Hearing held on dire state of San Diego’s coastal tracks. ‘The rail corridor has never been in more jeopardy.’

Railroad tracks and hillside along the Beach Trail on Friday, April 28, 2023 in San Clemente, CA.
Railroad tracks and hillside along the Beach Trail on Friday, April 28, 2023 in San Clemente, CA. Rail service remained unavailable in southern Orange County due to a landslide that damaged the historic Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens and sent dirt and debris cascading down a hillside toward coastal railroad tracks.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

A state Senate subcommittee met for the first time Tuesday, May 16, for an overview of the crumbling 351-mile LOSSAN corridor, San Diego’s only railroad link to Los Angeles and the rest of the United States.

Transit officials described about seven places in four coastal California counties where eroding beaches, unstable cliffs and sliding hillsides threaten the railroad tracks, which provide vital passenger, freight and military transportation.

“The rail corridor has never been in more jeopardy,” said Sen. Catherine Blakespear, D- Encinitas, chair of the Senate Transportation Subcommittee on LOSSAN Rail Corridor Efficiency. “In the southern portion, the train is not running, or running very infrequently ... We have an urgent, urgent problem.”

LOSSAN is a joint powers authority comprised of the regional transportation and planning agencies that the rail route goes through between San Diego, Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo.

Passenger rail service is again suspended between San Diego and Orange counties because of a landslide that occurred in late April above a section of the tracks in San Clemente. Freight trains travel through the area at 10 mph to 15 mph, usually at night.

Weekday passenger service had resumed less than two weeks earlier after an almost six-month suspension to repair a different landslide below the Cyprus Shore community two miles south of the latest trouble area. The recurring slide at Cyprus Shore also stopped traffic previously for several weeks in 2021.

Over the past weekend a contractor began emergency work intended to stabilize the newest problem area, which is just below the city’s Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens. Soil and debris fell onto the shoulder of the tracks, but the tracks were not damaged.

Construction this time is expected to take about two weeks and will include removing soil at the north end of the landslide to reduce the chance of more material sliding down onto the railroad tracks or up against a condominium building north of the site, according to a city news release. Officials have not said when passenger service will resume.

Some of the soil will be hauled off site and some will be placed against the vertical slope nearest the Casa Romantica building to temporarily stabilize that slope, the release states. City officials are working on a permanent design that will be implemented later.

During the closures, Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner has provided bus service between Oceanside and Irvine to ferry train passengers around the work site. Despite that, Amtrak ridership has declined, LOSSAN managing director Jason Jewell said Tuesday.

Passengers stayed home in droves at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, then ridership slowly returned to about 75 percent of prior levels. However, the San Clemente suspensions have dropped ridership back down to between 40 percent and 50 percent of pre-COVID levels, Jewell said.

“Even with the bus bridge in place, we are seeing a decrease in ridership,” he said. “Some customers don’t like the idea of getting on a train, to a bus, to a train.”

Southern Orange County has about seven miles of beach-level track, much of it below steep, developed hillsides, but several other places along the rail corridor also are threatened.

Most of the coastal railroad route has been in place since 1887. Natural erosion pushes the beach closer to the tracks every year, but the pace appears to be increasing with sea-level rise and climate change.

North County Transit District and the San Diego Association of Governments have been working more than 20 years to protect about 1.7 miles of track on the fragile coastal bluffs from 30 to 60 feet above the beach in Del Mar.

A new phase of stabilization work to begin later this year will include more seawalls, concrete-and-steel columns, and drainage structures. SANDAG recently received a $300 million state grant to advance plans to relocate the tracks away from the bluffs to an inland tunnel that would be drilled beneath the small coastal city.

Blufftop sections of tracks also are threatened in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, where the railway is owned and operated by the Union Pacific Railroad. Stabilization projects and in some cases rerouting also are planned there.

The Orange County Transportation Authority, which owns and operates 40 miles of the corridor including San Clemente, received a $5 million state grant last month to study the possible relocation of 11 miles of the corridor in southern Orange County, possibly to a route along Interstate 5.

Caltrans has studied relocation before and dismissed the idea as “cost prohibitive,” said CEO Darrell Johnson.

The overall cost was estimated at $3.8 billion to $5 billion in 2003 dollars, he said, so it’s certain to be much more now.

“If it was easy and there was a consensus, I think it would already be done,” Johnson said.

“We want to have facts drive the decision,” he said. “We are uncomfortable saying relocation is necessary until it’s agreed on by all parties. Data, facts and community involvement have to drive the decision-making process.”

The subcommittee’s goal is to “uplift the corridor as a whole” by working with the governor’s administration and the federal government, Blakespear said.