In a recent Voice of Orange County Community Opinion, San Clemente Mayor Pro Tem Chris Duncan (“Duncan: We Must Act Now to Save Our Coastal Rail Line, October 14, 2022”) wrote of the critical importance of addressing the land slippage and coastal erosion threatening rail service on the vital coastal railroad corridor through Orange County. He also noted the impact of beach sand loss and the cost of past inaction.  I am writing to second that recommendation.

For over 130 years, traveling by train has been an everyday way of life for thousands of Orange County citizens. Passenger rail is the best way to move large numbers of people quickly over land. The San Clemente landslide and curtailment of rail service is a slow-moving natural disaster and should be viewed as such by local, state and federal stakeholders.  It is an emergency, both near-term as well as long-term.  The rail line is both a key regional and intercity rail route with the 2nd highest intercity ridership in the nation, connecting the 2nd and 8th largest cities in the U.S.  It is also a vital freight route supporting the regional and national economy, and its operation reduces truck traffic on parallel I-5. As the only direct railroad link connecting the principal mainland port of the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet and Camp Pendleton to the rest of the nation, it is part of the U.S. military’s Strategic Rail Corridor Network. (“Yanity: The Serra Siding Extension is a Project of National Significance, April 5, 2022”).  

The Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), as steward of this vital regional, state and national asset, needs to prioritize and accelerate both stabilizing the Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo (LOSSAN) rail line and returning it to service as soon as possible.  Simultaneously, a long-term alternative routing for the existing alignment needs to be developed.  These efforts need to move forward concurrently. 

The immediate priority is repairing and maintaining the existing line as an operable railroad for as long as possible. For the long term however, we need to relocate the tracks to a new route away from the shoreline (most likely a bypass tunnel underneath I-5). This San Clemente bypass tunnel megaproject will take a long time, so OCTA and Caltrans need to start planning for it now. State and federal grant opportunities should be aggressively sought for this work. The current window of opportunity for funding, both for stabilization and long-term planning, needs to be leveraged before it closes.  The optimum long-term alternative needs to be identified, environmental studies and preliminary design needs to start promptly in 2023.

Any long-term route replacement should be designed with increased capacity: double-track with an alignment offering travel time savings – to leverage the potential of the LOSSAN Corridor for accommodating regional travel growth on a non-highway mode.   

Finally, there are two additional key points I want to highlight as the planning process moves forward.  

The first is the “construction of an alternate eastbound rail line from San Diego” mentioned by Mayor Pro Tem Duncan.  A new eastbound rail line to the Imperial Valley is not a viable option; it is an unnecessary distraction from the San Clemente bypass tunnel. The existing, abandoned eastbound route (the historic San Diego & Arizona Eastern) is a slow, twisting path crossing into Mexico that could not be a viable rail line in the future. Forcing all rail traffic to/from San Diego to make not one, but two border crossings is a non-starter.  The U.S. military would also not want shipments of its sensitive military hardware on the existing track that runs down the middle of Tijuana streets. Any new usable eastbound rail line routed entirely within the U.S. would require heroic engineering, miles of tunnels and viaducts to cross the rugged mountains east of San Diego.  The cost would be huge: easily five to ten times the cost of the San Clemente tunnel. It would be far more complex and take much longer to build, at least a 20-year endeavor.  And there is the risk of a “show-stopper” (environmental, eminent domain of homes and businesses, engineering, funding, etc.) years into the process resulting in a great deal of wasted effort. Finally, the eastbound freight line would connect in Imperial County with the wrong railroad, the Union Pacific. The BNSF Railway is the holder of legacy trackage rights to San Diego.  This may seem like a minor detail, but given the private sector structure of American railroading, it is a major issue. 

The second factor concerns the existing ‘Surf Line’ route along the coast.  During the decade-long period that it will take to plan, design, fund and construct the San Clemente bypass tunnel, the existing service cannot be allowed to wither.  The reason is that competition for funding grant requests is based on the value of the project: its projected ridership.  A passenger rail project’s ridership forecast starts with the existing ridership as a baseline.  Starting with a lower ridership number because service has withered means a lower project future ridership forecast.  As a result, the inland tunnel project may fall short when competing against other projects for funding.  Ridership on the Surf Line through San Clemente on the existing routing must be enhanced with investments that allow flexibility and capacity for reliable service to offer schedules when travelers need to ride. 

To keep current service competitive and to grow ridership, the life-expired bridge over Coast Highway at Doheny State Beach needs to be replaced and the Serra Siding extended to facilitate reliable and flexible scheduling.  In addition, one of the potential tunnel design options would keep a local shuttle train service, using zero emission rail cars, in operation along the existing route.  These shuttles would serve leisure destination attractions in San Juan Capistrano, Dana Point and San Clemente.

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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