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Featured Image: The National Rail Passenger Corporation, or Amtrak, plans to increase its involvement in discussions with regional stakeholders regarding the Pacific Surfliner route, according to a report the company released on Dec. 6. Photo: Fred Swegles

By C. Jayden Smith

Amtrak has determined a need to increase its awareness of potential operational risks along its Pacific Surfliner route in light of recent environmental incidents in San Clemente and Del Mar that have resulted in shutdowns.

That conclusion was made after the Office of Inspector General (OIG) for the country’s sole nationwide passenger rail service released a report on Dec. 6.

Since 2018, the corporation has dealt with at least six bluff failures in the Del Mar Bluffs area. The most recent incident occurred in February 2021, when a 60-foot seawall collapsed at the base of a 1.7-mile-long section of tracks.

In late September, coastal erosion and high tides forced the tracks in San Clemente to shift 14 inches. All those events led to temporary closures of the Pacific Surfliner line.

Trains in the two areas operate on a single track that is subject to ongoing erosion, with the Orange County Transportation Authority responsible for maintaining safe conditions in the San Clemente area as the owner of the track and host railroad. The North County Transit District in San Diego has the same responsibilities for the Del Mar area.

After the ground shift, OCTA performed inspections and worked with freight railroad and tenant Burlington North Santa Fe (BNSF) to move boulders to reinforce the railbed. Amtrak, BNSF, and another tenant, Metrolink, paused passenger service while OCTA worked.

Amtrak initiated a formal risk assessment of the track conditions in the meantime, sending an expert in slope stability and drainage from its engineering department to meet with OCTA and its contractors to understand the actions necessary to restart service.

Once it established a working relationship and the expert shared knowledge from a similar situation in New York to assist OCTA’s process, Amtrak was assured service could resume, and did so on Oct. 4.

“Our initial objective for this report was to assess the extent to which the company is evaluating the risks associated with operating service on tracks on the Del Mar bluffs,” the report read. “Because the service disruption in San Clemente involved similar issues along the same route and occurred during our work, we also performed a limited review of company actions in response to that event.”

Over the course of the study, OIG staff reviewed the company’s safety plan, interviewed managers in various departments, and made visits to both San Clemente and the Del Mar area to meet with regional officials.

The staff learned through their conversations with the company’s vice president for operational safety that the formalized process the company used to assess the safety risks in San Clemente indicated that their approach is “maturing.”

They concluded that due to Amtrak’s lack of participation in discussions with regional stakeholders regarding erosion and other issues along the Pacific Surfliner route, the company may not be receiving up-to-date information.

“The company acknowledges it can increase its role in ensuring the safety of its passengers and employees when it is operating as a tenant railroad,” the report said, adding: “Such participation would help it stay current on emerging risks and options under consideration that could affect company operations.”

In a memo to other Amtrak officials, Scot Naparstek, executive vice president and chief operating officer, stated that the company will tap a representative from the Operations Department to engage in ongoing discussions about the evolving coastal conditions and potential route realignment.

“Amtrak is confident that the measures outlined here address the OIG’s considerations and support Amtrak’s proactive risk management strategy,” Naparstek wrote.

C. Jayden Smith graduated from Dana Hills High in 2018 before pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in digital and broadcast journalism from the University of North Texas. After graduating in December 2020, he reported for the Salina Journal in Salina, Kansas. Jayden loves college football and bothering his black lab named Shadow.

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