After years of work, Federal Rail Administration OKs quiet zones along Beach Trail
By Jim Shilander
John Dorey recalls that when the Beach Trail opened, he said the work was not yet complete.
“The noise level that we created in putting in the trail was unacceptable,” Dorey said. “So in 2008, when I spoke at the trail opening, I said ‘That was phase one, now phase two is the quiet zone.’”
It took seven years, but that work finally seems to have borne fruit.
On April 21, the city was informed by the Federal Rail Administration, which oversees all of the country’s railroad lines, that the city’s waiver to cease the sounding of train horns at all of the city’s pedestrian crossings had been granted, with conditions. Those conditions include the construction of approximately 2,300 linear feet of fencing from the stop near T Street all the way to the Calafia State Beach parking lot, the current terminus of the trail, as well as the continuing implementation of audible warning systems at those crossings. Upon receipt of the letter, City Council approved funds for the planning phase of that project.
Assistant City Engineer Tom Bonigut has been focused on the project for the last 18 months or so.
“We were cautiously optimistic we’d get some sort of favorable decision,” Bonigut said. “But the bottom line is you never really know. There were indications in conversations with FRA staff that they may grant some sort of relief, but we weren’t sure what type of relief that would be, so it was a nice surprise.”
Councilwoman Lori Donchak, who has served on a committee that lobbied for relief in both Washington and Sacramento, called the receipt of the letter “a great day for San Clemente.”
The fencing that’s being requested would eliminate a number of traditional “goat path” crossings made by beachgoers. Such crossings, which are considered to be trespassing, have been a sore spot for the railroad and were a requirement requested by the California Public Utilities Commission.
“Safety has always been front and center on this project, Donchak said. “One of the things, when we were talking to OCTA and the other stakeholders, was that by having fencing on the beach trail, we were eliminating trespassing on the rails. But this is a good thing, something we may have done regardless.”
Before the city received indications that a waiver application could be successful through the use of the audible warning system, there were other options considered, Donchak said, including moving pedestrian crossings underground, which was considered cost prohibitive, as well as trying to change federal rules and partnering with Oceanside.
“To finally have this solution come through is very good,” Donchak said. “OCTA really was the lead in this project. It’s an 88 percent-12 percent (financial) split, so they’ve really been the funding mechanism and they’ve been the lead agent legally. It’s gratifying to see a county organization help a local municipality in such a way.”
Donchak, who serves as vice chair of the OCTA board, said with plans to extend the trail to San Clemente State Park in the early stages, residents would be wise to remember that incidents of trespassing are being counted.
“The decision-makers keep track of trespassing on the tracks, as well as other incidents and, on rare occasions, fatalities,” Donchak said. “Our performance as a city is going to be watched very carefully, but if we keep performing at the high level we are now, getting the extension should not be a problem.”
Quiet zones have already been in place in two San Clemente locations, at North Beach and the nearby entrance to the Capistrano Shores community, as well as more than 50 other locations across the county, since 2011. Since that point, the city has undertaken efforts to expand the numbers in San Clemente, through both the pursuit of the waiver as well as the installation of audible warning systems, which will remain in place, at the city’s crossings. The warning systems have noise guidelines themselves, between 80 and 110 decibels measured 20 feet from the crossing, which include the deployment of rail arms.
Dorey recalled that the FRA could have provided the waiver seven years ago, but due to the wording of federal rules, the city’s pedestrian crossings did not qualify initially. The process was then given over to the state, but it lacked jurisdiction to approve it, Dorey said.
“Round and round we went with the FRA, and I think, eventually they realized ‘We’re the only ones who can solve this,’” Dorey said. “The only way we could get the quiet zone was to get the waiver, and they helped us with that. It just took time. And there are a lot of people in the city who took this to heart.”
This is no small matter, Dorey said. Currently, engineers blow horns at each pedestrian crossing four times. The city receives approximately 50 trains going through per day, 200 soundings at each crossing per day. Multiply that by six crossings, that’s 1,200 soundings eliminated per day.
Kirk Steele, who lives above the T Street crossing and has been active in the effort to bring quiet zones to the area, said the event was “something to celebrate.”
“It was so jarring to have those horns, especially for those of us who weren’t used to it,” Steele said. “We tried a few different avenues and went down about 10 different blind alleys.”
About 35 residents, Steele said, banded together at one point to file intent to sue the city over the issue, which helped to get things moving.
In the section of the trail that will need to be fenced, there will remain one at-grade pedestrian crossing, at Lasuen, along with two crossings at Riviera by use of a drainage channel and an existing trestle, as well as T Street and Calafia.
Bonigut said he hopes to have construction documents ready to bid by June, though the city will also be required to receive a coastal development permit.
“Hopefully, they’ll see we have a track record with the beach trail, and that will help,” Bonigut said.
OCTA is backing the proposal, Bonigut said, and as he owners of the railroad right-of-way, that could make the process easier.
“We’ll be inter-coordinating the proposed designs, but that will largely be a matter of details,” Bonigut said.
Most of the required fencing will be similar to what is already in place elsewhere on the trail, with concrete posts designed to look like wood with cables. A few short segments will be required to have different types of fencing, Bonigut said. The letter also encourages the city to continue to work with railroad agencies, including Amtrak, Metrolink and BNSF Railway.
There’s also the issue of continued access to the beach. Mayor Chris Hamm noted some concern over the accessibility of the beaches without the use of the goat paths.
And don’t expect to never hear a train horn again. Even with new rules in place, the decision to blow a horn is still left to the discretion of the train’s engineer, who might blow the horn to warn off a person or animal from the track, or simply because they may feel pedestrians nearby may not be paying attention or due to low visibility.