CA: Soil movement increased with latest storm at San Clemente landslide

Feb. 7, 2024
In the 24 hours leading up to Tuesday afternoon, Metrolink’s project team measured a foot and a half to 3 feet of hillside movement and was reporting debris from the hillside nearing the train track’s right-of-way.

In the latest landslide area of San Clemente, soil movement has increased during the recent storm, threating to land on the railroad tracks by the evening, according to Metrolink spokesman Scott Johnson.

The slipping slopes have halted passenger train service through the town for nearly two weeks; the Mariposa Bridge over the city’s popular beach trail was also damaged and a section had to be removed.

Because of the slope movement Tuesday, Metrolink has advised freight train operators still using the tracks during evening and early-morning hours that no train movement was possible.

An engineering team has installed an array of sensors to confirm ongoing soil movement, which has increased during the storms, Johnson said.

In the 24 hours leading up to Tuesday afternoon, Metrolink’s project team measured a foot and a half to 3 feet of hillside movement and was reporting debris from the hillside nearing the train track’s right-of-way.

The soil and debris was expected to reach the tracks by early Tuesday evening. Metrolink’s operations team informed BNSF Railway that no train movement will be possible at night and additional assessments and inspections will take place Wednesday to determine the status of the rail and right-of-way.

Metrolink staff members continue to work on planning for a barrier wall and other solutions to protect the right of way.

“Over the past two weeks, Metrolink’s track department and project team have continued to monitor and inspect the affected hillside in collaboration with the city of San Clemente and the private property owners (and) as the second round of heavy rains entered Southern California Sunday,” he said in an email update.

There has been no active construction or grading taking place on the hillside during the rain, he noted.

Mike Laubach, who lives in the condominium complex just above the latest landslide, said the residents have been concerned about the heavy rain falling this week.

“We’re watching it,” he said. “But what we see is really not much, because everything is covered in plastic and we can’t see anything beyond the edge of the bluff. You can’t see below.”

Homeowners in the seven-unit complex are planning on meeting with the city on Wednesday about plans moving forward, he said.

The Orange County Transportation Authority, which owns the railroad, last week announced plans for the retaining wall to help hold back the slide so rail service isn’t affected.

While their building seems to be safe, according to the HOA’s engineer, water is making its way into their garage, Laubach said.

“It’s seeping into the garage, it’s going into some of the areas we’ve never seen it below,” he said.  “The dirt is filling up with so much water, it’s now seeping into the garage. I’ve been here 13 years, that’s never happened.”

With the hillsides soaked and vulnerable, some area residents are concerned as large freight trains continued to pass through the area earlier in the week.

Resident Garth Taylor said he’s seen multiple, mile-long freight trains go through the area each night and worries vibrations could damage the slope.

“In spite of its slow speed, the bridge was vibrating and rattling under foot,” he said. “It made me wonder if there is any relation between the vibrations of passing trains and loosening the soil on the bluffs.”

BNSF officials said in a statement the trains that have been moving through the area were carrying freight of all kinds including automobiles going to and from the San Diego Port and local area. “Tracks are inspected by Metrolink.”

Johnson said freight and passenger rail have been operating on the track since the right-of-way was originally constructed in the late 1880s. OCTA acquired this portion of the tracks in 1993, but the freight operators BNSF Railway retain track rights.

Hillside movement has been occurring when there is little or no rail movement, Johnson said.

Rep. Mike Levin said he has been communication with OCTA about the landslide in San Clemente and the “importance of fully reopening that section of the LOSSAN corridor as quickly and safely as possible.”

“I’m confident that OCTA will take the appropriate precautions when determining the usability of the tracks and resuming freight train service, but we need long-term solutions,” he said. “The longer the corridor is out of service, the greater the impact this landslide will have on our region.”

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