How far can nearly $14 million in emergency repairs take you on a rail line that’s slipping into the sea? 

More than two hundred ground anchors and piles of boulders later, that’s the question civil engineering experts and city officials are asking as regional transit officials say they’ve successfully halted an ancient landslide which threatened as much as 700 feet of tracks in San Clemente.

The tracks have been there since 1888, according to the Orange County Transportation Authority – caught between a sliding hillside and an eroding coastline.

“Mother Nature doesn’t care about our tie-back system. And if we’re not thinking more long term, then we’re fighting a losing battle,” said San Clemente Mayor Chris Duncan, who leads a city that’s still recovering from a resident-displacing coastal landslide in March.

“How many tie-backs for millions of dollars are you going to try and do?”

It’s an increasingly hard-to-ignore issue that offsets the balance between the health and shape of the county coastline with an iconic passenger and cargo route connecting populous regions and U.S. military networks. 

Asked about future impacts of nature to train service, OCTA spokesperson Eric Carpenter responded in a written email:

“The work completed to stop the slope movement was an emergency, short-term solution done in accordance with state regulatory agencies. OCTA has already set the framework and started the process for continuing to work with local cities, residents and state and federal partners to explore longer-term solutions to protect this vital rail line for generations to come.”

All Metrolink and Amtrak Pacific Surfliner service is now set to resume this upcoming Monday between Orange County and San Diego, after the track moved as much as 28 inches between 2021 and 2022.

The shifting tracks put passenger train service on hold since September, and recurring heavy rains since the project began in October led to delays in work on a privately-owned slope between the ocean and San Clemente’s Cypress Shore neighborhood, said transit officials. 

Congressman Mike Levin, meanwhile, is scheduled to visit parts of the rail corridor in Solana Beach and San Clemente State Beach today alongside Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Administrator Amit Bose.

There, they’ll talk potential efforts toward relocating parts of the iconic route — not for only passengers, but for freight, as the sole railroad link to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and Naval Base San Diego. 

Cutting Off Coastal Lifeblood

Brett Sanders, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of California, Irvine, said the rail line’s woes tie back to beach sand starvation.

One contributing factor is drought: “We haven’t had the normal flood peaks along San Mateo Creek and San Juan Creek which are the primary rivers to that stretch of the coastline. So we haven’t had the same sand supply.”

But more importantly, Sanders says, the urbanization of Orange County – and the region’s flood control infrastructure – “is designed to hold sediment in place.”

“I mean, we go to great lengths and plan new developments to make sure that sand doesn’t move, that soil doesn’t move,” he added.

The result? 

“We have effectively cut off the supply of sand which made our beaches and made us famous.”

Along those 700 feet of tracks in San Clemente is a bouldery rip-rap, which guards the tracks against crashing waves. 

But the boulders in turn need their own protection: Sand, which Sanders said was in steady supply for decades along that area, according to his research, until a period between 2014 and 2016, when ocean levels were exceptionally high during storm events. 

“It was some combination of higher than normal sea levels and a really big wave event that pulled a lot of sand away from the beach, and then the beach just didn’t recover.”

Once enough sand in front of the boulders is gone, Sanders said “subsequent waves that strike the riprap – hitting hard surfaces – will reflect” and pull even more of the area’s sand “offshore.”

Now Sanders said the railroad “has to face more chronic maintenance challenges – very big storm events which are probably going to knock loose a few rocks, and they have to figure out whether they have to move their rocks around or throw some more rocks down.”

Carpenter of OCTA said the slope along the 700 feet of track in San Clemente is “continuously monitored by load sensors and inclinometers and no movement has been detected since the first row of ground anchors was installed in February.”

He added that a second row of ground anchors and tiebacks “was installed to further secure the hillside and help prevent any future track movement.”

Carpenter also said that Metrolink, which operates rail service on the OCTA-owned line, conducts regular track inspections. The agency also installed sensors on the repair materials to detect any “stresses” in the ground anchors on a 24/7 basis. 

On top of that, inclinometers – devices used to detect movement – have been installed into the slope for geologist monitoring, he said. 

“Should anything abnormal be detected by the inclinometers or regular track inspections, Metrolink track inspectors and geotechnical experts will consult and determine the appropriate course of action. Given the constrained space, the necessary construction equipment and for worker safety, construction and rail operations couldn’t be conducted at the same time.”

All the while, Sanders said a “more precarious situation” lies along the tracks in Del Mar, in San Diego County. 

“At that location, the rail sits on top of the bluff. So as opposed to being at the bottom of the cliff, you’re at the top of the cliff, and the bluffs have been eroding. So there’s concern that in the future, the bluffs could collapse and the train would then fall literally 20 or 30 feet down a cliff.” 

‘An Incredible Resource’

Despite the impacts of coastal erosion and hillside movement, both Sanders and Duncan say they’d still board Southern California’s coastal trains.

“I would not hesitate to take the route,” said Sanders. “It’s a real treat – an incredible resource for California.”

“I mean, it’s clearly not the best place for a rail line that’s going to be heavily trafficked by large cargo trains,” Duncan said. “But I’ve taken Amtrak my whole life … I used to commute on the coaster in North County San Diego. Yeah, I generally feel safe. And I wouldn’t have any issue with taking the train.” 

He added: “It’s a beautiful stretch of rail – maybe the most beautiful in all of the country.”

But for now, Duncan’s focus is on getting residents back into their homes, after a coastal landslide in March cleared four apartment buildings with red-tags and forced people to check into hotels and rush into dangerous structures to recover pieces of their lives. 

In a Tuesday phone interview, Duncan said he expects those red-tags to come off “very shortly,” after geological engineers studied the buildings and had their reports reviewed by the city engineering department – though one of those “may still be a yellow tag.”

“In the very near future, we hope we will have our residents back in their homes,” Duncan said. “So it’s encouraging that the structures appear to be sound. And we need to be abundantly cautious, how we go through that process of removing the red tags.”

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