The Amtrak Pacific Surfliner passenger train has closed and reopened three times in the last year, and is currently closed indefinitely according to Metrolink.
While county transit officials are moving forward with multiple wall projects totaling over $20 million in construction costs to stop future falling debris from wrecking the tracks, it’s opening up a big question on the future of the county’s coastal rail line.
It has local transportation officials studying things like an entire realignment of the coastal track further inland, while construction crews continue to lay protective boulders called riprap in front of the rail line over the protests of environmental groups who say it’s destroying the beach.
Unlike the boulder walls that guard against the seas, county officials’ latest projects will face the cliffs in an effort to prevent rocks from falling on the track after a landslide at San Clemente’s historic Casa Romantica put the latest stop to train service last month.
“We have the contractor on site. And they started work yesterday afternoon,” said county Supervisor Katrina Foley in a July 6 phone interview. “They’ve driven eight of the pile drives into the ground, and they seem to have a good pace with the schedule.”
She said the estimated completion date is July 17.
Eric Carpenter, a spokesperson for the OC Transportation Authority, the primary government agency responsible for managing the county’s public transit, said the wall will likely cost between $5.5 and $6 million.
In addition to the new wall, county leaders are also building a wall near Cyprus Shore that’s expected to cost nearly $14 million, in addition to the $5 million they’ve already spent putting boulders along the beach.
But even those protective measures can incur their own damages.
Damages some environmentalists say are destroying the beachfront.
The Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit group focused on the environment and preserving beach access, is calling for the county to give up the coastal rail line and move the tracks further inland, saying the county’s focus on saving the tracks via riprap isn’t working.
“These boulders now stretch from the Northern end of Trestles to about 700 feet to the Northern end of the Cypress Shores HOA — effectively eliminating the beach there at most tides and making it impossible to walk from Trestles towards the pier,” Surfriders wrote in a press release last month.
They added, “The only realistic solution to save the beach is to move the South Orange County railway (from Dana Point to Camp Pendleton) inland.”
Mike Moodian – a lecturer at Chapman University who recently produced a documentary called “Coastal Crisis,” focused on California’s eroding beachfront – said the coastal rail’s days may be numbered.
“In my opinion, it’s only a matter of time before it has to be moved,” Moodian said in an interview. “What we see in San Clemente is what we’re seeing up and down the coast in terms of how municipalities and public agencies are dealing with the effects of coastal erosion.”
Foley said the coastal rail system “is our second largest, second most used, commuter systems in America.”
“I was surprised even to learn that,” she added.
But Foley also said the rail line is challenged by its current place along the coast:
“Our San Juan Capistrano businesses are really struggling because of the shutdown of the rails. Fortunately, we’ve been able to continue with freight operations, even if it is a little more cumbersome in terms of the speed that the trains can travel, to go 10 miles an hour through this area. And sometimes it’s also inconvenient for adjacent neighbors, because they’re traveling now at night with the freight.”
Moodian said it’ll likely lead to a major debate between environmentalists and county leaders as they figure out what the right move is.
“The solution that the city and public agencies continue to employ is armoring the coast, let’s employ sea walls, let’s employ different ways of protecting habitats,” Moodian said.
“But at some point, something has to give, and what ends up happening is that a beach that millions and millions of people have enjoyed from the time they were young kids becomes significantly compromised.”
Current efforts to study moving the coastal rail have been split up between different levels of government, from efforts down in San Diego to move the track inland, to a separate study by OCTA that will examine “options for protecting, or potentially moving, the rail line.”
“There’s different layers,” Foley said.
But that split leads to an inevitable bureaucratic gestation period.
“By their nature public agencies are bureaucracies, and when you have different agencies involved, state agencies, local agencies, public transit agencies, change happens very slowly,” Moodian said. “I think this is a conversation we’ll probably see drawn out over the next 12 months.”
“There will be a vigorous debate.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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