A multi-day atmospheric river of rain is pummeling the California coast, where debris from a hillside fell onto the railroad tracks about a half-mile north of the San Clemente Pier station on Jan. 24, cutting off a major Amtrak and commuter rail line between Los Angeles and San Diego for the fifth time in three years.
Authorities say there is no timeline for when passenger service will resume, as California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for eight Southern California counties on Sunday.
Amtrak is currently operating a limited schedule on the southern portion of the route from San Diego to Oceanside, California, and on the northern portion as far as Irvine or San Juan Capistrano in Orange County. Some trains include a bus connection to give passengers a through-route along the line. Metrolink commuter trains are only operating as far south as the Laguna Niguel/Mission Viejo Station as of today.
The repeated service interruptions are hurting ridership. Amtrak’s popular Pacific Surfliner route that connects San Diego with Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo carried more than 2.7 million passengers in 2019. But last May, during one of the previous closures, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that ridership had dropped to between 40% and 50% of pre-pandemic levels after recovering to about 75% of earlier ridership.
Sea-level rise has accelerated coastal erosion in San Clemente, weakening the base of the bluffs overlooking the more than 125-year-old rail line. Some beaches in the Southern California city have shrunk more than one foot and up to more than five feet every year between 2001 and 2022, according to a June 2023 report prepared for the city. In late 2022, workers had to repair tracks that had slipped more than 2 feet toward the ocean due to erosion.
According to the Orange County Transportation Authority, crews have protected the most storm-affected site along the tracks by placing plastic tarps and improving drainage in the San Clemente, California, area where the rail line follows the Pacific coast.
OCTA and Metrolink are planning long-term solutions. They announced on Friday that they would build a barrier wall to protect the recently affected tracks in San Clemente from unstable land near a pedestrian bridge, using $10 million in emergency funding from the California Department of Transportation. OCTA is also studying ways to protect the rail line along about seven miles of the Orange County coast for the next 30 years and said it is working with federal, state and local authorities on longer-term solutions.