By Noel T. Braymer
Hint:It will be cheaper than building a new freeway
The two largest cities in California are Los Angeles and San Diego. The combined north-south travel corridor of the I-5 and I-405 freeways between these 2 major cities already have the heaviest traffic in the Country. The combined population of Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego Counties is just over 16 million people. The population in this corridor is expected to continue to grow. As for traffic, it is often more stop than go. Rail passenger service in this corridor is generally doing well and growing. But major work is needed to provide the level of service and running times to keep up with future travel growth. Most of the current railroad is based on its original alignment going back to the 1880’s when it was first built. To carry the level of future traffic by rail in this corridor needed to reduce gridlock will require complete double tracking for passenger service. Also needed are new rail alignments to shorten distances and running times plus more separation of roads and rail to improve safety. It won’t be cheap but it is needed.
There is much going on and more is planned to create first class rail passenger service between Los Angles and San Diego. These efforts have their start going back to the 1970’s. A major part of this has been the program to grade-separate the BNSF railroad between its yard in the City of Commerce and the City of Fullerton. Between Commerce and Fullerton the current railroad is fully doubled tracked with several segments with a third center track to handle both passenger and freight service. As part of the adding a third track, is the need to grade separate busy roads from the tracks. If you add more rail service without also grade separating major roads, traffic which is already often backed up when trains pass by will get even worse. Without grade separating these busy road crossings the the number of accidents from vehicles trying to beat the trains at a crossing will increase. With grade separation local road traffic will be less congested.
A study written by Caltrans in 2013 found that between Los Angeles and San Diego from 2011 to 2040 population is expected to grow by 35.8 percent. This same study predicts travel to grow by 69.8 percent which means 10.2 million additional trips annually by 2040. The problem is there isn’t room in many places along the I-5 to expand the freeway. This is compounded by the fact that freeways expansions instead of reducing congestion, encourages people to drive more. A double tracked rail corridor has the advantage that it can carry more people in roughly the space of 2 car lanes that a freeway of 4 lanes in both direction for a total of 8 lanes can carry in private cars. Let’s now look at the 2 major segments of the Los Angeles- San Diego corridor, looking first between downtown Los Angeles to Irvine in Orange County.
The main issue in Los Angeles County is getting more of the BNSF mainline grade separated. Over the years most of the grade crossings on the BNSF between Los Angeles and Fullerton have been grade separated with room on the rail right of way and rail bridges for up to 4 tracks. Needless to say many of these earlier projects were the easiest and cheapest to build. This has left some of the hardest and most expensive grade separation for the last ones to be built. The project now under construction is grade separating both Rosecrans Blvd and Marquardt Ave. The railroad runs through the intersection of Rosecrans and Marquart at a 45 degree angle. Construction is now just getting started which will elevate mostly Rosecrans Blvd and part of Marquart Ave over the tracks of the BNSF. Marquart will no longer intersect with Rosecrans. But this grade separation will reduce traffic back ups from this intersection constantly being closed with trains running through every few minutes.
In southeast Los Angeles County there are at least 4 more streets that should be grade separated on the BNSF. Norwalk Blvd and Los Nietos Road are so close to each other on the BNSF mainline that grade separating them will likely be part of a single project. Pioneer Blvd sooner or late will need to be grade separated as well as Lakeland Road. In the case of Lakeland road it has three tracks already at its grade crossing. Since it is in an industrial and not in a residential area, it may be the last to be grade separated. The point is in roughly the next ten years the plan is to create a 4 track railroad with 2 tracks for freight and 2 for passenger service between Commerce and Fullerton. This will allow more Amtrak Pacific Surfliners, Metrolink Orange County and 91/Perris Valley line trains and future High Speed Rail trains to be run on this track segment. This will be part of an electrified, double tracked passenger railroad running between Anaheim, Los Angeles and Burbank. Metrolink is planning to electrify at least part of their service in the next 10 years. These may include hybrid locomotives that can operate with electrification or without it.
South of Fullerton, most of the railroad in Orange County is already double tracked and most of the road crossings are quiet zones. What this means is the grade crossings have been improved to the point that the trains don’t have to blow their horns in most of Orange County unless there is a vehicle or person on or near the tracks. This is very popular with people who live near the tracks who no longer have to hear train horns blowing all day and night long. Irvine is the last Surfliner station with double track in Orange County. The double track in Orange County ends at the Laguna Niguel/ Mission Viejo Metrolink station. For now the line is single tracked all the way to the county border with San Diego County. There is one siding between San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente. Trains often have to wait at this siding if the train going in the opposite direction is late arriving at the siding. What is planned to relieve this congestion is to extend double tracking south 1.8 miles to the northern edge of the San Juan Capistrano station. The station itself will only have one track, but this will help cut down on the track congestion.
There is a short segment of rarely used double track south of the San Juan Capistrano station but it ends at the single track bridge over the San Juan Creek which is just north of Serra Siding between San Juan Capistrano and Dana Point. There could be some extension of Serra Siding north and south of its current location. But the main bottleneck is in San Clemente. The track in San Clemente is on the beach and next to cliffs most of the way.Trains speeds in San Clemente are generally no more than 40 miles per hour. San Clemente for years has made it clear that the only way it will accept double tracking or higher train speeds will be in a tunnel. The I-5 freeway also goes through San Clemente where it is often congested.
The border between Orange and San Diego County is also the north end of Camp Pendleton. It is 60 miles from the northern San Diego County line along the railroad to the Santa Fe Depot in downtown San Diego. It is 41 miles by rail between San Diego and Oceanside, the northern most city along the coast in San Diego County. It is about 35 miles on the I-5 between Oceanside and San Diego. Since 2008 the percentage of double tracking in San Diego County has gone from just under 50 percent to just over 70 percent today. By 2025 the plan is to have 90 percent of the railroad double tracked. But those last 6 miles will have to wait under current plans until at least 2050 to get most of that double tracked.
The problem areas in San Diego County are in Del Mar and between the Sorrento Valley and Miramar. The tracks in Del Mar are on top of bluffs overlooking the ocean and are very scenic alongside expensive ocean front housing. The bluff are too narrow to support double tracking and it is only a question of time before these buffs fall into the sea. The North County Transit District which control the tracks in Del Mar has spent millions of dollars shoring up the bluffs in Del Mar to delay the day the bluffs will collapse. What is planned now well in the future is a double tracked tunnel which there is no identified source of funding. But without a tunnel when the bluffs collapse a major travel artery will be cut with no realistic alternative available to replace it.
Between Del Mar and downtown San Diego is 2 miles of 25 mile an hour running by trains in the canyon area between Sorrento Valley and Miramar which is a Marine Corp Air Base. Not only is this slow, but also out of the way but it was needed for steam locomotives in the 1880’s to be able to get over the hills south of Sorrento Valley. The current plan calls for double tracking and straightening this current route by around 2030. This will raise running times from 25 to 40 miles per hour and save several minutes in the running time. This is budgeted at $100 million dollars which is the most expensive project of the one billion dollars budgeted for all the work in San Diego County to double track and replace old bridges on the 60 miles of railroad in San Diego County. This budget doesn’t include a tunnel at Del Mar. What has also been proposed instead is to build a tunnel just east of the I-5 freeway. This would not only reduce the distance and running times of rail passenger service between Los Angeles and San Diego. But such a tunnel could also gave a station at University City allowing connections to UTC transportation center. This includes multiple bus services as well as an extension the San Diego Trolley Blue Line extension north of downtown to UCSD and University City. The heaviest traffic and largest employment center in San Diego is not downtown, but in the area around Sorrento Valley, UCSD and University City. Having rail service connect to transit, including to Light Rail Trolley service would go a long way to handle congestion in the most congested region of San Diego along the most traffic congested highway corridor in the country.