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Amtrak is flying blind on crumbling Del Mar bluffs, auditor finds

Pacific Surfliner operator hit for failing to engage in California talks

Feb. 28, 2021 bluff collapse at Del Mar
Feb. 28, 2021 bluff collapse at Del Mar

As the failing bluffs at Del Mar play havoc with passenger and freight rail service, officials of taxpayer-subsidized Amtrak, otherwise known as the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, have been chronic no-shows at discussions to fix the problem.

"Since 2018, at least six bluff failures have occurred in the Del Mar Bluffs area just north of San Diego, California, resulting in temporary closures on the railroad tracks that traverse the area and speed restrictions on Amtrak's high-volume Pacific Surfliner route 1."

Track repairs after erosion in San Clemente

That's per a December 6 memo from Assistant Inspector General Jim Morrison to Amtrak executive vice president and chief operations officer Scot Naparstek calling out Amtrak's lack of engagement during the crisis.

"The most recent failure occurred in February 2021, when a 60-foot seawall collapsed at the base of 1.7-mile-long section of the tracks that run along the bluffs."

"Also, in late September 2021, coastal erosion and high tides caused the railroad tracks near San Clemente, California to shift 14 inches, leading to a 3-week partial shut-down of the Pacific Surfliner."

Yet despite the burgeoning crisis and threats to future service, Amtrak officials have remained above the fray and not "engaged in broader forums to discuss...the conditions and work along the bluffs."

"For example, after a major bluff slide in late 2019, the California State Transportation Agency organized a year-long effort to examine short- and long-term bluff stabilization issues that included more than 70 participants."

Amtrak, "the largest passenger operator on the bluffs," the report says, "did not participate."

"A follow-on study began in the summer of 2020 to analyze alternative route alignments, compare the benefits and costs in terms of safety, ridership, and speed, and assess impacts on service plans,

Amtrak, according to the audit, "is not participating in these discussions either, although any decisions to realign the route could affect the company's service plans and its revenue/ridership."

Notes the document, "Because the company has not been actively participating in ongoing working groups or discussions with stakeholders about these and other issues along the Pacific Surfliner route, it may not be receiving the most current information on the conditions, mitigation plans, and short- and long-term actions under consideration."

"Without current information on these efforts, the company may not be well-positioned to determine when circumstances warrant additional company actions. "

In a December 2, 2021, response to the audit's preliminary findings, Amtrak chief Scot Naparstek pledged a change of course.

"Effective immediately, the Executive Vice President/Chief Operations Officer has mandated that an Amtrak representative from the Operations Department will participate in ongoing discussions with stakeholders about evolving coastal conditions, short and long-term remediation efforts, and potential realignment of the Pacific Surfliner route."

"Amtrak is confident that the measures outlined here," the memo continued, "address the [Inspector General's] considerations and support Amtrak's proactive risk management strategy."

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Feb. 28, 2021 bluff collapse at Del Mar
Feb. 28, 2021 bluff collapse at Del Mar

As the failing bluffs at Del Mar play havoc with passenger and freight rail service, officials of taxpayer-subsidized Amtrak, otherwise known as the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, have been chronic no-shows at discussions to fix the problem.

"Since 2018, at least six bluff failures have occurred in the Del Mar Bluffs area just north of San Diego, California, resulting in temporary closures on the railroad tracks that traverse the area and speed restrictions on Amtrak's high-volume Pacific Surfliner route 1."

Track repairs after erosion in San Clemente

That's per a December 6 memo from Assistant Inspector General Jim Morrison to Amtrak executive vice president and chief operations officer Scot Naparstek calling out Amtrak's lack of engagement during the crisis.

"The most recent failure occurred in February 2021, when a 60-foot seawall collapsed at the base of 1.7-mile-long section of the tracks that run along the bluffs."

"Also, in late September 2021, coastal erosion and high tides caused the railroad tracks near San Clemente, California to shift 14 inches, leading to a 3-week partial shut-down of the Pacific Surfliner."

Yet despite the burgeoning crisis and threats to future service, Amtrak officials have remained above the fray and not "engaged in broader forums to discuss...the conditions and work along the bluffs."

"For example, after a major bluff slide in late 2019, the California State Transportation Agency organized a year-long effort to examine short- and long-term bluff stabilization issues that included more than 70 participants."

Amtrak, "the largest passenger operator on the bluffs," the report says, "did not participate."

"A follow-on study began in the summer of 2020 to analyze alternative route alignments, compare the benefits and costs in terms of safety, ridership, and speed, and assess impacts on service plans,

Amtrak, according to the audit, "is not participating in these discussions either, although any decisions to realign the route could affect the company's service plans and its revenue/ridership."

Notes the document, "Because the company has not been actively participating in ongoing working groups or discussions with stakeholders about these and other issues along the Pacific Surfliner route, it may not be receiving the most current information on the conditions, mitigation plans, and short- and long-term actions under consideration."

"Without current information on these efforts, the company may not be well-positioned to determine when circumstances warrant additional company actions. "

In a December 2, 2021, response to the audit's preliminary findings, Amtrak chief Scot Naparstek pledged a change of course.

"Effective immediately, the Executive Vice President/Chief Operations Officer has mandated that an Amtrak representative from the Operations Department will participate in ongoing discussions with stakeholders about evolving coastal conditions, short and long-term remediation efforts, and potential realignment of the Pacific Surfliner route."

"Amtrak is confident that the measures outlined here," the memo continued, "address the [Inspector General's] considerations and support Amtrak's proactive risk management strategy."

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Comments
4

Amtrak's 21st Century Management Handbook Update (see 20th Century Handbook -- no changes.) If we don't go to informational meetings about the status of eroding earth along cliffside Del Mar railroad tracks, we won't have to acknowledge formally that there's a big problem for all passenger train operations on the entire West Coast or that San Diego train connection to the rest of the state is frequently severed at short notice for long periods.

Jan. 16, 2022

Like most of our foot draggers in the Senate, greed rules the RR not logic!

IF they participate in meetings then they have to respond to questions which they do not want to do… so they don’t attend; in effect thumbing their nose at us.

Rather than screw up the fragile Del Mar bluff, they should be planning on not using this line for freight. since very little is shipped by rail from LA.

Instead upgrading their coastal rail system they should be planning to phase out their coastal freight line and build a better rail link (high speed) between the Salton Sea area and SD. This would open the East County and Salton Sea area for new development as well as a more robust railway in and out of San Diego as well as Baja CA.

PLAN AHEAD Stop this planning to screwup the Del Mar bluffs

Jan. 18, 2022

I think they instead need a passenger train from SD to Palm Springs (or nearby). There are no scheduled plane flights between the two, and that makes no sense. The Salton Sea toxic stew still needs to be cleaned up, and that will take years and $billions.

Jan. 20, 2022

The route, including the stretch through Del Mar is very busy. There are only two alternatives to moving freight into and out of San Diego/Tijuana would be the already-overburdened freeways or the eastern rail link. There is more shipped from LA than you think. Automobiles, including some of the output from the Toyota truck factory east of TJ, travel by rail in autorack cars. There's a waterfront operation that unloads vehicles from ships and then adds some, meaning those autoracks travel filled in both directions. The building industry depends on rail for lumber and other building commodities. TJ can't operate without cement, building steel. LP gas or a number of other commodities that come in by rail from the north. The Mexican highways could never handle the truck traffic necessary to supply that city.

While it is true that Amtrak should be at those meetings that have to do with track maintenance, keep in mind that the owner(s) of the rails are responsible for keeping them open and safe. That's NCTD in this case, and if the line were severed north of Del Mar, Amtrak would just stop coming all the way into SD. One reason for all the passenger trains is that they are supported by the state; CalTrans has much to do with the frequency of the trains in state. And one large beneficiary of that support has been the dozen Pacific Surfliners in each direction each day. Severing the line at Del Mar would also be the end of the Coaster and put many more No County commuters on I-5 just when it is at its busiest. The opponents of rails on the bluffs in DM need to put their considerable influence and resources to work getting the rails relocated. And the sooner the better for all concerned.

Jan. 24, 2022

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