San Diego freight trains resume travel past San Clemente landslide

Workers repair damage along the railroad tracks below the Cyprus Cove development south of San Clemente State Beach.
Workers repair damage in November along the railroad tracks below the Cyprus Cove development south of San Clemente State Beach.
(Charlie Neuman/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Passenger rail service remains unavailable to Orange County as landslide movement continues above tracks


Freight trains have resumed runs between San Diego and Orange counties, although passenger rail service remains suspended because of a landslide last week that threatens the tracks below a historic property in San Clemente.

BNSF began taking two to four trains a day through the area slowed to speeds of 10 to 15 mph for safety on Saturday, San Clemente Public Works Director Kiel Koger said in a presentation Tuesday to the San Clemente City Council.

“The area that failed (April 27) is still showing some signs of creep and movement,” Koger said. “We’re hoping that the major movement has already occurred and that it’s just going to be minor from here on out.”

All Amtrak and Metrolink traffic through the area remains suspended until further notice, although Amtrak provides a bus link between the stations at Oceanside and Irvine for some of its daily trains. Passenger service, including the Coaster commuter, continues between San Diego and Oceanside.

Normally about 14 Metrolink and 22 Amtrak Pacific Surfliner trains daily pass through San Clemente, a city official said. Oceanside is the southernmost stop for Metrolink, which has routes through six Southern California counties.

A bowl-shaped chunk of the hilltop slipped away last week at the western edge of the 2.5-acre Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens, an estate built in the 1920s by San Clemente’s founder and acquired by the city in the 1980s. The slide took out part of an ocean-view patio and left a 15-to-20-foot, sheer face of sandy soil at the edge of the buildings.

“It’s causing concern that the material could erode or slough further and damage the foundation,” Koger said.

A firm hired by the city is conducting a geotechnical evaluation that will help determine the next steps. Soils throughout the region are sandy and poor, and remain saturated from winter rains, which has caused other landslides in San Clemente.

Casa Romantica is a venue for weddings, festivals and other events. The buildings are undamaged, but all future events are on hold while the situation is evaluated.

The structures are about 70 feet above the beach and the railroad tracks. Dirt and debris have fallen near the tracks, but the railroad is undamaged. Part of a pedestrian trail along the tracks has been closed.

A hillside condominium building below the slide has been evacuated because of soil from the slide pushing against one wall. Most of the units are vacation rentals, and about eight have full-time residents.

The city may need to spend $7 million to $8 million to stabilize the slope, Koger said. Some of the money may be available from FEMA or other state and federal agencies.

City officials are working with the Orange County Transportation Authority, Metrolink and other agencies to restore train service and return people to their homes as quickly as can be safe, said Councilmember Victor Cabral.

“Until that area is stabilized, we can’t do anything to protect Casa Romantica and the neighbors,” Cabral said.

“We want to make sure we don’t have a crisis with the train with some kind of chemicals (traveling) through there or something that would affect the community,” he said.

The landslide occurred less than two weeks after weekday passenger service resumed from a nearly six-month suspension caused by a different slow-moving landslide.

The earlier slide occurred below the Cyprus Shore community, nearly two miles south of the present one. Contractors hired by OCTA added more boulders to the rock revetment on the beach below the tracks and installed steel anchors reaching more than 100 feet into the bedrock above the tracks to secure the hillside.

The coastal rail route is the only passenger and freight link between San Diego and Los Angeles, as well as other rail destinations across the United States.