Plans to decongest Southern California’s seaside railroad network to improve mass transit ridership may also multiply the number of industrial freight trains running along a scenic but eroding coastline between San Diego and Orange counties.

The plans have alarmed some South OC coastal residents and city officials who warn that the real winner of this effort will be a private freight railroad network, not mass transit. 

Critics also wonder whether it means the region’s oceanside landscape – threatened by sea-level rise and frequent coastal bluff collapse – is about to become more industrialized.

“The idea of building an industrial rail corridor right on the beach or fortifying it – does it make sense? The answer is, ‘Absolutely not,’” says a city official from San Diego County, Del Mar Councilmember Dan Quirk. “Do we really want to turn the coastline into an industrial rail corridor?”

At least “for now” there’s still some need for the Southern California rail network and the “cargo that does go through there,” said San Clemente City Councilmember Chris Duncan. “And protecting it makes sense.”

“But I don’t see the sense in expanding that footprint,” Duncan said, adding he rode the commuter lines in this area prior to the pandemic.

At the prospect of seeing more industrial freight pass right through San Clemente, Duncan said, “I gotta tell you, the idea concerns me.”

Shores between Orange and San Diego counties have been losing a battle with beach sand loss and coastal erosion for years. 

County transit officials are fighting a different battle there – bottlenecks across the adjacent railroad system – and plan to create double train tracks right by the shore, in the Capistrano Beach area of Dana Point, in what’s called the Serra Siding project

Some also question whether the $50 million effort by Orange County transit authorities amounts to a subsidy for private freight train business in the region with public money.

“Are the freight companies trying to get taxpayers to fund their infrastructure? That’s a potentially explosive issue,” Quirk said. “I don’t think taxpayers should be subsidizing these wealthy companies.” 

Who Benefits? 

Transit officials have pushed the project as one which will reduce delays, improve mass transit reliability for commuters, boost ridership and reduce freeway car congestion.

Though critics warn that industrial freight will benefit more, given steep ridership drops along the area’s passenger lines and long-term plans to greatly expand freight train service on the same tracks, laid out in a 2021 regional study by BNSF, one of North America’s largest cargo rail networks.

The company’s “Pathing Study” says the coastal rail line’s capacity could — in certain scenarios — increase from three to eight trains per hour, without differentiating between passenger and freight trains.

The study was co-signed by San Diego’s North County Transit District. 

BNSF’s plan not only cites the Serra Siding project as one piece of its strategy – but even assumes an extension of it to San Clemente further south sometime down the road.

“Shortening the San Clemente bottleneck enables 3 train paths per hour per
direction before timetable restructuring and enables longer freight trains,” reads the BNSF study.

A freight train on BNSF’s network typically includes cars “carrying liquids or gasses;” gondolas carrying “coal, aggregates, ores or scrap metal;” hoppers and boxcars carrying industrial goods; center beam flatcars “carrying lumber or steel;” autoracks carrying “cars or trucks,” and other flatcars carrying things like “wind turbine blades, machinery, pipe or wood poles,” according to the company website. The freight cars also carry agricultural products.

The Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) and passenger line Metrolink are making the official push for the Serra Siding project, which is still in its public outreach phase. 

The project would extend the existing siding track south by 1.2 miles from Victoria Boulevard to Beach Road in the City of Dana Point. 

Local transit officials say the project would enable regular and frequent passenger service every 30 minutes and eliminate a chokepoint in San Clemente, which would reduce train delays and train idling. 

OCTA spokesperson Eric Carpenter, in a written statement responding to questions this month, said, “The proposed improvements are intended to provide for more reliable and efficient passenger train travel and an alternative to increasingly congested travel by car.” 

“We are not in a position to speak on behalf of the freight railroad on the potential of their future plans,” Carpenter said.

In response to Voice of OC questions on Feb. 11, BNSF spokesperson Lena Kent also issued this written statement:

“We are supportive of additional sidings to allow trains to move through efficiently. We have worked cooperatively with local agencies and will continue to do so as they move these efforts forward to improve service reliability for passenger rail.”

An Eroding Coast

An Amtrak passenger train passes through San Clemente in May 2017. JEFF ANTENORE, Voice of OC Contributing Photographer

In areas of Capistrano Beach near or next to train tracks, beach sand loss and erosion have crumbled parking lots and recreational facilities into the sea. The issue has also afflicted coastal areas of the City of San Clemente, further south. 

And areas of San Diego County even further south also face threats to the coastline, namely around Quirk’s city. The coastline near Del Mar has suffered frequent bluff collapses brought on by erosion and storms which can undermine the stability of coastal terrain. 

A bluff collapse near Del Mar and Torrey Pines State Beach in February last year forced the closure of a seaside railroad track sitting dozens of feet away, for emergency repairs by the North County Transit District, the agency responsible for public transportation in the upper section of San Diego County.

The “choke point” for train services along the existing single track lies nine miles south of the Serra Siding proposal’s location, in San Clemente, said Justin Fornelli, Chief of Program Delivery for Metrolink, speaking to Dana Point City Council members at a July meeting last year.

Fornelli at that meeting later added such choke points “have a ripple effect of delaying trains along our (entire) system.”

The bottleneck in San Clemente happens along the corridor’s longest section of single track, stretching nine miles from Capistrano Beach to San Onofre and taking 15 minutes to traverse, according to the pathing study.

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Around the Serra Siding project, issues of mass transit investment and environmental concerns collide. 

Investing in mass transit infrastructure, and increasing the frequency of trains, can improve a passenger’s commute time and experience. Lowering commuting times is seen as one way to improve mass transit usage and ridership, something which has been called for by some local officials in Orange County. 

“When people can’t get home – to work – on time, we’re not reliable,” Fornelli told Dana Point council members in July last year. 

The transportation agency points to freeway congestion and projected population growth as an indicator of future demand for the coastal passenger lines, which offer views of the marine landscape from the comfort of a train car. 

OCTA officials say their Serra Siding plan aligns with a number of regional government and state initiatives to cover transportation needs along the region.

Similarly, the BNSF study says increasing the frequency of freight trains “aligns with the rest of the corridor’s capacity and enables the 2018 California State Rail Plan’s 2040 goals.”

Capistrano Beach resident Toni Nelson – who has organized local opposition to the Serra Siding project – disputes the commuter logic. 

“There’s no place for people to go along these routes. Where is the big job center they’re going to? Even if I have a job in Oceanside, do I want to be dropped off at the beach? They honestly would be better off with electric buses,” Nelson said in a phone interview.

Quirk says his opposition to railroad fortification along the coast doesn’t constitute public transit opposition.

And anyone looking for transportation equity won’t find it in the Serra Siding project, Quirk said.

“Buses for example use the existing infrastructure. Buses are economical and get to places where people actually live,” Quirk said. 

Buses are crucial to working-class communities of color in Orange County. Data from OCTA has shown that public transit usage is higher in more inland areas like Santa Ana and Anaheim.

Whereas, the coastal passenger lines between San Diego and Orange counties are often used by “the affluent,” Quirk said.

He points to ridership data from 2015 along coastal passenger routes provided in a 2017 slideshow presentation by the North County Transit District, which at the time showed passengers of that area’s coastal train line were mostly white people with higher incomes. 

By comparison, transit use overall under the North San Diego County system was predominantly Latino. People in that demographic mostly used the bus lines, according to the report.

Ridership data from 2018 at Metrolink, whose ridership and operations would actually be impacted by the Serra Siding project, shows that the train service’s Orange County lines had the highest median household income of any other region, at $117,280. Though the data doesn’t disaggregate riders along Metrolink’s coastal route from those using the train more inland.

The median household income of riders at Metrolink systemwide, across all its regions in Southern California, was nearly $93,000.

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Ridership declines along the region’s coastal passenger lines have worsened since the COVID-19 pandemic, regardless of who’s using them. 

Metrolink saw a 36% decrease in Orange County ridership between 2020 and 2021, much of which worsened during the pandemic, according to data the agency provided on Feb. 11. 

Between 2017 and 2019, ridership was over the 2 million mark. Now it’s well below half of that. 

Data provided by Amtrak the same day showed the company’s Pacific Surfliner, which runs between San Diego and San Luis Obispo, saw a 69% decrease in passengers over two years, from 2019 to 2021.

“I rode that commuter line pre-covid and the trains are not near capacity with the passengers, I don’t see the need, from a passenger perspective, for more trains – and I’m all for public transit,” Duncan said.

Looking at the Serra Siding project, Duncan added, “it seems a little bit of doubling down on something that doesn’t really work well.”

Duncan said doubling the track for these passenger trains that have seen ridership cut in half is “doubling down in more ways than one.”

Note: This story was updated on Feb. 17 to clarify that BNSF’s pathing study poses scenarios where trains could increase from three to eight per hour on the coastal track without differentiating between freight trains and passenger trains.

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