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Southern California Rail Emergency Shows Path Forward for U.S.

October 6, 2022

A Passenger Rail Emergency in Southern California Offers a Path Forward for Future Rail Corridors

The Los Angeles – San Diego – San Luis Obispo (LOSSAN) Rail Corridor Agency announced on September 30 that storm damage to trackage in San Clemente, CA would force the temporary suspension of the Pacific Surfliner and Metrolink trains south of Irvine through November.

In response, the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), which operates Metrolink, declared a state of emergency on October 4. This frees up $6 million in state funding for crews to perform emergency repairs and stabilize the corridor; OCTA stated it will work with the federal government to secure the additional $6 million needed to complete repair work. The agencies have conferred with geologists and geotechnical engineers, and there remain long-term worries about the stability of this coastal track segment—particularly with climate change and rising ocean levels (Tropical Storm Kay was the precipitating factor in the closure of the corridor). However, officials are optimistic the service will be restored by early- to mid-November.

Metrolink has suspended service, while Amtrak and LOSSAN have launched a temporary bus bridge for some of the suspended trains. BNSF freight trains, which also use the track, continue to operate along the affected segment at reduced speeds. Passengers can find up-to-date schedules and information on the Pacific Surfliner website and Twitter (@PacSurfliners) as they become available.

Rail Passengers applauds the quick work done by LOSSAN, OCTA, and the state of California to address this emergency. The incentives to restore this service are clear: this is the second busiest passenger rail corridor in the U.S. Caltrans officials stated that the corridor moves 5,000 people per day, and there will be a “significant” amount of displacement onto highways for as long as the service is suspended.

But it also raises a stark question: if the U.S. can move this rapidly in Southern California, why does it take so long to build elsewhere? The Gateway Development Corporation recently announced that they were pushing back the completion date of the new Hudson River rail tunnels to 2035, with an additional $2 billion tacked onto the final cost estimate. The Texas Central high-speed rail corridor between Dallas and Houston has potentially been killed by years of lengthy lawsuits from NIMBY landowners. And of course, California is the home of the California High Speed Rail, which has seen land acquisition challenges, lengthy environmental reviews, and lawsuits from local jurisdictions add years to its schedule and tens of billions of dollars to the cost.

Of course, having an established right of way simplifies things greatly. However, it's worth noticing what’s not involved in this emergency reconstruction: no lengthy reviews through the California Environmental Quality Act to determine what impact the construction work will have on shorebirds; no multiple rounds of public outreach to collect community feedback; no high-dollar contracts with outside consulting firms; no lengthy negotiations between state and federal officials over precisely how federal funding will be used and what service will look like in 20 years.

These are all the elaborate steps that passenger rail corridor projects must currently navigate. To be sure, there are good intentions behind these requirements. However, as outlined in the recently released report from Eno Transportation, they’ve led the U.S. to pay more for rail transit on a per-mile basis than any of its peer nations.

The problem is political, and so is the solution. When the public is united in its demand for a service, and focused on the day-to-day absence of that service, elected and transportation officials are given license to devote the necessary human, operating and capital resources to complete a project. We’re sure to see similar expedited outcomes as Florida begins to rebuild its transportation infrastructure in the wake of Hurricane Ian.

With growing congestion, rising fuel prices, dangerous automobile pollution, and shrinking air service threatening the economy and quality of life of hundreds of millions of Americans, there is certainly a clear and present threat. However, it remains to be seen whether we can organize mass political and cultural demand for new and improved passenger train service to overcome the inertia of the transportation status quo. One thing's for sure: Rail Passengers remains dedicated to working with our supporters to marshal the support needed to cut through the red tape and get these trains runnint.