SAN CLEMENTE, Calif. — The so-called LOSSAN Rail Corridor connecting Los Angeles, San Diego and San Luis Obispo has had a rough year. Last September, Amtrak and Metrolink service through San Clemente was suspended after coastal erosion moved the track. Then in January, Amtrak temporarily canceled operations in the Santa Barbara area after a winter storm felled trees and prompted concerns about landslides from adjacent slopes.
Now, facing threats of sea level rise, storm surges and continued beach erosion, transportation authorities are considering whether portions of the LOSSAN track should be moved entirely.
“It’s only a matter of time. Mother nature always wins,” U.S. Rep. Mike Levin said Thursday as he stood along a windy stretch of San Clemente State Beach, where a 700-foot section of the LOSSAN corridor is set to fully reopen for Metrolink and Amtrak service next Monday after a $13 million repair.
LOSSAN is the busiest state-supported Amtrak route in the U.S., carrying almost 3 million inter-city passengers and 5 million commuter passengers each year, Levin noted. The rail line also supports $1 billion in goods and services, as well as the Camp Pendleton military base.
“That’s what’s at stake,” Levin said at an event that included Federal Railroad Administrator Amit Bose, Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley and California Sen. Catherine Blakespear. “We know that rising sea levels and stronger storm surges will continue to pummel our coastline. These climate disasters will continue to impact the tracks, and their operation will be at risk unless we take action, not just for the short term but for the long term.”
The state of California has appropriated $300 million to plan and design a relocation project for an 11-mile section of track through Solano Beach that runs along the Del Mar bluff and is subject to coastal erosion. Levin said in the coming days he will request $4 million in federal funding to help support the rail relocation study.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law President Biden signed last year provides $66 billion to the Federal Railroad Administration “to grow a safer and more equitable rail system,” Federal Railroad administrator Amit Bose said at Thursday’s event. “It also gives us the opportunity to safeguard that system against natural events and other effects of climate change.”
The Orange County Board of Supervisors recently voted unanimously to research solutions for the OC portion of the LOSSAN corridor. The two-part study will look at how to protect the rail line in the short term and will also consider longer-term options, such as moving the rail, bringing in sand to replenish eroding beaches and protecting the seawall.
“Human activities are starving the coast of its natural sand,” said University of California-Irvine flood lab director Brett Sanders. “The flood control infrastructure we built to protect inland areas has now blocked the seaward flow of sand for many decades, and the armoring of cliffs up and down the coast further restricts the natural supply of sands to the coast, yet the waves keep washing the sand away from beaches into deeper water.”
Sanders said he and his team have looked at decades of satellite and aerial imagery of the coast to better understand erosion risks due to population, rising sea levels, intense rain, more frequent wildfires and other climate events. While Sanders said it is natural for beaches to widen and narrow, the OC coast reached a tipping point in 2015 that sparked the beginning of a rapid decline he attributed to higher-than-normal sea levels and large swells.
Decades of drought preceding this past winter also contributed to what Sanders called “sand starvation.” Taking action to restore natural levels of sand is now crucial for Southern Orange County beaches that are a main driver of California’s economy and central to its identity, Sanders said.
Whether a portion of the LOSSAN rail track will need to be moved inland, Bose would not say. “We know longer-term solutions are needed,” he said. “But we need to have those studies completed.”