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Fred Swegles

By Fred Swegles

When it comes to life and death along San Clemente’s coastal railroad corridor, it’s too easy to take for granted how good we have it since the city built a beach trail with seven safety-designed crossings.

Like many locals, I can remember the anything-goes vibe that flirted with RR safety for decades, prior to the trail’s 2006-08 construction.

After we published my Feb. 11 column about long-forgotten Wild West mischief on or around the rails, I heard from readers who do remember.

They took to social media to respond. Here are some comments, slightly edited for spelling, grammar or clarity:

  • “I used to walk and run on the tracks from T-Street to Cotton’s all the time.”
  •  “I think we’ve all tripped on those railroad ties getting from point A to point B.”
  • “I’ve seen dozens of near-misses involving beachgoers crossing the tracks dragging heavy coolers and kids, mindless wanderers walking the tracks wearing headphones, and even a couple of professional photo shoots with photographers and models lying on the tracks. Idiots all!”
  •  “Surfing 204. It was the easiest way to get to the break.”
  •  “Unfortunately, I remember many incidents of death on those tracks. Those stories made quite an impression on a young girl. I still have a fear of crossing tracks, on foot or in a vehicle.”
  • “We would walk on the rail from North Beach to the pier. Good for learning balance. We loved to moon the trains just for fun.”
  •  “I remember walking on the tracks from 2nd Spot to the old lifeguard beach access crossing, barefoot … I burned the bottom of my feet … I couldn’t walk for a week.”
  •  “I remember way too much to list here.”
  •  “Used to play ‘Chicken.’ ”
  •  “Coins flattened on the tracks.”
  •  “From a young age, my kids were taught to look both ways before crossing the tracks. I drilled it into them. For me, it is such an ingrained habit, I still look both ways, even at a signal and gated crossing.”
  •  “In 1972, at age 10, I spent Fourth of July at Hole-In-The-Fence. I remember a drunken idiot, barely able to stand on his own, taking position dead-center on the tracks, holding a Roman candle and firing it at an oncoming northbound train. Somehow, that fool managed to dive clear at the last possible moment.”
  •  “How far could you walk on one rail until you fell off or the train approached?”
  •  “I’ve even had to witness two fatal train vs. pedestrian incidents in San Clemente … both ruled suicides. Those are images that I’ll carry for life.”

MORE MEMORIES

I remember a young boy’s death, struck by a train at Poche in the 1970s. A man losing his life walking the tracks wearing headphones. And accidental deaths on trestles just outside San Clemente.

Suicides, equally tragic, are different. There’s little you could do to prevent them, other than drastically walling off the entire RR corridor. Or relocating the railroad inland, behind San Clemente and Trestles.

A local lobbying campaign in the 1970s sought to move the tracks inland, but it never gained traction with the railway or with state/federal regulators.

In 2002-03, state officials proposed double-tracking the corridor through San Juan Capistrano, Dana Point and San Clemente. Intense local opposition forestalled it.

Landscaping and a mellow, relatively subtle style of fencing provide a safety buffer along most of San Clemente’s 2.3-mile Beach Trail, together with seven safety-designed crossings. Photo: Fred Swegles

BEACH TRAIL’S ORIGINS

In 1995, Metrolink introduced commuter service here, announcing that trespassing would be enforced by RR police.

“Crossing tracks could cost you money … or your life,” my headline trumpeted on March 2, 1995.

“By local estimates,” I wrote, “nearly one-third of the two million people who visit San Clemente’s beaches each year get there by crossing the railroad tracks illegally.

“Most don’t dally and are careful to watch for oncoming trains. A few act carelessly or irresponsibly. Occasionally, someone is killed.”

The Orange County Transportation Authority, I wrote, would start with public awareness, then enforcement.

There was such a San Clemente backlash that the city, in 1998, proposed an alternative—a safe beach trail.

The original design—described as a concrete, fenced trail atop a seawall—was so environmentally draconian that it provoked a backlash.

A grassroots group, “DeRail the Trail,” mobilized the community, halted the fenced concrete- on-seawall concept, then helped the city design the much kinder, gentler, scenic trail that we see today.

TWO PRE-TRAIL INCIDENTS

In 2003-04, while the city was asking the California Public Utilities Commission to allow the Beach Trail, I’ll never forget two RR accidents.

“An apparent act of bravado along the railroad track went bad late Wednesday,” I wrote on Jan. 16, 2004, “sending an 18-year-old Missouri man to the hospital with critical injuries.”

The young man and a friend were walking on the track near Calafia Beach. As they noticed a train coming, authorities said, the friend stepped off the track.

“The other apparently stayed on and told his friend he was going to try to get as close to the train as possible and try to jump off at the last second,” authorities said. “He made some comment like, ‘I grew up near a train track … watch how close I can get without the train hitting me.’”

Trains are deceptively fast. And just weeks earlier, a 51-year-old local resident said to be safety-conscious was killed tragically.

San Clemente’s Beach Trail channels pedestrians safely from one controlled crossing to the next. Photo: Fred Swegles

TRAIL WOULD HAVE PROTECTED HER

“Since moving to San Clemente five years ago,” I wrote on Oct. 7, 2003, “Pamela Faris had walked from Linda Lane to the pier countless times.”

She was well aware of train dangers, I wrote, and had warned her sister, who had moved here to live with her.

The train was blowing its horn. A friend yelled, “Train!”

Faris was walking on the outside of the track, on the ocean side, looking down at her feet, on her way to the San Clemente Seafest with a friend from Florida.

“She was such a happy person,” said her sister, Beth Koziol. “She loved the pier. She loved San Clemente … she wanted to live the rest of her life here.”

In 2008, dedication ceremonies celebrated completion of San Clemente’s $15 million Beach Trail—the planning, design, a rigorous permit process, funding and construction. Dedication came two days short of the fifth anniversary of Faris’ death.

“She would be so pleased to know what San Clemente has done,” Koziol said.

Fred Swegles is a longtime San Clemente resident with five decades of reporting experience in the city. Fred can be reached at fswegles@picketfencemedia.com.

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