Expanding landslide still threatens San Diego railroad connection

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Trains remain suspended as experts evaluate San Clemente slope to determine extent of problem and possible fixes

Local officials examine a landslide Friday at Casa Romantica in San Clemente (Phil Diehl)

By Phil Diehl April 28, 2023 5:34 PM PT

A hillside continued to slide Friday above the railroad tracks at San Clemente, where a day earlier concerned transit officials suspended all passenger and freight train traffic on the only link between Orange and San Diego counties.

The new and possibly lengthy shutdown comes less than two weeks after full service resumed following a nearly six-month suspension of passenger trains caused by a different landslide two miles away. It is the third lengthy disruption of service in the area since 2021.

The latest slide originated at the back patio of the Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens, a 1920s-era estate owned by the city of San Clemente since the 1980s and used for special events such as weddings and festivals. Built by the city’s founder, Ole Hanson, the hilltop location overlooking the tracks and the municipal pier is a registered historic landmark and much loved by many residents.

A bowl-shaped scoop of soil about 20 feet deep fell away from the lot Wednesday night, taking part of the hilltop and ocean-view concrete patio with it. The scoop slid another eight or 10 feet down the hill Thursday night and continued moving slowly Friday, officials said.

“We’re still not sure how deep it is,” said Kiel Koger, San Clemente’s director of public works, who was at the site Friday morning.

The toe or bottom of the main slide is about 30 feet above the railroad tracks, but chunks of soil and debris fell to track level without causing any damage. The area’s soil is poor and may have been weakened by the winter rains, he said.

The Orange County Transportation Authority, working with the city and other agencies, decided at 1 p.m. Thursday to suspend all freight and rail traffic at the site until the area can be declared safe. City officials closed off a section of the public trail along the beach that parallels the tracks.

City officials discovered new cracks in the soil at Casa Romantica on April 16. The San Clemente City Council, at an emergency meeting Monday, authorized $75,000 to pay for geological studies now underway that will help determine what can be done.

“We need more data,” Koger said. “It’s too early to know what the situation is.”

The Casa Romantica buildings so far are undamaged, he said. However, the buildings have been closed to the public and all future events are on hold until further notice.

Pieces of a concrete patio have fallen away at Casa Romantica in San Clemente, threatening the railroad tracks below. (Phil Diehl)

An apartment building below and to one side of the slide has been red-tagged and evacuated because of soil pushing up against one side of the structure, officials said. Only about eight of the 24 apartments have permanent occupants, most are vacation rentals.

Several apartments in another nearby building have been yellow-tagged, which is an advisory that occupants should be cautious but need not evacuate.

San Clemente Mayor Chris Duncan visited Casa Romantica Friday morning.

“This is a beautiful, historical structure, but the most important thing here is people’s lives,” Duncan said.

“It is clearly a dynamic situation,” he said. “Every time you get an assessment, it changes. There is still movement here.”

The new slide emphasizes what people have known for a long time, that the 140-year-old rail corridor is increasingly vulnerable to coastal erosion.

Two miles south of Casa Romantica, on a bluff below the Cyprus Shore community, a recurring landslide started its gradual movement again last fall. The OCTA suspended all passenger service between San Diego and Orange counties beginning Sept. 30 to launch a $13.7 million stabilization project that involved drilling steel anchors more than 130 feet deep into the bedrock. Weekday Amtrak and Metrolink service to Oceanside resumed April 17.

The route through San Clemente is the only rail connection between San Diego and Los Angeles and to points elsewhere across the United States. It’s also part of the U.S. military’s Strategic Rail Corridor Network, and is the only way to transport some especially large, heavy or potentially hazardous materials.

“It’s the only way to get the spent nuclear fuel out of San Onofre (Nuclear Generating Station),” Duncan said.

Large, heavy, radioactive parts such as the used reactor vessel from the decommissioned nuclear power plant also can only be transported by rail, he said. Many of those large parts also arrived at the power plant by rail.

“We have to ensure that this rail corridor is resilient,” Duncan said.

“We are going to have to get very creative here to figure out how to maintain the railroad tracks through San Clemente,” he said.

Rerouting the tracks away from the coast is one possibility, he said. But that is a long-term solution, and there is a more immediate need to safeguard the existing coastal route.

“This is something I would like to have seen a little more foresight on,” Duncan said. “There is technology that can help you stabilize a slope. We need to look at doing that before something happens.”

Other agencies involved include the Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo (LOSSAN) Rail Corridor.

“We are working with our partners to resume safe service as quickly as possible,” said Solana Beach Councilwoman Jewel Edson, who is chair of both the North County Transit District board and the LOSSAN board.

“Earlier this week, the California State Transportation Agency awarded $5 million in Transit Intercity Rail Capital Program funds to OCTA … for a study to evaluate long-term options for the coastal section of the rail corridor in Dana Point and San Clemente,” Edson said.

“We’re thankful … for the timely funding and look forward to continue working with our partners and member agencies to ensure a resilient rail corridor for the future,” she said.

State Assemblymember Laurie Davies, who represents northern San Diego County and southern Orange County, issued a statement Friday offering to help.

“Immediately upon hearing the news of the landslide, I reached out to the Office of Emergency Services regarding disaster funding and relief,” Davies said.

“I believe this current landslide is linked to the atmospheric river events the region experienced a few weeks ago,” she said. “This morning, I toured the area, and I am devastated for Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens. It is truly iconic amongst San Clemente’s coastal landscape. I will do all that I can to assist. I will be San Clemente’s advocate with the state of California to bring resources to the area.”

Another trouble spot is the bluff-top coastal tracks in Del Mar, where federal, state and local agencies have been working for years to stabilize the cliffs.

State officials awarded a $300 million grant to the San Diego Association of Governments last year for preliminary work needed to move the 1.7 miles of train tracks off the Del Mar bluffs, possibly to an inland tunnel beneath the small city.

“The infrastructure investments the region is making today help ensure our rail line remains safe, secure, and operational,” NCTD Executive Director Matt Tucker said by email Friday.

“We need to continue to be vigilant – furthering critical stabilization efforts and planning for the resiliency of the rail line in the future,” Tucker said.

U.S. Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, has been an advocate for rail system improvements and helped obtain funding to stabilize the tracks and to study the possible relocation of the vulnerable coastal route.