Waves overtopping single track at bluff edge at Cotton's Point, San Clemente. Credit: Photo courtesy of Tony Prince.

Rail industry insiders can’t seem to help themselves. Like the band playing on the Titanic, they play the same refrain on a continuous loop:

  • Passenger rail demand is growing exponentially” (it’s not). 
  • “Coastal rail expansion is about passengers” (it’s really about freight). 
  • “If we build it, they will come” (not likely given current trends). 
  • We can mitigate for erosion” (for how long and at what cost?) and 
  • “Rail is our future” (many futurists believe it’s our past). 

Passenger Rail Demand Is A Tiny Fraction Of Capacity

Metrolink’s Serra Siding Project was justified, in part, by a study projecting an Orange County population increase of 34% by 2040. When citizens pointed out they were using projections from an outdated 2011 study that was grossly overstated, they adjusted it downward to a still optimistic 16% by 2045, extrapolating that an increased population will automatically correlate with more seats on trains. In fact, South Orange County passenger rail was languishing for at least a decade before the pandemic. Today, both Metrolink and Amtrak are lumbering along the coast at a fraction of capacity. 

Metrolink Capacity vs. Actual Passengers, to/from Oceanside/San Clemente, July 2018 to December 2021.  Source:  Metrolink California Public Records Act Request data and schedules

The orange bars on the graph above represent empty seats on the Oceanside to San Clemente segment (7/18 to 12/21) just south of where Metrolink representatives insist the Serra Siding is needed to accommodate passenger demand. Even Metrolink’s CEO, Art Leahy, is quoted on the company’s website saying “Perhaps we should explore truncating some Oceanside service at Irvine”.  

Metrolink executives recently celebrated that demand might be 44% of pre-pandemic ridership by mid-summer. 44% of very low ridership is still a lot of empty seats. What about the impacts of public transit reluctance during a global pandemic, and the work from home movement? Where exactly are the new job centers in SoCal that will supposedly draw commuters and an aging population? And how do riders accommodate the “last mile” from the train station to actual destination?  Metrolink is heavily subsidized by taxpayers.  The public needs to see real data to support the notion that existing passenger trains along the coast will ever be full, let alone require more cars or sidings. Instead of contemplating more rail infrastructure to accommodate dubious demand, why not consider combining the low ridership Metrolink and Amtrak routes south of Irvine, reducing traffic and cutting emissions by half? 

Rail expansion is about freight – 22 freight trains a day on an eroding coast

Residents opposing the Serra Siding repeatedly asked if the proposal was really about freight and not passengers at all. OCTA and Metrolink officials insisted that the Serra Siding was needed solely to reduce bottlenecks and increase safety to meet passenger demand.

Upon further investigation, residents discovered information that might reveal the real impetus behind infrastructure expansion – freight.  Lots and lots of heavy, mile-long diesel emitting freight trains making their way to and from Barstow. The San Diego Pathing Study and recent LOSSAN literature reveal a projected increase in train traffic through Orange County – from 44 to 78 passenger trains and from 6 to 22 freight trains a day by 2030.  This is news to most City officials and residents of the affected towns. 

What about the millions of beachgoers from Del Mar to Doheny who will be waiting for 22 mile-long freight trains each day as they attempt to cross the tracks to beaches? And what about impacts on traffic, tourism, businesses and residents? Imagine the impact in Dana Point where 6 hotels (and a 7th on the way) will be directly facing heavy freight traffic marring a beautiful coastal view?  Or San Juan Capistrano, a rail-centric town with an entire commercial and tourism industry built on a heretofore charming little railroad crossing at Los Rios? What about impacts on traffic and emergency services ?

An alternative route to Barstow exists through the desert. While that would benefit Union Pacific and not BNSF, why should the public be funding wasted billions fruitlessly fighting back the Pacific? While coastal rail made sense 100 years ago, no one imagined that we’d want to turn a booming, highly developed tourism gold coast into a heavily travelled freight rail route.  

Spending billions on a route doomed by erosion and sea level rise is a terrible idea

The LOSSAN corridor through Orange County to San Diego is only as strong as its weakest links – like the short segment at Cotton’s Point that is awash in waves daily, or the bluff top section in Del Mar that is one landslide away from oblivion, or the Mariposa Promontory area, recognized in OCTA’s own Climate Study as an area of grave concern. Are we going to insist on shoring up a rail system that may be either underwater, irrelevant or both once sea level rise makes the route impassable and/or autonomous vehicles revolutionize transportation? Rather than spending billions on absolute solutions like tracks with 100 year lives, or $3-$5 billion tunnels beneath eroding bluffs, we need a paradigm shift, refusing to lock in solutions that don’t allow for the inevitability of change. Why should taxpayers be asked to fund not only the destruction of quality of life in beautiful coastal towns, but to waste billions on a route that appears to be doomed?  

In a recent Voice of OC opinion piece, Matthew Tucker, Executive Director of North County Transit District, insisted that rail infrastructure expansion “benefits everyone.” He conveniently left out residents, beachgoers, hotels and other businesses coping with 22 freight trains lumbering through heavily developed commercial zones, plus everyone else affected by the severe damage to quality to life as charming towns are turned into heavy rail corridors.  

Where’s that kid who told the emperor what he was really wearing?  Rail infrastructure expansion that pushes heavy freight through beautiful, highly developed towns and along a severely eroding coast is a terrible idea.  Taxpayers should be told the truth before they’re asked to waste one more dime.

Toni Nelson is a retired CPA and founder of non-profit community organization Capo Cares, an advocacy group for the community of Capistrano Beach in the City of Dana Point.  Since 2014, Capo Cares has followed issues of interest to community members, such as coastal erosion, beautification, public health and safety, local politics and arts and cultural events. The group updates the community via periodic newsletters and daily postings at www.Facebook.com/capocares. Nelson writes frequently on topics related to coastal erosion as a community contributor at www.patch.com/lagunaniguel-danapoint and can be contacted at capocares@gmail.com

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