It’s time to relocate the Surf Line railroad track inland, and build the San Clemente bypass tunnel

[updated June 6, 2023]

By Brian Yanity

It is of critical importance to address the land slippage and coastal erosion threatening rail service on the coastal railroad section in San Clemente. This is a transportation emergency that must be taken seriously by local, state and federal stakeholders, both in the near- and long-term. The cost of past inaction is catching up to us now.

Amtrak and Metrolink train service through southern Orange County has been temporarily suspended three times in the last year alone due to the instability of the land beneath and beside the tracks. This occurred in the Cyprus Shore area in south San Clemente due to instability of the hillside slope above the tracks: a six month period from September 2022 to April 2023. This followed a two week track closure at Cyprus Shore in September 2021. More recently the track was closed for a one month period ending May 28, 2023 at a different location: just over two miles north due to a landslide beneath the Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens near the San Clemente Pier. The track was open for only one week before another landslide at Casa Romantica closed the track again on June 5, 2023 [as of this writing service has not yet been restored]. During these track closures, bus bridges have connected passengers between Orange and San Diego counties on a reduced schedule.

The “Surf Line” is both a key regional and intercity rail route boasting the 2nd highest intercity ridership in the nation. For 130 years the Surf Line has provided travelers between Los Angeles and San Diego a convenient and efficient alternative to the automobile. Passenger rail is also the most environmentally friendly way to move large numbers of people rapidly between the nation’s 2nd and 8th largest cities. Per passenger-mile travelled, the greenhouse gas emissions of riding even a diesel-powered train is only a fraction of that going by car. It is also a vital freight route that supports the regional and national economy and reduces truck traffic on parallel I-5, further reducing pollution and wear and tear on the roads. Because it is the only direct rail link connecting the principal mainland port of the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet and Camp Pendleton to the rest of the nation, it has been designated part of the U.S. military’s Strategic Rail Corridor Network. When the track is closed, the San Diego-Tijuana bi-national metro area (population 5 million) lacks a railroad connection with the rest of North America [the slow and windy San Diego & Arizona Eastern track from Tijuana/Tecate eastward to the Imperial Valley has been closed for years].

The first priority is to stabilize and maintain the existing Surf Line tracks through San Clemente to be an operable railroad for as long as geologic conditions allow. The Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), as steward of this vital regional, state and national asset, has led the effort to repair and reinforce the slopes above the tracks.

But concurrently, planning must proceed to relocate the tracks inland. No amount of reinforcement of the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean will prevent the inevitable loss of the tracks. After all, this particular stretch of coastline has been naturally eroding eastward for thousands of years. Human-induced climate change and rising sea levels, along with sediment flows into the ocean reduced by flood control infrastructure and other factors, are accelerating these natural processes. What is required is to develop a new alignment away from the shoreline, most likely via a bypass tunnel underneath I-5.

The San Clemente bypass megaproject will take years to plan and build so OCTA and Caltrans should begin preparing for it without delay, starting with environmental studies and preliminary designs. The bypass tunnel should be electrified and designed to accommodate increased train capacity and reduced travel time, so as to stimulate more non-highway travel between Los Angeles and San Diego, support regional economic growth, and aid military preparedness.

Both programs – stabilizing the existing tracks and planning the bypass – will need funding through state and federal grants. OCTA should aggressively pursue financing for both projects now since the current window of opportunity for funding must be leveraged before it closes. Competition for funding grants is based on the value of the project: its projected ridership. A passenger rail project’s ridership forecast starts with the existing ridership as a baseline. If current ridership numbers are low because of service issues, a lower future ridership will be projected. This could create a financing shortfall for the planning, design, and construction phases.

To maximize available funding for the rail bypass, strategic planning and investment will be needed to generate high ridership numbers on the existing Surf Line once full service is restored. Bringing passengers back in force means establishing promotional programs, convenient scheduling, and high standards of service excellence and reliability. For California and the nation it is vital that the railroad linking Los Angeles and San Diego be secure and endure for future generations.

[an earlier version of this piece was published in the 1st Quarter 2023 issue of Steel Wheels magazine, and in Voice of OC on December 19, 2022]

Google Earth perspective by RailPAC
Google Earth perspective by RailPAC(marked up by RailPAC) on Metrolink track diagram