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

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. Train service through southern Orange County has been temporarily suspended because of the instability of the land beneath the tracks.  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.

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.  But until repairs are completed, the San Diego-Tijuana bi-national metro area (population 5 million) will lack any rail connection with the rest of North America. 

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 begun this project to restore train service as before.  It is expected to take until February at the earliest before Amtrak and Metrolink can resume full service along this section.

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 Voice of OC on December 19, 2022]

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