CA: Legislators move to give more power to the state in managing local rail service

Feb. 15, 2024
On the heels of yet another landslide-induced track closure in San Clemente, newly proposed legislation would have the state take the lead in managing the Los Angeles–San Luis Obispo–San Diego rail corridor, a 351-mile stretch of train tracks from San Luis Obispo to San Diego. 

On the heels of yet another landslide-induced track closure in San Clemente, newly proposed legislation would have the state take the lead in managing the Los Angeles–San Luis Obispo–San Diego rail corridor, a 351-mile stretch of train tracks from San Luis Obispo to San Diego. 

To improve service and prevent frequent track closures along the coast, legislators believe there needs to be direction regarding what would most benefit the LOSSAN rail corridor coming from the state level. Currently, the corridor is managed by the LOSSAN Agency, a joint-powers authority staffed by the Orange County Transportation Authority.

“We cannot continue to plan for this regional transportation infrastructure as we’ve been doing,” said Sen. Catherine Blakespear, who authored the legislation. “We cannot accept that track closures and service disruptions are a regular part of operating rail service in Southern California.”

The legislation would grant power to the state’s transportation secretary to lead “all necessary coordination, collaboration and intervention when necessary” among the nearly one dozen organizations that have a stake in the LOSSAN rail corridor, including railroad owners, transit agencies, planning agencies and freight operators.

While the corridor is controlled locally, the California State Transportation Agency recently convened a working group of stakeholders for opportunities to improve service, according to CalSTA.

The legislation would also require the state secretary of transportation, in tandem with the California Department of Transportation, to compile specific plans that could improve rail services for passengers and freight as well as ensure safe and continued train service.

The state secretary of transportation would need to report back to the legislature regarding the management of the LOSSAN rail corridor every two years starting in 2027.

Now, when there’s an issue with the tracks, such as closures induced by a natural disaster, the stakeholders in the area where the tracks are faulty are responsible for working together to mitigate that issue, said Metrolink spokesperson Scott Johnson.

A spokesperson for CalSTA said the agency does not comment on pending legislation.

In Orange County, landslides have repeatedly shuttered the track in San Clemente, where the train runs along the coast. In January, another landslide sent debris onto the railroad tracks, shutting down the rail line for about a 34-mile stretch indefinitely.

As of Tuesday, Feb. 13, the OCTA said passenger service remains stopped in the area.

“These challenges are simply too large for any one local agency to solve on its own,” said Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton. “It’s clear at this point that there must be a more active effort at the state level in shaping the LOSSAN rail corridor’s future.”

Assemblymember Laurie Davies, R-Laguna Niguel, said, “The status quo is not working for the rail, passengers and residents.”

Blakespear’s bill, which comes just before the deadline to introduce bills this session, would also require the four metropolitan planning organizations in the corridor — San Luis Obispo Council of Governments, Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, Southern California Association of Governments and San Diego Association of Governments — to come up with recommendations to improve rail service and reduce disruptions and present that to the legislature by 2026.

Blakespear and several state legislators earlier this year asked for increased state leadership in managing the LOSSAN rail corridor, stating that “the corridor cannot provide the level of service needed to attract and retain ridership while facing prolonged track closures, unreliable service, infrequent trains and poor rider experience.”

While the LOSSAN rail corridor once completed more than 8.3 million passenger trips at its peak in 2019, it is now making fewer than 4 million trips annually, according to Blakespear’s office.

“The LOSSAN corridor is … a central part of Southern California in achieving its air quality and mobility goals. It could be a central component of shifting California away from its car dependency,” Blakespear said. “The success of the corridor relies on both state and local action.”

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