The Honorable Catherine Blakespear
California State Senate, 38th District
Chair, Subcommittee on LOSSAN Rail Corridor Resiliency
State Capitol, Room 405
Sacramento, CA 95814
July 20, 2023
Subject: Please support the San Clemente inland bypass for the LOSSAN Rail Corridor
Dear Senator Blakespear,
The Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada (RailPAC) is an all-volunteer non-profit passenger rail advocacy group representing the interests of rail passengers since 1978. RailPAC is willing to be available to your staff as a resource on rail transportation issues.
RailPAC appreciates the strong leadership that you have shown for passenger rail and public transportation in Southern California through the creation of the Subcommittee on LOSSAN Rail Corridor Resiliency. This letter provides RailPAC’s recent comments to the LOSSAN Board of Directors on the issues concerning the dire threat to rail service in Orange County and their remediation.
The San Clemente emergency
There has been no passenger rail service connecting Orange and San Diego counties for a total of eight of the past twelve months. RailPAC is grateful for the hard work of the construction crews and public agency staff, with line scheduled to be reopened this week [Monday 7/17]. We should all be very proud of this accomplishment. However, going forward we cannot afford to skimp on protection for the 2nd busiest intercity passenger rail corridor in the US. The LOSSAN Agency, along with OCTA, Metrolink, Amtrak and BNSF Railway, need to push back on California Coastal Commission’s requirement to soon remove the protective wall which we just built.
Last week I gave public comment at the July 12th meeting of the California Coastal Commission, held at the Newport Beach City Council chambers, which I would like to share in part with you:
“RailPAC is in full support of all actions necessary to preserve & protect the vital rail line between Los Angeles & San Diego, or LOSSAN line. …When the track is closed, the San Diego-Tijuana bi-national metro area (population 5 million), and the principal mainland port of the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet, lacks a railroad connection with the rest of North America. Just this one landslide at Casa Romantica has resulted in noticeably more traffic congestion on I-5 between Orange and San Diego counties over the past couple of months.
The California Coastal Commission South Coast District Office recently issued an Emergency Coastal Development Permit (I presume to OCTA, correct me if I am wrong) for construction of the railroad track protection wall in San Clemente. This permit is conditioned that the wall is a temporary barrier, and will be removed after the City of San Clemente stabilizes the slope and completes work on the Casa Romantica property above the railroad right-of-way. This pretty much means we are going to spend a lot of money to remove a wall that we just built. It would again expose the track to unnecessary risk. After all, slope failure at this particular location has shut the line down not once but twice since April. Work was done to stabilize the slope in May, that was supposed to fix the problem, but the track was open for only a week before the hill failed again and closed the track on June 5. Passenger service was again shut down for over a month. Thankfully due to the heroic work of the construction crews building the wall, passenger trains can resume.
Please allow the retaining wall to stay, at its current height.”
RailPAC commends the efforts of OCTA, Metrolink and their partners as stewards of this vital regional, state and national asset, to repair and reinforce the slopes above the tracks. However no amount of reinforcement of the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean will prevent the inevitable loss of the tracks. The stretch of coastline through southern Orange County has been naturally eroding eastward for thousands of years. Even if it takes fifty years before the tracks are completely gone
, we need to start planning alternative routings now. A new alignment away from the shoreline is needed, optimally via a bypass tunnel beneath I-5.
The San Clemente bypass megaproject (and clearly it is a megaproject) will take years to plan and build. So concurrent with near-term repairs and stabilization, OCTA, SCRRA, the LOSSAN agency, and NCTD also need to work with Caltrans, Amtrak, BNSF Railway and other stakeholders as a consortium to support a study of environmental and preliminary designs of San Clemente inland bypass options. A strategic infrastructure project of this scale is beyond the capabilities of any particular county or agency. The state government needs to take a more leading role on LOSSAN, and Caltrans must get behind relocation of the track around San Clemente. The creation of a special agency to design and build this rail bypass should be considered.
The good news is that some studies have already been done. The 2003 Caltrans LOSSAN strategic plan and 2009 LOSSAN Program EIR/EIS Record of Decision by the Federal Railroad Administration, previously evaluated inland bypass track relocation options in San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano. Going under I-5 would minimize impacts to the surrounding community by mitigating the complexity of dealing with hundreds of individual landowners instead of just one (Caltrans). Given the vulnerabilities of the existing line through San Clemente, it is critically important that engineering design and environmental studies of the San Clemente bypass alongside or underneath I-5 be resumed. Actually the entire 14- mile stretch from north of San Juan Capistrano to San Onofre should be included in studies for a stable and efficient double track railroad through southern Orange County.
OCTA and its partners must move with urgency in identifying the recommended option, environmental planning, funding strategy and 30% design for the San Juan Capistrano/San Clemente Bypass Tunnel. The planning and design now underway for the Del Mar bypass tunnel in San Diego County is an example to follow.
Some near-term actions to focus on, as described by Paul Dyson in the enclosed issue of Steel Wheels:
1. Make sure the long-term portion of the current study (second opinion) is
2. Commitment by Caltrans at the highest level (perhaps an MOU) for use of the
I-5 right-of-way for the tunnel:
– Gets the local Caltrans District 12 on-board with full cooperation
– MOU provides direction to the local District 12 to focus on solutions not the
3. Explore with the legislature a categorical exclusion for this project;
4. In conjunction with the long-term part of the current OCTA studies, begin
some minimal cost pre-construction activities:
– Collection of all the information the Caltrans District has about the I-5 ROW
Laguna Niguel to Basilone Road (just south of San Clemente)
– Utility location
– At a high-level, more clearly define properties in the transition locations.
5. Some initial test borings.
The Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo (LOSSAN) Rail Corridor is the busiest in the State and second busiest in the nation. However, total passenger ridership from the three services (Amtrak Pacific Surfliner, Coaster and Metrolink) on the LOSSAN Corridor is often less than 10,000 per day- way below the potential that a megaregion with a population greater than 20 million could support. Since RailPAC and other groups successfully campaigned for the expansion of service in the 1980s, progress has been painfully slow. While the number of trains has increased, infrastructure improvements lag behind resulting in poor punctuality and reliability. Journey times have not improved since the 1960s.
Even with an inland bypass track, the existing track from San Juan Capistrano to at least San Clemente Pier should be preserved as long as possible for a ‘local service’ option from Laguna Niguel to San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente Pier using lighter rail vehicles. Throughout the lengthy phases of design and construction of the bypass, attention must remain focused on the existing route to meet post-pandemic travel demands through initiatives to grow ridership and create schedule flexibility. For starters, construction on the planned Serra Siding Extension in Dana Point also needs to move forward in the near term.
In consideration of route capacity, California needs to build an entirely double-tracked railway between Los Angeles and San Diego including Orange County. The pre-pandemic service level of 13 Surfliner round trips, plus Metrolink and BNSF trains, challenged the capacity of the single-track railroad through the Dana Point and San Clemente coastal region. In twenty years, anticipated demand will require capacity for50 Pacific Surfliner trains each way. The beachside chokepoint will have to be replaced by a rerouting that maximizes capacity by double-tracking and an alignment that reduces travel time.
Expanding capacity along this segment of the LOSSAN corridor will eliminate the need to invest in more freeway lanes between LA and San Diego. It will help reduce air pollution and road wear from truck and car traffic on parallel I-5. It will also upgrade a vital freight route that supports the regional and national economy. It is worth noting that a billion dollars’ worth of freight gets shipped via the corridor each year, much of it connected to international trade through the Port of San Diego. As part of the U.S. military’s Strategic Rail Corridor Network the railway is a national security asset critical to military preparedness.
A San Clemente rail bypass tunnel is infrastructure that would last over a century, paying for itself over many decades. The long-term cost of losing the LA-San Diego rail link is substantially greater than the cost of building a tunnel. Given the national and statewide importance of the corridor, it is critical that the Orange County rail bypass be assigned the highest priority. Funding for a project of this magnitude should come from government agencies at every level, the military, and also from commercial interests who stand to profit from an efficient and reliable rail connection. For California and the nation it is vital that the railroad linking Los Angeles and San Diego be secure, enduring for future generations.
Enclosed is the 2nd quarter 2023 issue of RailPAC’s magazine Steel Wheels, which discusses LOSSAN and the San Clemente bypass on pages 4, A-2 and A-3. Below is a conceptual map and track diagram of a San Clemente bypass tunnel, from a recent article on the RailPAC website. Thank you for your consideration.
Vice President- South and Board Member, RailPAC