By Noel T. Braymer
I have lived now in San Diego County for just over 30 years. Much has changed in the last 30 years. I remember when I first moved here that a common issue when it came to local urban planning was the cry “don’t turn San Diego into another Los Angeles”. This was reflected in the fact that San Diego was never a part of SCAG, which is the Southern California Association of Governments. It is made up of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura and Imperial Counties. In 1988, San Diego County had and still has 5 congressional districts, which 4 were held by Republicans and one which also included all of Imperial County was held by a Democrat. Today 3 out of the 5 districts are held by Democrats. In this year’s fall elections there is a chance that all 5 districts may be won by Democrats. That is not to say that Republicans aren’t still active in San Diego. The ballot measure to overturn the recent increase in California’s gasoline taxes was orchestrated by local San Diego Republican politicians. What has been a major driver of change in San Diego County for over 40 years now has been the rise of rail passenger service.
It all started in the mid 1970’s when the State of California agreed to subsidize additional Amtrak service between San Diego and Los Angeles. This happened during the first term of the first administration as governor of Jerry Brown. But a major driver of this was then State Senator Jim Mills who was also the President Pro Tempore of the State Senate. He was also for a time a member of Amtrak’s Board of Directors. Between 1976 to 1980 after new Amfleet equipment and new F-40 locomotives were put into service between Los Angeles and San Diego, ridership went from just over 300,000 annually with 3 round trips daily to over a million with 7 round trips daily. While this was ongoing, Senator Mills pushed though plans to buy from the Southern Pacific their abandon railroad in San Diego County. It connected San Diego to the Imperial Valley and the rest of the Southern Pacific with a short segment in Mexico. This trackage included in San Diego County rail between downtown San Diego and the Mexican Border with a branch east out to El Cajon. In 1981 the first new Light Rail service in this country since World War 2 opened between downtown San Diego and the Mexican Border. Built on a shoestring budget with mostly single track, the trains could only run every 20 minutes. Ridership soon grew so much that full double tracking was built and additional trains bought to increased its capacity. This sparked a Light Rail building boom that has reached several major cities in the United States.
But even before this, starting around 1970 were plans to build the first intermodal transportation center in the United States. In 1970 Byron Nordberg was a Marine Corps Reservist Major who had just returned from a year’s tour in Vietnam. He had settled down and bought a doughnut shop in downtown Oceanside and joined the local Chamber of Commerce. Byron grew up in Chicago and long had an interest in trains, particularly passenger service. His first job as a teenager in the early 1950’s was shoveling the ash out of the fireboxes of the last remaining steam locomotives in Chicago. His doughnut shop was only a block or 2 away from the Santa Fe train station and tracks. In 1970 downtown Oceanside was in need of redevelopment.The area was rundown, with many bars and light industrial businesses in the area such as metal works and auto repair shops. The downtown train station was also a freight train yard which often meant trains being switched all times of the day and night,
Byron Nordberg started planning in 1970 for an intermodal transportation center at what was then the Oceanside train station. He went to his Chamber of Commerce which he was a member to pitch his idea. His main selling point was that Oceanside had a valuable resource with its beach near downtown. A new transportation center would help bring in more tourists and tourist related development into Oceanside. Central to creating this was moving the old Oceanside rail yard out to nearby Camp Pendleton. A major goal was to attract a resort hotel near the beach and the new transportation center. This planning was on going before the creation of Amtrak at a time rail passenger service was expected by many to soon end in the United States.
When the now Oceanside Transit Center first opened in 1984, it had one new platform for the San Diegan Amtrak trains between San Diego and Los Angeles. It was also now a hub for local North San Diego County transit buses as well as a stop for Greyhound and Trailways buses. Soon after the Transit Center opened ridership for all these services at Oceanside grew. Trailways however has since gone out of business. But today there are more Amtrak Trains including service north of Los Angeles to Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. Since the 1990’s there are Metrolink trains from Oceanside to Los Angeles and San Bernardino. Additional commuter trains run between Oceanside and San Diego also since the 1990’s. Byron got the contract to plan the Coaster service between Oceanside and San Diego. Byron also planned what has become the Sprinter Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) service which mostly uses the old Santa Fe branch line between Oceanside and Escondido. A new (and expensive) connection was built to connect the Sprinter service to the San Marcos State University Campus which is on the other side of the 78 freeway from the original train tracks. In addition Riverside County has extended some transit bus service to the Oceanside Transit Center.
While in 1984 Oceanside had one new passenger track and platform, it now has 3 of both. The west second track was built with a pedestrian tunnel so passengers wouldn’t need to cross active tracks to get to their platforms. Not only does this improve the safety for passengers, but also allows people access to the beach from the east at the Transit Center. Recently a third track and platform was built in Oceanside. It is south of the other 2 platforms and is on a siding from the east track used by Platform 1. All Coaster Trains now use Platform 3, while most Metrolink trains use Platform 2 on the west track and Amtrak usually uses Platform 1 on the east track which is nearest to most of the Transit Center. All this effort is part of plans to expand more rail passenger service. There are several track projects ongoing in San Diego County which are planned to be in service by 2021. With this is planned additional Coaster, Metrolink and Amtrak service in 2021.
One thing I’ve noticed today compared to 30 years ago is traffic is much heavier on the 5 freeway now. The population is growing, but also there are limited travel options besides auto travel. Expanded Coaster service is planned to run all day long to relieve local 5 freeway traffic. What I’ve been noticing is southbound traffic in the late afternoon is often backed up from at least Oceanside several miles into Camp Pendleton. The backups likely start further south into Carlsbad. This is part of a larger picture particularly along the major north-south travel corridors in California which is where most of the travel is. What is not likely to happen is construction of more or wider freeways. When plans were presented to people a few years ago to add more lanes north of Del Mar in San Diego County to Oceanside, many of the residents discovered their homes were on land planned as part of the freeway widening. This led to the question, “why aren’t you planning to expand Coaster service?”
What we are seeing in San Diego County with improved rail passenger services centered around intermodal centers is increased and higher density development. What this does is reduce the need for people to travel since more things are waking distance where there is high density development .The more roads we build, the more spread out the development leads to more congestion not less. This is made possible and attractive with improved rail passenger and bus services with bike, scooter and mobility vehicles served with intermodal centers. This is happening now not just in San Diego County, but in most of the places in California with improved rail and transit passenger service.