A Reckoning With Mother Nature In South OC As Coastal Train Travel Is Suspended

The compounding effects of sea level rise, stronger storms and building along the coast are threatening one of the nation’s busiest intercity train corridors.

Metrolink and Amtrak, working with the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), suspended all passenger service in late September between Mission Viejo and Oceanside for safety reasons. Freight service has been reduced to just one slow-moving train per day.

Over the last year, the tracks just south of San Clemente State Beach have been pushed nearly 2 ½-feet outward — toward the crashing waves — by an old landslide that has reactivated.

On the coastal side, what used to be 40-50 yards of sandy beach between the waves and the train tracks has disappeared into the ocean over the last two years.

How To Repair The Coast? It’s Challenging And Expensive

On Wednesday afternoon, waves exploded against a slope of boulders, known as riprap, occasionally throwing spray over the track. A sole excavator plucked boulders from a pile and placed them onto the slope, building it up further.

An elevated and distant view of a wave splashing up against a passenger train on tracks along the coast. In the distance, surfers take waves.

A passenger train takes a wave near Cottons Point in San Clemente, 2021.

I think it’s important to say that we have a plan, but there’s no guarantee that it’s going to work.

— Darrell Johnson, OCTA

This work to try to keep the seawater at bay is ongoing, OCTA CEO Darrell Johnson said. The bigger emergency now is to stabilize the slope on the inland side of the tracks. OCTA hopes to do this by hiring a contractor to pound 80-foot long stakes, called soil nails, into the bedrock underneath the slope. The work could start as soon as next week and take 30-45 days.

“I think it’s important to say that we have a plan, but there’s no guarantee that it’s going to work,” Johnson said.

The emergency work is expected to cost $12 million, part of which will be paid for with a grant from the California Transportation Commission.

People And Goods Disrupted

The section of rail line between northern San Diego County and South O.C. serves more than 8.3 million passengers annually, on Metrolink, and Amtrak trains, including the popular Pacific Surfliner that runs between San Diego and San Luis Obispo.

Since the emergency suspension, Amtrak has temporarily replaced some of its trains with bus service.

However, Metrolink riders who normally catch the train in Oceanside, San Clemente or San Juan Capistrano have had to find alternative transportation. Scott Johnson, a spokesperson for Metrolink, said offering bus service wasn’t feasible, in part because of the continued, pandemic-induced bus driver shortage.

“We do our best to offer alternatives during unexpected service interruptions,” Johnson said. “But there aren’t bus operators with buses available for the number of trains that are affected. It would lead to very poor customer service.”

Besides passengers, freight trains transport goods north from the Port of San Diego on the coastal tracks — as many as four to six trains per day in pre-pandemic times, OCTA CEO Darrell Johnson said.

Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who represents South OC and is on the OCTA board, said that commerce is an important part of the local economy, and difficult to quickly rearrange.

“When you’re talking about goods movement, you can’t just bring a train up to a certain area and unload all the goods and try to get those bussed around and then reloaded onto trains,” Bartlett said.

The rail line is also the only one that goes in and out of Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and is part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Strategic Rail Corridor Network, which is used by the military to transport heavy vehicles to nearby ports during deployment.

Nevertheless, a spokesperson for Camp Pendleton wrote in an email that the rail closure has “little to no impact” on the base since most of the military equipment moves in and out of the base by commercial tractor trailer.

An overhead view of a sandy beach around a point with groups of people on the beach and the ocean on the right-hand side.

Cottons Point south of San Clemente State Beach when it had sand, 2012.

The Search For Long-Term Fixes

Authorities are clear that their emergency plan to shore up the slope alongside the track is a short-term solution. “The question is, is it measured in years or decades,” said Johnson, OCTA’s CEO.

On the ocean side, adding ever more riprap to hold back the waves usually causes the waves to dig deeper, carrying off even more sand, which is the coast’s natural line of defense, said Brett Sanders, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California Irvine.

“Now you have a riprap structure that’s being exposed to much more force so it’s going to have to be used to fight the force of the waves all the time and that means it’s going to have to be repaired all the time,” Sanders said.

It’s so different now. It’s sad.

— Debbie Sheldrake, longtime surfer

Plus, he said, beach loss affects everybody who enjoys the beach, not just train travelers.

Debbie Sheldrake has been surfing off the San Clemente coast for 30 years and watched the beach disappear.

“It’s so different now,” she said, noting that it’s been more than a year since she could walk from San Clemente State Beach around the point where the track is under emergency repair. “It’s sad.”

Why not just abandon the rail line? For one thing, doing so could have a huge impact on road traffic. Johnson said if all the people who took the train through the area drove cars instead, the I-5 would have to add an extra lane or two to maintain the current level of gridlock.

Longer-term solutions could involve replacing some stretches of vulnerable coastal track with tunnels built inland along the I-5. The Federal Railroad Administration evaluated the environmental impact of such options in 2009. But tunneling the rail line, Johnson said, would have “significant engineering complexities, extreme community impacts, and very, very expensive cost.”

Still, he said, rapid erosion of the coastline might force them to reopen discussions with state and federal authorities about building a tunnel.

Sanders, the engineering professor, said replenishing the sand that’s been lost — and making sure sand washed down by rivers can get to the beach — could be an alternative way to protect the shoreline from further erosion. “Investing in beaches is something that would offer benefits for so many people and can be done in a way that’s really good for the environment,” he said.

San Clemente is slated to get some new sand along a 0.6-mile stretch of beach around the pier at a cost of $9.3 million. The city says the project is expected to start in the fall of 2023. Newport Beach and Huntington Beach are also getting federal funds to replenish beaches. Those projects are set to start in 2024.

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