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Claim: ‘Climate Change Is Keeping an Amtrak Train from Running On Time’ – ‘More intense storms are contributing to faster erosion’

By Jared Brey

Two or three times a week for the last decade or so, Susan Forsburg, a molecular biologist at the University of Southern California, has taken the train from her home in San Diego to her lab in Los Angeles and back again. The line she rides is Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner. It’s about a two-and-a-quarter-hour trip one way; it’s comfortable; it has Wi-Fi so she can get work done during the commute; and “Oh my god, yes, it’s better than driving,” Forsburg says.

A self-professed nerd, she’s spent so much time walking through Union Station, where she catches the train in L.A., that she can tell what model of locomotive is idling on the rails just by listening to it hum.

So it was stress-inducing but not entirely unexpected when Amtrak announced late last month that it was suspending service indefinitely on a portion of the Surfliner between San Diego and Irvine, Calif., because of some dangerous conditions on the tracks near San Clemente.

The issue isn’t new. At several points along the Surfliner’s route, the tracks run right up to the edge of the coastal cliffs, giving riders dramatic views of the Pacific Ocean, but leaving the tracks vulnerable to instability and slippage as the cliffs slowly erode. Service was disrupted for three weeks last September while the tracks were stabilized after heavy storms.

More intense storms are contributing to faster erosion at the cliffs’ edges, and bigger waves on the rising seas are chipping away at them from below. Over the years, local authorities and rail-service operators have completed a series of projects meant to keep passenger and freight trains from slipping into the sea.

The projects — including measures as crude as dumping big rocks directly onto the beaches below the cliffs to help stabilize the tracks — tend to work until they don’t, and then it’s time to do another one. Various state and local authorities and a handful of transit agencies have been working on a long-term solution for the tracks. But while they plan, people and freight have to keep moving along the corridor, which is one of the busiest in the U.S.

A Surfliner train by Amtrak travels along the collapsing bluffs in Del Mar.
John Gibbins/TNS

Emergency Work Underway

Earlier this week, the Orange County Transportation Authority held a special meeting and announced it was going to begin emergency work on the portion of track that had become unstable. According to OCTA, geologists monitoring the area after a storm surge in September found that the track was moving between 0.01 inches and 0.04 inches per day.

“In the greater spectrum of landslides, it’s slow movement,” says Eric Stevens, a district supervisor with the California Coastal Commission, which oversees land use along the California coastline. “But any movement is bad.”

When service was disrupted near San Clemente last year, OCTA dumped 18,000 tons of rocks on the beach side of the track to help stabilize the railbed. This time, OCTA says it’s planning to drive “large metal anchors into about 700 feet of the slope adjacent to the railroad track to prevent it from pushing the track further toward the coast.” The agency acknowledges that’s a temporary solution too, in light of the compounding challenges of climate change, but says it’s critical to keep the service safe in the short term.

“The environmental problems that created this emergency situation are not going away as coastal sand disappears and the ocean waters move closer to valuable infrastructure, including homes, roadways and the rail lines,” Eric Carpenter, an OCTA spokesperson, says in an email. “The long-term solutions are not easy, would take many years of planning and will be expensive.”