A Tale Of Two Trains

The Real Train in Real Trouble

There’s a 351-mile stretch of train tracks between Los Angeles and San Diego called the LOSSAN Corridor:

lossanmap_02 larger.png

It’s the second busiest intercity passenger rail corridor in the United States, and also carries tons of freight, from corn to cars, both locally, and – by connecting with other trains – across the U.S.

LOSSAN is used by:

  1. COASTER, a local commuter rail operated by North County Transit District (NCTD).
  2. Pacific Surfliner, operated by Amtrak.
  3. Metrolink, a commuter rail operated by the Southern California Regional Rail Authority.
  4. BNSF for freight.
  5. PACSUN for freight.

These are very busy train tracks.

And they’re in very big trouble.

About 20 miles north of San Diego there’s a 1.7-mile stretch of LOSSAN Corridor tracks on the Del Mar bluffs, and by that I mean right on the bluffs, right along the Pacific Coast:

track on bluff no train_01

The Del Mar bluffs are collapsing into the Pacific Ocean.

And one of these days, they might take a train with them.

The Bullet Train Boondoggle

There’s another train track – sort of – that’s being built – sort of – that’s supposed to run between Northern California, Southern California, and the Central Valley.

This is the California High-Speed Rail, and it’s going nowhere to anywhere, anytime soon:

bullet train croppped

Also known as the “bullet train,” “the train to nowhere” and “California’s boondoggle,” it mostly exists in an artist’s imagination (image above) or in this state of incompletion:

bullet train structure_02

In 2008 about $9.95 billion in bond seed money for the bullet train was approved by California voters, with an estimated total cost of about $39 billion, and the first phase of passenger service beginning in 2017.

The project has now been scaled way back, with a price tag grown to $77 billion, and the first phase of passenger service beginning maybe in 2033.

Let’s compare what we’re spending – and what we’re getting.

Since 2008 – in 11 years – we’ve spent about $6 billion on the train to nowhere.

Since 1998 – in 21 years – we’ve spent just $14.1 million trying to shore up the Del Mar bluffs.

Here’s how that looks in comparison:

Pie Chart (2).jpg

Why the comparison?

Because the need to implement a permanent solution for the Del Mar bluffs – and the train tracks on them – is immediate.

While the bullet train that we keep throwing money at – well, this headline from the Los Angeles Times said it best:

LA Times Headline (2)

That tiny stretch of train tracks on the Del Mar bluffs – just 1.7 miles out of 351 – is critical for so many reasons, the first of which is:

Passenger Safety:  I was not speaking lightly earlier when I said the bluffs could collapse, taking a train with them.  Just the COASTER passenger trains carry 4,900 people along the Del Mar bluffs each weekday.  Now add in Metrolink and Surfliner passengers.  Add cargo trains, and about 50 trains total travel that stretch of dangerous track every day.

Here’s a partial list of other effects of the Del Mar bluffs failing, bringing train service to a stop:

Freeway Congestion:  As many as 2,500 more passenger cars, another 122 buses, and antraffic jam_01 additional 600 semi-trucks would travel the already crowded Interstate 5 daily without the coastal rail route.  Think more vehicle crashes.  Think egregiously longer commutes.  Think greenhouse gas emissions.

Increased Costs to Consumers:  Shippers of all types of materials on the San Diego segment of the LOSSAN rail corridor together would pay an additional $604,812 per day, or $221 million in a year, to move those things by truck – and pass that on to consumers.

Car Sales:  One in every 10 new imported automobiles sold in the U.S. arrives by ship at the Port of San Diego and then heads north by rail.  In 2018 about 400,000 vehicles, mostly from major Japanese and Korean manufacturers, were unloaded at the National cars on trainCity Marine Terminal.  If these vehicles don’t travel by train, the shipping cost will increase – and be passed on to consumers.

Regional Telecommunications:  A large bluff collapse could disrupt regional telecommunications, which provide information vital to NCTD to continue running commuter rail services and support interstate commerce.

Military Response:  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.

What are our priorities?  Continuing to waste money on the bullet train – a good idea gone bad – or allocating more money to fix the Del Mar bluffs danger zone?

OK:  Why are the Del Mar bluffs such a danger zone?

The bluffs are sandstone, a porous material, subject to rain, ground water, breaking waves, wind, storms and earthquakes, as well as animals that live in, and people that walk on, the bluffs:

unstable bluffs

And due to climate change, the ocean level is rising, eating away at more of that sandstone.

Why is the need immediate?

Bluff collapses increased significantly last August after a year of relative quiet.  Slides were reported August 22, September 27, and October. 5.

Then, on December 10, a 30-foot-wide chunk sloughed off:

bluff collapse december 2018

Erosion took another big chunk February 2, and then on February 15, one of the biggest collapses occurred when a 55-foot-wide section peeled away in pieces:

bluff collapse february 2019

I’ve ridden the COASTER along the Del Mar bluffs many times, and each time I’ve had two simultaneous thoughts:

“What an amazing view!”Bluffs_01.jpg

“What if this bluff collapsed?”

Now, after all the recent collapses, I’ll think twice before riding the COASTER again.

Until I started my research, I didn’t know how dangerous the Del Mar bluffs are.

Or how far-reaching, expensive, and damn inconvenient a long-term rail shutdown could be.

Now I know.

But our governor and legislators have known this for a long time.

And the politicians have just inched along, allocating the Del Mar bluffs a few million here and a few million there:

  • Three rounds of bluff stabilization projects have been completed at Del Mar since pennies1998 at a total cost of about $5 million, according to the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG).
  • The next phase of construction is expected to cost $3 million. It’s been funded and is scheduled to start in fall 2019.
  • State Senator Toni Atkins announced in June 2019 the latest allocation of $6.1 million for bluff stabilization.

As for other money?

Last December a media outlet reported that, “The North County Transit District is hoping to hear this month about an $18 million federal grant that would help stabilize crumbling bluffs next to the railway line through Del Mar.”

I’ll remind NCTD of this:


They did not get the $18 million federal grant.

But we taxpayers were forced to keep throwing money at the bullet train to nowhere.

Now, you could ask – logically – why not just move the tracks?

And there is discussion about that.

There is much discussion about that.

In fact, five possible routes for moving the train tracks off the Del Mar bluffs have been outlined by regional transportation officials.

Four of the ideas involve twin sets of tracks in tunnels drilled or bored through the ground as deep as 270 feet beneath the surface and up to a mile or more inland.  The fifth alternative is a deep trench that follows Highway 101, below the roadway through the center of town:

Five Options (2)


To reroute about five miles of the track:  Between $2.5 billion and $3.5 billion.

And State Senator Toni Atkins is excited about $6 million?

toni_01 cropped
Memo to State Senator Toni Atkins:  Get serious, and get some big bucks for the Del Mar bluffs.

Let’s recap:

So far we’ve spent $14.1 million in 21 years stabilizing the Del Mar bluffs.

Versus $6 billion spent in 11 years on the bullet train to nowhere.

According to SANDAG, protecting the bluff-top route over the next 30 years may cost an additional $90 million in today’s dollars.

Moving the tracks off the bluff:  Several billion.

It’s time – way past time – to implement a permanent solution for the Del Mar bluff train tracks and save the real trains that are in real trouble.

And to stop wasting money on the High-Speed Rail bullet train to nowhere…

Boondoggle (2)

“…nearly all the promises made to voters have gone unfilled as costs have exploded because of overruns and multiple management failings at the state’s High-Speed Rail Authority.

“This boondoggle is a massive blend of incompetence and dishonesty.  Californians wanted a bullet train.  It’s never been clearer it’s going nowhere fast.”

– San Diego Union-Tribune editorial, August 2, 2019

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