As heavy rains and high surf from Tropical Storm Kay battered much of the Southern California coast this month, the ground shifted — ever so slightly — under the railroad along the San Clemente coast.
It wasn’t the first time.
The movement in the railroad’s foundation caused short-term delays for Metrolink riders as officials tried to mitigate worsening erosion near the seaside rail line, threatened by a fragile landscape that also poses a hazard to expensive homes on a nearby situated cliff represents.
Officials say the stretch of coast is precariously caught between an “ancient landslide” and severe sand loss from erosion, development and climate change.
For years, the sand “buffered the base of the landslide,” said Joseph Street, a geologist with the California Coastal Commission. “And when the sand was lost … it was kind of a trigger for more movement on this old landslide.”
Erosion has become an all-too-familiar tale along the Southern California coast in recent years, with shrinking beaches bringing nearby infrastructure — homes, roads, railroads — much closer to the unrelenting ocean tides.
“This is just one place where they have beach erosion issues,” Street said, calling the threats to homes and the railroad “symptoms of a larger regional sand supply problem.”
Decades of development in the region has blanketed sand and soil that historically provided a natural buffer to the sea, and sand loss has only worsened without much, if any, replenishment of sediment from nearby rivers or post-rain runoff, both limited by years of drought.
Steve Lang, a member of the Cyprus Shores Homeowners Association, has worked with Metrolink to monitor every move in the country. At least two homes in the gated community that were built on top of the filled-in landslide have already been red marked, Lang said. And cracks have appeared in some others.
“The link to all of these problems is the loss of beach sand,” Lang said. “All subsequent problems arise from this…. We need sand, we need beach sand supplies – not just Cypress Shore, but all of South Orange County.”
It has been nearly a year since the same rail line, a vital commuter link for many across the Southland, was closed after more extreme ground movements. Last October, Metrolink brought in more than 10,000-ton rocks to serve as a barrier between the railroad and the ocean to secure the scenic stretch of train tracks.
“The rock has two functions: On the one hand, it protects against waves [the railway] directly, but also basically as a counterbalance to the landslide movement,” Street said.
After Metrolink spotted “slight movement” in the railroad’s foundation on September 9, the day Tropical Storm Kay brought storms to Southern California, Metrolink again added large boulders, known as “rip rap,” between the railroad tracks and the ocean added, said Metrolink spokesman Scott Johnson. He said more than 1,600 tonnes of the rock was placed in the area over the following week and expects more to be added by Sunday.
“Metrolink employees continue to proactively inspect the tracks and monitor the area,” Johnson said. “Metrolink installed a series of monitoring devices that detected slight movements of the right-of-way or foundation near the track. Movement is measured in hundredths of an inch.”
Johnson said there have been no other significant improvements in area stability since the railroad’s closure last fall, but the agency is working with the Orange County Department of Transportation to find long-term solutions.
After the tropical storm, Johnson said, there were delays of up to 30 minutes on the Orange County Metrolink line and the Inland Empire-Orange County line for a few days, while officials reduced train speeds “as a precautionary measure.” He said there had been no delays related to the San Clemente line since September 12.
Street said Metrolink is working with Cyprus Shores Homeowners Assn. and with local officials to stabilize the landslide while “conducting longer-term planning and studies to determine what could be said to be more permanent.” He said he wasn’t sure what that would look like, but officials had considered moving the railroad away from the coast.
“That [California Coastal] The Commission is committed to maintaining public access here, protecting the beach while recognizing the importance of this rail corridor and also protecting the private homes in the area,” Street said. “We must try to reconcile these goals. We’d like to see something that protects and stabilizes the railroad while minimizing the impact on the beach; it is unclear what that looks like in the long term.”
Tim Brown, a former San Clemente mayor who is now working with Cyprus Shores on sand erosion, said the problem has only gotten worse over the past year.
“It’s a problem that isn’t going away,” Brown said. “This issue will continue to haunt beaches and these areas.”