The Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo (LOSSAN) rail corridor through Orange County is a vital economic corridor for the entire Southern California region. Passenger and freight trains have run on this ‘Surf Line’ track since 1888.  Its alignment through Dana Point and San Clemente is defined by the terrain, a key gap in the rugged coastal geography. The rail line will remain.  In addition, the ‘Surf Line’ isn’t just a local railroad track; it is a route of national and regional importance, connecting the 2nd and 8th largest cities in the nation, and is the second-busiest intercity passenger rail corridor in U.S.  Several thousand rail passengers pass through Dana Point each day on Metrolink and Amtrak Pacific Surfliner trains.


The Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) as owner has the responsibility to manage this key national and regional asset, and needs to consider not just local stakeholders but national and regional stakeholders.  The ‘Surf Line’ plays a key role in the state and national economy, and national defense.  Amtrak and BNSF Railway also have Federally-guaranteed rights to use the corridor. As owner OCTA is legally required to provide a functional railroad with sufficient capacity to meet its obligations to Amtrak and the BNSF. 

America’s Supply Chain and National Defense

Currently, several BNSF freight trains pass through Dana Point and San Clemente each day, resulting in about a thousand fewer trucks per day on I-5. Over one billion dollars worth of goods move on this track per year, and it is vital to California’s economy.  Transporting cargo on rail means that it is not going by truck. Per ton-mile of freight moved, this means much less fuel consumed, pollution, road wear, and risk of accidents. Some residents in Capistrano Beach wish the freight trains would just disappear from the track going through their community, while others have even suggested that the whole railroad track be abandoned and allowed to erode into the sea, and that any improvements to it are therefore pointless.

No railroad line in the United States can be abandoned before receiving permission from the Surface Transportation Board, the independent Federal agency that regulates transportation. In addition to its great utility for passenger and freight movement, the military value of the Los Angeles – San Diego line would be an important factor to consider in any attempt to abandon the line. Freight trains running through Dana Point provide logistical support for the routine and ongoing needs of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet in San Diego. The U.S. Army Military Surface Deployment & Distribution Command, which is responsible for all U.S. military rail shipments, has designated the LA-San Diego line as part of the Strategic Rail Corridor Network (STRACNET). As the only direct railroad link connecting the principal mainland port of the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet, Camp Pendleton and MCAS Miramar to the rest of the nation, the line must be maintained in a state of good repair and have sufficient capacity for reasons of national security. It is also a key link in the movement of equipment for deployment of Army divisions from their domestic bases to overseas. The military prefers to transport its heavy vehicles by train whenever possible, as it is safer and more secure than by highway. It also causes less wear and damage to roads and equipment, while saving a great deal of fuel. Because armored military vehicles are so heavy, most are considered oversized loads on public highways.  So, moving military cargo by train is much easier, less hazardous and less disruptive than in a convoy on I-5 or I-15, or other public highways. All the major militaries of the world depend upon a strong domestic railroad network for logistical support.

BNSF Railway train carrying U.S. Army tanks to the Port of San Diego through San Clemente on May 15, 2021 (rear ‘pusher’ locomotives in foreground)  © Mark MacDougall

If the U.S. military gets more involved in the Asia-Pacific region in the years ahead, you can expect more military freight trains to and from San Diego. As a historical reference, the Surf Line through Dana Point saw an average of more than 40 freight trains per day during World War II, or about ten times the current number.

Reliability, Flexibility and Options

Reliability and flexibility are key to successful freight and passenger movement, and the Serra Siding Extension Project will add reliability and flexibility to this critical ‘meeting point’ midway between LA and San Diego. Dana Point is the location where all scheduled trains meet.  But even “on-time” trains can vary by a few minutes.  A lengthened Serra Siding mitigates this variability by providing the distance to allow both trains to avoid stopping and the resulting extra fuel use and pollution from accelerating from a stop.  Also, if there is an emergency incident or maintenance/repairs on one track along the ‘double-tracked’ siding, then a train can pass it on the other unimpeded.    

One thing we have learned over the past two years is that having options is vital and has real bottom line value. Not having transportation options is in fact a high risk, “bet the company” strategy. One of the factors OCTA and Metrolink must consider in their funding decisions is unforeseen circumstances.  For example, only five years ago, US 101 in Santa Barbara County was completely blocked by a mudslide.  The Surfliner train offered expanded service, but the service that was offered was limited because of the lack of key sidings along the largely single-tracked route.  What happens if a bridge on I-5 collapses in a flash flood or the road is filled with mud?   Will OCTA’s rail line through Dana Point have the capacity to provide an option to I-5?

Brian Yanity, of Fullerton, is the Vice President-South of the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada (RailPAC), a 501(c)3 all-volunteer non-profit passenger rail advocacy group founded in 1978. 

Opinions expressed in community opinion pieces belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

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