CA: Blakespear asks state to take lead in managing coastal railroad. 'This existing corridor is at risk of critical failures.'

Jan. 23, 2024
More than a half-dozen transit agencies oversee separate pieces of the 351-mile coastal railroad between San Diego, Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo. Each county has its own agency charged with maintaining a section of the vital transportation link.

More than a half-dozen transit agencies oversee separate pieces of the 351-mile coastal railroad between San Diego, Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo. Each county has its own agency charged with maintaining a section of the vital transportation link.

But that fragmented control is a problem, says a state lawmaker who is urging the California State Transportation Agency to take the lead in bringing all the agencies under one umbrella to improve service on the troubled rail line. In recent years, rail service has been buffeted by economic headwinds and a shrinking shoreline from rising seas.

"This existing corridor is at risk of critical failures that threaten service and further loss of ridership," said Sen. Catherine Blakespear, D- Encinitas, who chairs a state Senate subcommittee that held three public hearings with panels of experts in 2023.

Together they examined reports and data collected on issues such as sea-level rise, maintenance problems and declining ridership that plague the so-called LOSSAN corridor. It is San Diego's only railway link with Los Angeles and the rest of the United States.

A formalized partnership among all the agencies using the corridor is needed to achieve its transportation goals, Blakespear and six other subcommittee members said in a letter to the California State Transportation Agency.

The Rail Passenger Association of California agrees, said Brian Yanity, a member of the association's board.

"RailPAC and other like-minded advocacy groups are very much in favor of a stronger state government role in the LOSSAN corridor," Yanity said.

Members of the passengers association participated in two of Blakespear's subcommittee meetings, and the association along with other public transportation advocacy organizations recently sent their own letter to elected officials in support of state leadership for the railroad.

" Southern California passenger rail is in trouble," the letter states.

"Climate change threatens the Amtrak Surfliner, whose coastal tracks in Del Mar and San Clemente are nearly falling into the ocean, causing months-long service cancellations," it states. "Metrolink and Coaster commuter services are seeing low ridership recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic because their schedules do not accommodate convenient travel outside a 9-to-5 workday."

Poor connections to local transit services, fares that vary between services, and trains delayed by equipment issues and freight schedules also are problems, the association said.

Southern California could have one of the best intercity rail services in the United States if trains would run frequently and reliably, it said.

Commuter rail services such as North County Transit District's Coaster and Orange County's Metrolink must become regional services that connect seamlessly with Amtrak and others.

"There are dozens of proposed projects in the works that could reduce travel times, save tracks from erosion, and improve reliability," the passengers association said. "However, responsible agencies have been slow to deliver. Partially, this is due to a lack of an overarching regional vision but in many cases, it is because of fractured infrastructure ownership between several county agencies."

An Amtrak inspector general's report in 2021 lamented the lack of cooperation among LOSSAN agencies, noting Amtrak should have been better informed after at least six bluff failures since 2018 had caused temporary closures and speed restrictions in the Del Mar area just north of San Diego.

Independent agencies and transportation services responsible for the tracks include the NCTD, the Orange County Transportation Authority, BNSF freight lines, Amtrak and others. The LOSSAN board also includes representatives of transit agencies in Riverside, Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

"We ask that CalSTA (the State Transportation Agency) identify where future legislative action may be necessary ... to effectively manage the rail corridor and ensure all stakeholders are working together toward a shared vision," states the letter from Blakespear's subcommittee to the state agency.

CalSTA is reviewing the letter and will continue to work with the Legislature and other stakeholders on solutions to support the corridor, Marty Greenstein, the agency's assistant deputy secretary for communications, said in an email Tuesday.

"CalSTA has convened a LOSSAN working group to support corridor-wide coordination to identify and quickly respond to emerging issues and opportunities to improve service on the nation's second-busiest intercity rail corridor," Greenstein said.

The working group includes elected officials, transportation leaders and stakeholders representing the entire length of the 351-mile, six-county rail corridor. They met Oct. 10 in San Diego and will meet again later this month.

The working group is separat, but complementary to the work by Blakespear's Senate Transportation Subcommittee on LOSSAN Rail Corridor Resiliency, Greenstein said.

The rail corridor carried 8.3 million passengers at its peak in 2019 before the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It carried fewer than 4 million in 2023.

The Senate subcommittee found that the return of riders has been hampered by a lack of coordinated support for the corridor and by lengthy track closures needed to repair crumbling coastal bluffs and hillsides.

"I appreciate Sen. Blakespear's leadership highlighting the importance of the LOSSAN corridor as a vital piece of the state's transportation network, the challenges the corridor faces, and the need for increased support and collaboration across agencies," said Solana Beach Councilmember Jewel Edson, chair of the LOSSAN and NCTD boards, in an email last week.

"Whether in San Diego, San Clemente or Santa Barbara, the critical needs of the entire corridor require a coordinated, state-level response to ensure the resiliency of this essential infrastructure," Edson said.

"The LOSSAN rail corridor is a critical rail lifeline for freight goods, as well as for commuters and visitors looking to enjoy climate-friendly ways to travel the coast between San Diego, Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo," said Sen. Toni Atkins D- San Diego, one of the subcommittee members, in a news release.

"We urgently need to develop a unified vision that will allow the rail corridor — which is critical to our regional economy and national security — to better serve the communities it connects and protect it from the impacts of sea-level rise," Atkins said.

Last year, Atkins helped secure $300 million in the state budget to plan the proposed rerouting of about 1.7 miles of the railroad off the seaside bluffs in Del Mar.

"If we're serious about fighting climate change and improving public transportation options, we need to invest time and resources into this existing rail corridor," Blakespear said.

"The LOSSAN corridor has the potential to offer substantially more train service to more people," Blakespear said. "Declining ridership from infrequent or inconvenient train times, and lack of reliability due to track closures, is a major problem that deserves our urgent attention."

Rep. Mike Levin, D- San Juan Capistrano, also has directed funding toward LOSSAN projects.

He joined Atkins, Blakespear and other North County elected officials in April 2023 to announce a $100 million grant from the state's Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program to advance the replacement of a 107-year-old bridge in Del Mar, add 0.9 mile of double track in the area, and construct a special events platform at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

Levin also has backed projects such as rerouting the train tracks off the eroding bluffs in Del Mar, and sand replenishment to protect the railroad along the beach in San Clemente.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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