the five fiscal years that ended June 30, 2021. Some of those deaths were suicides, but it’s difficult to say how many and any loss of life is unacceptable, transit officials say.

One lawsuit facing the district now involves a young man killed several years ago while attempting to take a “selfie” photo on the tracks, district Executive Director Matt Tucker said. Attorneys allege the district contributed to the accident because it did too little to prevent trespassing.

State law prohibits crossing railroad tracks anywhere except at designated crossings. Del Mar residents insist that law does not apply to them. People routinely walk along the tracks with their families and their dogs. They exercise or enjoy the sunset.

Tucker said recently he’s seen people posing for wedding photos in the center of the rails.

The constant foot traffic has created bare-dirt paths and contributed to the erosion of the fragile seaside bluffs.

“We own that track,” said Paul McNamara, a transit district board member and the mayor of Escondido.

“We own the right-of-way, and we need to provide safety,” McNamara said. “If the bluffs are so important, why are we letting all these people walk up and down them?”

The district board agreed 7-0 Thursday, Jan. 20, to proceed with the installation of a fence within the railroad-owned right-of-way. Two board members did not vote. Del Mar Councilmember Terry Gaasterland abstained, saying more information is needed to determine the city’s liability, and Oceanside Councilmember Christopher Rodriguez called into the online meeting with a bad cell phone connection and could not vote.

Del Mar has until Feb. 28 to agree to a set of modifications proposed by the district after 14 months of negotiations between the city, the district, the Coastal Commission and others. Those modifications include less fencing, shorter in places, and different styles. If Del Mar does not agree and accept liability for the modifications, the district will proceed with its staff recommendation, most of which calls for a 6-foot-high fence of black welded-wire mesh.

The wire mesh is more durable, harder to cut, harder to climb and has “less visual impact” than the chain-link fence used in many places along the tracks, said Scott Loeschke, director of engineering and maintenance for the district.

The fence would be installed in two phases. The first 3,723 linear feet would be placed at track level from the Coast Highway crossing south to Sixth Street. The second phase would be 3,025 linear feet on the bluff above the track south of Sixth Street. The total cost is about $3 million.

The board received 234 voice mails and 75 written comments for the Thursday, Jan. 20 fence decision. About a dozen people called into the meeting, and all of the callers opposed the plan.

“Del Mar has had a rail trail on its bluff for over 100 years,” said Al Tarkington, a former Del Mar mayor.

It’s not realistic to expect Del Mar to take the liability for trails used by people from throughout the county and beyond, said Tarkington, who asked the board to look for “a better solution.”

Board member Sharon Jenkins, a San Marcos City Council member, said seven other cities have assumed liabilities for modifications to the train tracks within their jurisdictions.

“I think all of the cities should be treated equally,” Jenkins said. “If other cities have done this, I don’t see why Del Mar should not be treated the same.”

The California Coastal Commission weighed in on Wednesday, Jan. 19, with a letter from Attorney General Bob Bonta.

“The proposed fencing would significantly disrupt or eliminate pedestrian access on existing, informal access trails along the bluffs and down onto the beach that have been heavily used by the public for decades to traverse the blufftop, enjoy scenic coastal views and access ocean and beach,” Bonta’s letter said.

Transit officials point out that the coastal railroad is the only rail link for passengers and freight between San Diego, Los Angeles and the rest of the United States.

The route sees 67 trains each weekday and the number is expected to increase to 100 trains each weekday by 2035.

Also the district has invested millions of dollars in new locomotives that are more fuel efficient and quieter, making them more difficult to hear coming.

A recent NCTD study of trespassing showed additional fencing was needed in parts of Oceanside, Encinitas and Del Mar. Few complaints were heard in Oceanside and Encinitas, where the tracks are not as close to the beach.

The district 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.

NCTD filed a petition in August 2020 with the federal Surface Transportation Board asking the agency to dismiss Del Mar and the Coastal Commission from any oversight of construction work on the bluffs, including construction of the fence.

A few months later, the district asked the board to suspend the petition to allow more time for negotiations. However, earlier this month the district informed the board no deal had been reached and asked for an expedited decision in the matter. Tucker said this week a decision could take one to three months.

District officials have said all along that the federal board’s decision is more formality than necessity, and that rail officials have the right and responsibility to do all they can to safeguard the tracks.