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Why Climate Change Is Keeping an Amtrak Train from Running On Time

Service was suspended on one of Amtrak’s busiest lines because of erosion on California’s coastal cliffs. Local authorities are working on emergency repairs, while planning for the track’s long-term future.

Crews conduct emergency repairs caused by beach erosion in San Clemente, Calif. In September, Amtrak announced that service on the Pacific Surfliner between San Diego and Irvine was suspended until further notice.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Two or three times a week for the last decade or so, Susan Forsburg, a molecular biologist at the University of Southern California, has taken the train from her home in San Diego to her lab in Los Angeles and back again. The line she rides is Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner. It’s about a two-and-a-quarter-hour trip one way; it’s comfortable; it has Wi-Fi so she can get work done during the commute; and “Oh my god, yes, it’s better than driving,” Forsburg says.

A self-professed nerd, she’s spent so much time walking through Union Station, where she catches the train in L.A., that she can tell what model of locomotive is idling on the rails just by listening to it hum.

So it was stress-inducing but not entirely unexpected when Amtrak announced late last month that it was suspending service indefinitely on a portion of the Surfliner between San Diego and Irvine, Calif., because of some dangerous conditions on the tracks near San Clemente.

The issue isn’t new. At several points along the Surfliner’s route, the tracks run right up to the edge of the coastal cliffs, giving riders dramatic views of the Pacific Ocean, but leaving the tracks vulnerable to instability and slippage as the cliffs slowly erode. Service was disrupted for three weeks last September while the tracks were stabilized after heavy storms.

More intense storms are contributing to faster erosion at the cliffs’ edges, and bigger waves on the rising seas are chipping away at them from below. Over the years, local authorities and rail-service operators have completed a series of projects meant to keep passenger and freight trains from slipping into the sea.

The projects — including measures as crude as dumping big rocks directly onto the beaches below the cliffs to help stabilize the tracks — tend to work until they don’t, and then it’s time to do another one. Various state and local authorities and a handful of transit agencies have been working on a long-term solution for the tracks. But while they plan, people and freight have to keep moving along the corridor, which is one of the busiest in the U.S.

Service Disruption 

It was the last Friday in September when Amtrak announced that service on the Pacific Surfliner between San Diego and Irvine was suspended until further notice. The call was made by the LOSSAN Rail Corridor Agency, part of the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), which owns the tracks, after “consultations with geologists, geotechnical engineers and surveyors revealed that there may be a safety concern along a portion of track in the San Clemente area,” according to a press release. In a later announcement, OCTA said that it could take 30-45 days to stabilize the tracks enough for passenger service to resume.

In the meantime, Metrolink, a Southern California commuter rail service, suspended all trains south of Laguna Niguel — an Orange County town about 15 miles north of the area where the track conditions were deemed dangerous. For its part, Amtrak has begun running shuttle buses along the middle portion of the San Diego-to-L.A. route to avoid the dangerous section of track.

For Forsburg, that means taking a train from San Diego to Oceanside, then a bus to Irvine and a train the rest of the way to Union Station in L.A. It’s added about 30 minutes to the ride, she says, but, “It's worked surprisingly well, so it’s feasible.”
A Surfliner train by Amtrak travels along the collapsing bluffs in Del Mar.
John Gibbins/TNS

Emergency Work Underway

Earlier this week, the Orange County Transportation Authority held a special meeting and announced it was going to begin emergency work on the portion of track that had become unstable. According to OCTA, geologists monitoring the area after a storm surge in September found that the track was moving between 0.01 inches and 0.04 inches per day.

“In the greater spectrum of landslides, it’s slow movement,” says Eric Stevens, a district supervisor with the California Coastal Commission, which oversees land use along the California coastline. “But any movement is bad.”

When service was disrupted near San Clemente last year, OCTA dumped 18,000 tons of rocks on the beach side of the track to help stabilize the railbed. This time, OCTA says it’s planning to drive “large metal anchors into about 700 feet of the slope adjacent to the railroad track to prevent it from pushing the track further toward the coast.” The agency acknowledges that’s a temporary solution too, in light of the compounding challenges of climate change, but says it’s critical to keep the service safe in the short term.

“The environmental problems that created this emergency situation are not going away as coastal sand disappears and the ocean waters move closer to valuable infrastructure, including homes, roadways and the rail lines,” Eric Carpenter, an OCTA spokesperson, says in an email. “The long-term solutions are not easy, would take many years of planning and will be expensive.”

Similar Dangers in Other Areas

The quickening erosion of coastal cliffs is complicating train service and other aspects of life in other areas as well. South of San Clemente, in Del Mar, officials have been working to shore up a section of track for years. The presence of the track actually makes the cliffs more dangerous, says Sharon Humphreys, the director of engineering and construction at the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG). Stormwater running down the hills above the tracks — in ever-greater quantities because of climate change — works away at the cliffs. Authorities have worked for decades to keep the cliffs stable, installing drainage ditches to carry stormwater below the tracks and building seawalls to decrease wave action that erodes the cliffs from below, Humphreys says.

“We’ve been very proactive over the last 10-15 years in addressing the risk of slope failure to prevent the region from facing similar sorts of closures,” she says.

The city of Del Mar has had a complicated relationship with the cliffs. Several years ago, the City Council made news for refusing to include the term “managed retreat” in its long-range plans. The phrase refers to slowly moving infrastructure and homes away from areas that are vulnerable to growing climate threats like sea-level rise. The Del Mar City Council determined that using the phrase in its planning documents could hurt property values on the expensive cliffside homes in the area.

Officials there and in surrounding areas have fought for “hard” infrastructure solutions like seawalls to protect homes and property. But they have begun planning for the possibility of moving the tracks out of harm’s way. In June, SANDAG received a $300 million grant from the state to begin environmental studies for a potential relocation of tracks.

The project would be expensive — on the order of several billion dollars — and it would take a long time to plan and complete, says Humphreys. But it’s a critical transportation corridor, connecting not just passengers but freight arriving at the Port of San Diego to the rest of the rail network in the U.S., Humphreys says.

“If everybody wants Christmas presents or Hanukkah presents, we’ve got to make sure those tracks keep running,” she says.

The Pacific Surfliner passing a section of rip rap barrier near the coast on Sept. 17, 2022. (Video shared via Twitter)

An Alternative to Cars

The Surfliner is Amtrak’s second-busiest intercity rail service. Bill Esparza, an L.A.-based food writer, rides the train once a month or so to get to events in Baja California, Mexico, where he runs a tour company.

“I’m trying not to drive a lot,” Esparza says. “I have a lot of environmental concerns … People say, ‘Well, you guys are a driving culture, you don’t use public transportation.’ That’s wrong — I use it all the time.”

Esparza takes the L.A. Metro from his house to Union Station, and rides Amtrak to Santa Fe Depot in downtown San Diego, and from there takes the trolley or an Uber to the border with Tijuana, and rents a car on the other side. The trip saves him four or five hours in the car each way.

“I wish we had more experiences like that. It brings you back to a time before L.A. was this place where that’s all we do is drive,” he says. “It’s nostalgic and it’s a lot of fun.”

While OCTA makes emergency track repairs, the California Coastal Commission is pushing for longer-term solutions that maintain public access to the beaches. The makeshift riprap barriers that the rail agencies have used tend to block people’s access to the coast, says Stevens. The agencies have noted how expensive and time-consuming it will be to move the tracks, but the Coastal Commission has pushed them to take a broader view of the costs of maintaining the existing infrastructure.

There are, on the one hand, the increasing costs of keeping the tracks stable, the commission noted in a 2020 letter to OCTA about its Rail Infrastructure Defense Against Climate Change Plan. And then there are the growing costs of mitigation for lost public resources because of that work, and the potential effects on the tourism economy from losing beach access, the group has noted.

“Relocating a railroad is a big undertaking, so the amount of planning that would be involved would be substantial, and it would take a long time,” says Joseph Street, a staff geologist at the California Coastal Commission. “But if you can extend your time frame, that is the best solution.”

Riders like Forsburg are supportive of plans to move the tracks, but clearheaded about how much time, planning and cross-jurisdictional political will it will take to get there.

“We’re kind of stuck shoring it up while people wave their hands and say, ‘Maybe a tunnel!?'” Forsburg says. “That’s not going to happen in my working lifetime. So this is just a thing we have to deal with.”
Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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