Mar is weak link in San Diego’s coastal railroad
By Phil Diehl
July 28, 2019 12:45 PM PT
Only one set of railroad tracks on a fragile sandstone bluff in Del Mar
connects San Diego with all points north and south.
Multiple landslides on that bluff in the past year forced officials to
temporarily halt trains for safety inspections on the nation’s
second-busiest rail line.
But what would happen if the cliffs were to suffer a major collapse,
damaging some or all of the track and putting the rail line out of
commission for months?
The results, officials say, would be costly and far-reaching, touching
everything from transportation to commerce to tourism to
telecommunications to air quality. Even the nation’s military readiness.
“This is not something that you can allow to happen,” said Matt Tucker,
executive director of North
County Transit District, the agency that owns the tracks, operates the
Coaster commuter trains, and leases the rights to freight trains and
Amtrak passenger trains that run on the route.
Bluff collapses increased significantly last August after a year of
relative quiet. Slides were reported Aug. 22, Sept. 27, and Oct. 5.
Then, on Dec. 10, a 30-foot-wide chunk sloughed off between Ninth and
10th Streets, halting trains for two hours. Safety inspections cleared
the way, but the December incident brought new focus to the erosion
Studies show the coastal cliff erodes at an average rate of six inches
annually. But by December, some spots in Del Mar had shrunk by six feet
or more in the previous year. Still, between Ninth and 10th streets,
the bluff had 30 feet or more between the tracks and the edge of the
cliff. Other nearby sections have less space, but are protected by
piles or walls.
Erosion took another big chunk Feb. 2, when a Del Mar bluff collapse
halted train traffic between Sorrento Valley and Solana Beach for five
Then, on Feb. 15, one of the biggest collapses occurred when a
55-foot-wide section peeled away in pieces about noon. A Scripps
Institution of Oceanography technologist on the beach recorded the
slide on video, which was widely seen on social media and the evening
The series of slides underscored the need to stabilize the bluffs,
“If we reached a critical point, we would de-fund all other capital
projects to fund this,” Tucker said, noting, “We have more than $1
billion of capital needs.”
Without that stretch of Del Mar track, thousands more cars and hundreds
of trucks would spill onto the already congested Interstate 5 every
day, according to an analysis by the San Diego Association of
Governments, the region’s planning agency.
Shipping costs would jump for vital imports such as new vehicles,
construction materials and petroleum products. And tourists who travel
by passenger train would go elsewhere.
Regional and state officials have been scrambling for years to prevent
such a disaster by shoring up the scenic stretch of rail.
Three rounds of bluff stabilization projects have been completed at Del
Mar since 1998 at a total cost of about $5 million, according to SANDAG. Those efforts included the
installation of about 200 concrete-and-steel columns called “soldier
Each pile is 3 feet in diameter and goes as deep as 65 feet into the
ground on the west side of the railroad. Together, the piles form a
sort of retaining wall to protect the tracks from erosion.
The next phase of construction, with more piles and drainage
structures, is expected to cost $3 million. It has been funded and is
scheduled to start in the fall. State Sen. Toni Atkins announced in
June the latest allocation of $6.1 million to plan and design more
piles, seawalls, drains and anchoring devices.
Protecting the bluff-top route over the next 30 years may cost an
additional $90 million in today’s dollars, according to SANDAG.
Eventually, erosion will force the route to be moved. SANDAG recently
outlined preliminary plans
that could cost $3 billion or more to relocate five miles of track
inland, with nearly two miles of that traveling through tunnels.
That solution is probably decades away, but some elected officials have
said it’s time to start working on it.
“Maintaining our heavy rail is essential for our regional economy,”
said Assemblyman Todd Gloria, D-San Diego. “This is one of our region’s
highest priorities, and we must choose a plan as quickly as possible so
that we can begin to identify funding sources.”
A cost-benefit analysis SANDAG prepared for the construction to begin
this fall looked at the economic consequences over six and 12 months of
a significant bluff failure. It showed the effects would be felt across
the region and beyond.
Repairs to the railroad after a 400-foot-long bluff collapse would cost
about $40 million, the analysis showed. The cost of providing commuter
train travelers with alternative transportation by bus for six months
during the work would be an additional $2.4 million. The increased
costs for shipping freight by truck during that time would be $109
In all, the total economic costs of a six-month rail closure are
projected to be $173 million. For 12 months, it would be $310 million.
The estimate does not include the costs to businesses that depend on
the railroad to attract or sustain business. Nor does it account for
probable tourism losses, though the report said the losses would be
“substantial considering the importance of tourism in the San Diego
It’s also difficult to assess how the railroad affects property values
in Del Mar, where homes are among the most expensive in San Diego
County. The city’s median home value is $2.5 million, according to the
on-line real estate service Zillow, and homes on the bluff near the
tracks are worth two or three times that amount.
If anything, the high property values make it unlikely that railroad
could expand its right-of-way on the bluff.
A large bluff collapse also could disrupt regional telecommunications.
Fiber-optic cables buried in the NCTD
right-of-way parallel to the tracks could be severed, and the
economic impact of that is expected to be severe, the SANDAG analysis
Some of the cables are owned by utilities including telecommunications
companies such as Verizon. The transit district’s cables carry signals
essential to “positive train control,” the federally mandated safety
system that covers 60,000 miles of track across the United States.
The cables also link each of the Coaster commuter train’s eight
passenger stations and carry information vital to fare collection,
security and safety cameras, digital signs and other systems operated
by the transit district, said NCTD spokeswoman Kimy Wall.
“This information is vital to NCTD in order to continue to run our
commuter rail services and support interstate commerce,” Wall said.
Port of San Diego
Car sales are another element of the economy that depends on the
stability of the Del Mar bluff.
One in every 10 new imported
automobiles sold in the United States arrives by ship at the Port of
San Diego and then heads north by rail.
Last year about 400,000 vehicles, mostly from the major Japanese and
Korean manufacturers, were unloaded at the National City Marine
Terminal, a port official said.
Nearly all those vehicles were loaded onto specially designed railroad
cars and hauled up the San Diego County coast. Eventually, they ended
up on sales lots in cities from Los Angeles to Chicago and Kansas City.
The National City terminal has the capacity to park about 20,000
vehicles, according to port documents. The average “dwell” time is 13
days before a vehicle moves from a cargo ship to a rail car for the
next leg of its journey. At least one
freight train loaded with automobiles, usually with 40 or more rail
cars, leaves the port almost every night.
Dozens of other commodities such as lumber and building supplies leave
the San Diego port by rail.
Railroad is what keeps San Diego competitive as a port city, said
Josefina Balistrieri of the port’s Maritime Department. Without access
to rail transit, the freighters would sail right past and unload at Los
Angeles or some other West Coast port, she said.
“The cargo will go where it gets the best service and the best rate,”
Besides providing affordable cargo transportation, the railroad helps
tamp down the number of cars and trucks on the freeways and the
pollution those vehicles create.
Traffic on Interstate 5 in San Diego County now averages more than
200,000 vehicles daily and is projected to increase to 300,000 vehicles
by 2030, according to SANDAG. Trucks make 10,000 daily trips on I-5.
As many as 2,500 more passenger cars and an additional 600 semi trucks
would travel the already crowded I-5 daily without the coastal rail
route, according to the regional agency.
The 351-mile corridor between San
Diego and San Luis Obispo on the Central Coast, known as the LOSSAN
corridor, is the second-busiest rail route in the United States.
It is exceeded only by the rail line between the two densely populated
areas of New York City and Washington D.C.
Each year, more than 2.8 million
intercity passengers and 4.4 million commuter riders travel on the
LOSSAN corridor, according to SANDAG. One of every nine Amtrak riders
in the country uses the route.
Amtrak riders increase significantly on holidays and for special
events, said Amtrak spokeswoman Olivia Irvin. One of the busiest weeks
of the year for passenger trains comes during the annual Comic-Con
convention in San Diego.
Last year, Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner carried more than 44,000
passengers to destinations between San Luis Obispo and San Diego during
the five days of Comi-Con, a 40 percent increase in average daily
Rail transit is less expensive than the highway for moving large
quantities of freight, SANDAG statistics show. Most of the freight is
transferred from ship to rail at the Port of San Diego’s two marine
terminals, one at Tenth Avenue and the other at the National City
Shippers of all types of materials on the San Diego segment of the rail
corridor together would pay an additional $604,812 per day, or $221
million in a year, to move those things by truck.
Some rail cargo is too large to easily load onto a truck, such as the
huge blades used to build wind turbines. More common rail shipments are
construction supplies such as lumber and drywall, carloads of bulk
materials such as gravel or asphalt, and tankers of petroleum products.
Also, the rail corridor is part of the Defense
Department’s Strategic Rail Corridor Network, which requires that it be
available to move troops and equipment during a national emergency.
Anytime rail service stops, whether for maintenance, repairs or
inspections, the transit district has a back-up transportation plan for
passengers. That usually includes what’s called a “bus bridge,” which
takes people by bus on local roads or the nearby freeway from the point
where rail service stops to where it begins again.
The bus-bridge procedure is the same whether the closure lasts an hour,
a day or a month, said Jim Linthecum, director of mobility management
Coaster commuter trains carry an average of 5,000 passengers a day,
Linthecum said. There are multiple stops along the route, but most of
the passengers who go through Del Mar are headed to or from jobs and
other destinations in downtown San Diego that would put them on I-5 if
the rail route were closed.
Planners estimate that during an extended track outage, about half
those train commuters would switch to buses and half would use their
“That’s another 122 buses on Interstate 5 and another 2,500 cars,”
Truck vs. train
An average of six freight trains a day also use the tracks, he said.
The cargo carried by those trains is equal to the contents of about
180,000 trucks a year and most of that also would go on the freeway if
no railroad were available.
About 7,800 semi trucks traveled I-5 daily at the state Route 52
intersection and about 9,400 trucks daily at state Route 78, according
to state Department of Transportation statistics for 2015.
Freight trains are “vital for goods movement in general” and especially
for the Port of San Diego, said Jessica Gonzales, a SANDAG spokeswoman.
The value of commodities carried by train can vary widely, from more
than $500,000 per carload for new automobiles to only $600 per carload
for construction materials such as sand or gravel.
Shipping costs recorded by SANDAG show a huge financial advantage in
the use of railroad transportation.
The average cost to haul materials by
truck is about $45 per ton, compared to $9.23 per ton by rail,
according to the agency’s statistics for 2015.
A typical freight train on the
corridor between San Diego and Los Angeles has 40 cars, each carrying
65 tons of freight, or a total of 2,600 tons of freight per train.
That’s a savings of $604,812 each day
for shipments by rail instead of truck. Over a year that amounts
to a savings of more than $220 million for shipments by rail, the
NCTD contracts with passenger carrier
Amtrak, the national freight carrier Burlington, Northern and Santa Fe,
and the local freight hauler Pacific Sun Railroad to run those
companies’ trains on the tracks.
Freight trains usually operate at night to stay out of the way of the
increasing numbers of passenger and commuter carriers, said Lena Kent,
director of public affairs for BNSF.
BNSF, the only interstate freight rail line in San Diego County,
carries goods of all types but mostly automobiles, construction
supplies and shipping containers loaded with myriad types of
merchandise. The company does not discuss details about cargo for
security and proprietary reasons.
The local hauler, Pacific Sun, is based at the Stuart Mesa switching
yard on Camp Pendleton just north of Oceanside. PacSun, as it’s called,
carries corn, soy, lumber, plastic pellets, beer, paints and items
bound for recycling to destinations within San Diego County, according
to the company’s website.
Coaster trains carried a weekday
average of 4,915 passengers
in the 2017-18 fiscal year, with a total ridership of 1.5 million
passengers for the year, according to NCTD. Overall ridership has
declined in recent years, but transit officials say that could change
at any time, especially as freeways become more crowded and mass
transit is made more convenient.
NCTD and Amtrak both plan to increase the frequency of daily trains on
the coastal route in the years ahead, all
which will be crossing the Del Mar bluff.
--Phil Diehl is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune