By Noel T. Braymer
There has been discussion of extending the Coaster between San Diego and Oceanside to Orange County since the 1990’s. My former boss and mentor Byron Nordberg proposed extending the Coaster to Irvine some years before his death in 1997. The reason for doing this is there is a great deal of local travel between San Diego and Orange Counties. It makes sense to use Coaster equipment that for years has sat idle in storage much of the work week in downtown Sand Diego between rush hours. Putting this equipment to work during the non-peak hours and increasing the passenger miles by extending its route will increase revenues and improve equipment utilization for the Coaster.
Why go to Fullerton? Its as far north as you can go in Orange County before merging with the busy BNSF mainline which for now has no surplus track capacity. Also, Fullerton has a 4th stub track for layovers with a platform which allows passenger trains to terminate at Fullerton, without blocking the BNSF Mainline. The only other such layover track in Orange County is at the Laguna Niguel/ Mission Viejo Metrolink Station south of Irvine. There is no need to build a new layover track for extending the Coaster north.
Besides serving Coaster and Metrolink Stations skipped by Pacific Surfliner trains between San Diego and Orange Counties, an extended Coaster could also provide better connections to Metrolink trains in Orange County. This includes Orange County Line trains to Los Angeles County, Inland Empire-Orange County Line trains with service to Riverside and San Bernardino and connections to the recently extended 91/Perris Valley Line. This should include connections on weekdays and weekend schedules. At Fullerton it would make sense to run regular bus service to the Westside of Los Angeles with connections to LAX , Westwood and Los Angeles Metrorail Blue, Green and Expo Lines. The 91 Freeway runs through Fullerton which these buses could use to get to West Los Angeles. Such a bus service would not only serve extended Coaster trains, but also existing Amtrak and Metrolink trains at Fullerton.
Most of Orange County now is double tracked. San Diego County now has almost 70% double tracking of the Surf Line and in 10 years it will be 90% double tracked with only 6 miles of single track. The main problem is with the single track segment in San Clemente and Capistrano Beach just south of Serra Siding. It will be difficult to get additional slots during much of the day with this bottleneck. Some improvements are on the way as well as others that are possible. There are advanced plans to extend double tracking from the Metrolink Laguna Niguel/ Mission Viejo station to the edge of downtown San Juan Capistrano. There is also old double track still in place in San Juan Capistrano south of the town’s station. Rebuilding and extending this double track to Serra Siding with a new double track bridge over San Juan Creek would reduce track congestion. There has been investigation into extending Serra Siding south along the State Beach in Capistrano Beach.
The long term plan is to build a multi-billion dollar tunnel in San Clemente for fast and frequent rail passenger service on the LOSSAN Corridor. The only viable alternative would be an elevated, double track structure above the beach. Building such a structure would be difficult to get local support. But short of a tunnel, it is the only way to separate the train tracks from pedestrians and handle future flooding from storm surges. It might be possible to build some additional double tracking at the south end of San Clemente with grade separated pedestrian crossings near the border with Camp Pendleton.
For the near future, roughly 6 round trips a day might be the most Coaster trains could be extended to Fullerton without major double tracking in San Clemente. We could also see existing Metrolink trains that now terminate at Oceanside extended to San Diego to serve the local market between Orange and San Diego Counties at all the Coaster and Metrolink stations. With these additional trains connecting all of Orange and San Diego Counties, we could have better connections at more stations not only on Coaster and Metrolink trains, but also with these trains to Pacific Surfliner trains, as well as on Metrolink, Orange County, Inland Empire-Orange County and 91/Perris Valley Lines and possible bus connections to other markets such as from Fullerton to south and West Los Angeles County.