One of the region’s biggest commuter train routes has been shut down by a landslide, with a state of emergency declared by California’s top transportation official.
And service is not expected to start again for at least a month.
The outage will affect as many as 5,000 residents who use the trains daily, as well as freight traffic.
Metrolink and Amtrak Pacific Surfliner service between OC and OC and San Diego County was halted starting last Thursday, after remnants of a hurricane sped up beach erosion that’s been causing a slow-moving landslide.
Officials said they’re hoping to re-open service in early to mid-November, once the first phase of emergency repairs are done and the tracks are deemed safe.
In the meantime, Orange County Transportation Authority officials said Amtrak is providing limited bus service to replace the trains, while Metrolink has nothing for its riders.
County transportation officials are linking the erosion issues to climate change, and say a longer-term solution will eventually be needed – including potentially moving the tracks somewhere away from the ocean.
After last month’s recent storm surge and waves from the remnants of Hurricane Kay, twenty feet of beach sand “disappeared” in a week, said Jim Beil, who oversees capital projects at OCTA.
And underground measurements showed the ground was moving at an unsafe rate
That’s on top of an existing landslide – caused by beach erosion – moving the railroad tracks by 28 inches – something was discovered a year ago, prompting over 18,000 tons of large rocks (known as “riprap”) to be placed in the area.
Beil was speaking during a pair of emergency briefings Monday at public meetings of OCTA’s board and the California Transportation Commission.
California’s top transportation official, Caltrans Director Tony Tavares, on Monday declared a state of emergency over the landslide, declaring that stabilizing the situation for safe rail service to be an urgent state concern.
OCTA is now planning a $12 million emergency project to stabilize the hillside next to the tracks, with $6 million coming from state funds approved by state transportation commissioners on Monday.
“This is an emergency,” said Michele Martinez, a state transportation commissioner who formerly was a Santa Ana City Council member.
“We must all act very quickly to ensure that we stabilize the hillside.”
OCTA officials said they’ve been getting strong support from state and federal officials who could fund much of the work.
The tracks are designated as national defense rail infrastructure by the U.S. Department of Defense, according to OCTA officials.
OCTA officials say the new emergency project is needed to protect the tracks and public.
“Without stabilization, there is the possibility of further sliding of the hillside and/or the tracks sliding further toward the ocean, making that section of track impassible, and potentially requiring a more difficult interim solution,” said OCTA spokesman Eric Carpenter said in a written response to questions from Voice of OC.
OCTA officials said the second phase of the work, which is expected after service resumes and continue until mid-year next year, should “stabilize the tracks for years.”
But officials acknowledge they likely will seek longer-term solution – including potentially moving the tracks away from the ocean – as climate change continues to batter the coastline.
“It’s also clear that a more long-term solution is needed for the entire coastal region where tracks run near the coastline, with high tides, storm surges and the increasing effect of climate change,” OCTA staff said in their written answers to questions provided by Carpenter.
“OCTA will continue to work with the community and its partners in the region and the state, and with subject experts, to find and advance those long-term solutions. That could include additional reinforcement or, eventually, relocation of tracks.”
Katrina Foley, a county supervisor and OCTA board member, said the tracks may have to be moved as far inland as the 5 freeway.
“We also need to be talking about a long range plan about the possibility of these tracks being moved next to the freeway, as opposed to homes and the beach,” Foley said, adding that local scientists at institutions like UC Irvine should be brought in to advise.
“We’re not [able to move] the ocean,” she added.
“The ocean is far stronger than any of those [repair] products.”
OCTA is hiring a geostabilization contractor known as GSI for the $12 million project.
The erosion area is next to the San Clemente gated community known as Cyprus Shore, and two homes in that community have been red-tagged as unsafe, according to OCTA officials.
The work will help prevent further landsliding under multiple homes in the gated community, according to maps OCTA presented Monday.
Asked if the homeowners association will help cover the costs, OCTA officials told state commissioners that was discussed in a closed session Monday with their board and that they’d prefer not to discuss it publicly at this time.
The emergency project comes as county transit officials have been planning 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 have questioned 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.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.