Federal railroad official tours at-risk rail line in Del Mar, San Clemente. ‘It’s just a matter of time’

Rep. Mike Levin leads a news conference Thursday outside the Solana Beach train station.
Rep. Mike Levin leads a news conference Thursday outside the Solana Beach train station. Pictured, L to R, are FRA Administrator Amit Bose, Solana Beach Councilmember Jewel Edson, Levin, Solana Beach Mayor Lesa Heebner, state Sen. Catherine Blakespear, SANDAG CEO Hasan Ikhrata, Prof. Brett Sanders, and Caltrans corridor project director Allan Kosup.
(Phil Diehl)

Rep. Mike Levin hosts FRA Administrator Amit Bose to highlight the need to move the tracks off eroding coastal bluffs


Another top federal official visited Southern California on Thursday, April 13, to see two places where the vital coastal railroad is threatened by erosion.

Federal Railroad Administration Administrator Amit Bose joined Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, and a host of local officials for a train ride over the precarious Del Mar bluffs.

Levin, Bose and others, including a University of California, Irvine professor, then held news conferences in Solana Beach and San Clemente to publicize the need to protect the tracks and move them to a safer inland location.

Levin hosted U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on a similar trip in October last year. After that, President Biden made a get-out-the-vote visit to the region in November, during which Levin said he emphasized to the president the need to protect the railroad.

“We know this is only going to get more challenging as climate change continues,” Levin said Thursday. “Rising sea levels with stronger storm surges will continue to pound our coastline.”

The San Diego-Los Angeles-San Luis Obispo train route, known as the LOSSAN corridor, is the second busiest in the United States, second only to the Northeast route between Boston and Washington, D.C. It’s also the only rail link between San Diego and Los Angeles and to other points across the United States.

Yet a slow-moving landslide at San Clemente suspended all passenger traffic between San Diego and Orange counties on Sept. 30. Weekend-only Amtrak traffic resumed in February. Daily Amtrak and Metrolink service will return next week, after nearly six months of work to stabilize the slope.

“It’s been estimated that this year’s storms have left more than $5 billion in losses across California, and most of that is concentrated along the coast,” said Brett Sanders, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. “Coastal change can be dramatic, dangerous and costly.”

Numerous cliff failures have occurred at Del Mar in recent years, where the tracks follow a narrow right-of-way as high as 60 feet above the beach. A series of projects to install vertical columns, seawalls, drainage structures and other devices has been underway there for more than 20 years.

“It’s just a matter of time, I think we all know, before these tracks will be over the cliff’s edge,” Levin said. “This vital transportation link continues to be a risk.”

State officials awarded a $300 million grant to the San Diego Association of Governments last year for preliminary work needed to move the 1.7 miles of train tracks off the Del Mar bluffs, possibly to an inland tunnel beneath the small city. SANDAG has said construction could be completed by 2035 at a cost of $4 billion or more.

“Just as we have been working with the stakeholders on the planning and relocation here in Del Mar, we also need to do the same thing in Orange County,” Levin said.

In the next few days, he will submit a $4 million federal community project funding request to support the Orange County Transportation Authority’s study of the possible relocation of 11 miles of track, including the San Clemente segment near the San Diego County border, he said.

He’s also worked to obtain local grants for sand replenishment in San Clemente, Encinitas and Solana Beach. Wider beaches are a recreational benefit, a boon to the economy and land values, and the sand buffer helps to protect coastal bluffs from erosion.

Bose said President Biden’s $66 billion bipartisan infrastructure spending plan includes money for rail systems across the United States.

“For the first time, the FRA has robust funding to expand rail and create jobs,” Bose said. “I encourage you all to seek that funding.”

State Sen. Catherine Blakespear, D-Encinitas, Del Mar Mayor Tracy Martinez, Solana Beach Councilmember and North County Transit District board Chair Jewel Edson, and Solana Beach Mayor Lesa Heebner, also participated in the news conference.

Edson called the LOSSAN corridor “a national emergency.”

Investing in the railroad will improve safety and capacity, allowing it to move more people and goods throughout the state while reducing pollution and the number of vehicles on freeways, she said.