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Halt to train service through San Clemente is indefinite following new landslide

Transportation and city officials are again grappling with a landslide that sent debris onto railroad tracks in San Clemente, shutting down the rail line indefinitely.

It’s been a recurring issue in recent years that has decision-makers wondering what to do about the vulnerable section of coastal train tracks. This landslide has also indefinitely disabled the town’s popular coastal trail.

The worsening of a landslide Wednesday, Jan. 24, has caused so much damage to the Mariposa Bridge it is “precariously hanging over the tracks and must be removed as soon as possible,” Councilman Chris Duncan said Thursday morning. “The bridge is beyond repair.”

Passengers and commuters, meanwhile, were left without train service through the affected area, about half a mile from the San Clemente Pier. Metrolink and Amtrak had to cancel trains Wednesday evening, offering commuters vouchers to take ride-sharing services or a bus ride to bridge the gap.

There is no word on how long the service will be interrupted by the latest landslide. Trains will only operate as far south as the Laguna Niguel/Mission Viejo station until further notice, according to a news alert by Metrolink.

There were no signs posted or officials on site at the nearby North Beach station early Thursday morning letting people know of the train service cancelation.



Metrolink is unable to secure enough shuttles or buses to provide alternative transportation from San Juan Capistrano, San Clemente or Oceanside, said Metrolink spokesperson Scott Johnson.

An estimated 500 passengers either board or disembark Metrolink trains at the San Juan Capistrano, San Clemente and Oceanside stations. On weekdays, an estimated 14 trains operate through the section, with Amtrak running 10 northbound and 10 southbound trains, Johnson said.

Amtrack’s Pacific Surfliner canceled some trains Thursday and offered a bus bridge in some cases.

Metrolink’s engineering team and track department were on site Thursday to assess the situation to “try and determine how to safely remove the debris on the right of way without triggering additional landslides,” Johnson said.

It’s not the first time this spot has had trouble with movement of the hillside, a landslide in 2019 closed the Mariposa Bridge, shutting off access along San Clemente’s popular 2.3-mile coastal beach trail on the north end of town for months. Another closed the trail again in December.

More hillside movement prompted the city to close the bridge last week for safety reasons  and city officials were already coordinating with the private property owner above the landslide and geologists, according to the city.

“It’s been coming down the hill and hitting the bridge. the bridge has been holding it up, basically. Now that the bridge is so destabilized, it has gotten through and washed down onto the tracks,” Duncan said.

The landslide is the latest in a series of slope failures in the beach town the past three years, first on the south end of the city in 2022 with a track closure that lasted months and required $13.7 million in Orange County Transit Authority and state funds to secure the hillside at Cyprus Shores. A landslide in April at the historic Casa Romantica required $8.5 million in city funds to stabilize and is still being monitored carefully as recent storms have soaked the slide area. The tracks were closed at that section for months until a wall was built to protect them.

Another landslide in North Beach a year ago sent residents fleeing from their homes – some were red-tagged temporarily – but the failure was far enough from the tracks to not impact train service.

“This is going to be our life, we are going to have these challenges. we are going to have to be very clear-eyed about the fact that these bluff failures and the loss of beach sand and coastal erosion is something we will have to continually deal with,” Duncan said, calling on federal, state, county and city officials to come together to come up with a solution. “It will need to be an all-hands-on-deck approach.”

A long-term fix to the bridge were in the city’s plans, but those funds were used to repair the city-owned Casa Romantica and stabilize the hillside there.

“It’s a good thing we hadn’t repaired the bridge,” Duncan noted.  “If we had done the repair we planned, we would have repaired a bridge that then got damaged by this slide.”

Short-term, the area is likely going to need some sort of retaining wall, Duncan said.

Congressman Mike Levin was scheduled on Thursday to host a train ride to announce new federal funding to study vulnerable sections of the LOSSAN rail corridor, with plans to travel from Oceanside to Los Angeles. With the train route shut down, Levin pivoted to visiting the landslide site instead.

The Orange County Transportation Authority owns the tracks, while Metrolink maintains the right-of-way infrastructure.

“We 100% see this as a vital corridor, not only for Metrolink service, but Amtrak Pacific Surfliner and BNSF Railway, who provide the freight service connections,” Johnson said. “At the same time, there are discussions among local, state and federal partners as to the future of the right-of-way, however there is no definitive plan in place.”

The OCTA has two studies underway, one for short-term fixes to vulnerable areas, another to explore longer-term solutions.

The Orange County Transportation Authority already in 2021 completed a study assessing how future climate change could affect the Orange County rail corridor, especially along the 7-mile section that runs along the coast in Dana Point through San Clemente and down to Oceanside.

Slope failure and erosion were addressed, with the study looking at changing precipitation patterns as well as changing coastal storm patterns that can affect erosion and increase the likelihood of slopes being unstable.

The Mariposa Bridge was identified as among the most exposed sections of tracks.

The OCTA explored relocation of the train inland to run along the 5-freeway in its climate change assessment, though that option would come with a price tag in the billions of dollars, the study says. The two-segment rail tunnel looked at could be built along Interstate 5 from San Onofre State Beach to Avenida Aeropuerto in San Juan Capistrano for an estimated $5.9 billion.

Studies underway now are looking at relocation and other options.

“We all need to develop a plan to address this proactively, so we are not playing defense. That has not happened before – this is relatively new that we have gotten these kind of landslide on a recurring basis,” Duncan said. “We’re going to need to take a more forward-looking approach, or we will keep finding ourselves in these situations.”

Source: Orange County Register

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