By Noel T. Braymer
There is a lot going on in San Diego County with rail service. With a little digging and internet service I’ve been able to find what is being planned in roughly the next 5 years or so. For several years San Diego County has been replacing old ATSF single track wooden bridges on its roughly 60 miles of railroad between Orange County and downtown San Diego. What is being built are new double tracked concrete rail bridges which will cost less to maintain and are higher and less likely to be washed out in the case of future floods. Combining additional double tracking with the new bridges and on the existing rights of way, NCTD expects to see greatly expanded rail service in less than 5 years. Around 767 million dollars is going into these projects in San Diego County which will help relieve congestion on the I-5 corridor in San Diego County and points north.
The biggest single part of the North County Transit Districts’s (NCTD) plan is to increase the number of trains running between Oceanside and San Diego. In the next five years the expectation will be to run at a minimum hourly Coaster service most of the day with half hourly service during peak travel demand. That means going from 22 weekday trains in one direction to 42. Also in the near future LOSSAN is planning to operate hourly Pacific Surfliner service between San Diego and Los Angeles. Already there are scheduled 13 Surfliner round trip trains a day between 4 AM up to 1 AM in San Diego. By 2021 it is expected that enough double tracking will be in service to run these additional trains. The main need for expanding service is for more equipment on the 41 mile Coaster route between San Diego and Oceanside. Currently the Coaster has 28 bi-level passenger cars and 7 locomotives. Much of this equipment goes back to 1995 when Coaster service first ran. Most of the existing passengers cars are being overhauled over the next few years. In a press release dated September 5, 2019 on the NCTD web site, it was reported 2 additional trainsets will be needed to provide half hourly service. Already since last year according to news reports NCTD bought 5 new locomotives to replace their existing fleet. This year the NCTD Board agreed to buy 2 additional locomotives from Siemens. The first new locomotive is expected by August 2020.
The other NCTD rail service is the Sprinter which is a Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) train (with one or two DMU cars) which now runs every half hour most of the day the 22 miles between Oceanside and Escondido with 15 station stops in between. It has been in service since 2008. There are hopes to at least run more frequent service on the Sprinters. What is holding this back is most of the Sprinter service is run on single track railroad. There are short segments of double track at the Oceanside and Escondido terminals. In between are 3 passing sidings total located one each in Oceanside, Vista and Escondido. To add more trains and or to reduce running times more double tracking will be needed. Planning by NCTD from 2017 spoke of 20 minute headways on the Sprinter service with track improvements for a future third hourly train. Future plans have also called for service every 15 minutes with 4 trains an hour. This isn’t expected before 2023. This will all be based on approval for funding which hasn’t happen yet.
What is new, at least for me are plans (coming from SANDAG no doubt) to operate in the future combined Sprinter and Coaster rail service between Escondido to San Diego on the coast and north of Oceanside. The issue with this currently is the Sprinter Line between Escondido and Oceanside can’t by FRA regulations share tracks with mixed lightweight DMU equipment and locomotive hauled passenger and freight trains. There is no word from the NCTD how this will be done. Will they have to buy new DMU equipment which can be run along with heavy locomotive hauled trains? Or will new tracks have to be laid on both lines to separate DMU trains from locomotive motive hauled trains? There is no doubt whatever solution is agreed on to, will require major changes to the platforms at the stations. The platforms at stations used by Coaster Trains along the Surf Line are all 8 to 15 inches above rail for low level platform loading. But the Sprinter train stations all have high level platforms. It might be simpler to run all these trains on the same tracks with the same platform height as the locomotive hauled trains. I don’t see this happening in 5 years though.
There are other rail related projects being planned by NCTD. One goes back to 2013 with the Marine Corps asking the NCTD to build a transit center at Camp Pendleton. This would be near the Stewart Mesa maintenance facility on base used now by both Coaster and Metrolink trains. A transit center at Camp Pendleton would be a joint train station and transfer hub for NCTD buses which serve the base. No firm word when this is expected to happen. One easy project which just needs funding is a train platform at the Convention Center in downtown San Diego. This parallels the San Diego Trolley Green Line between the Santa Fe Depot and the 12th and Imperial Trolley transfer station. Such a Coaster Station at the Convention Center would serve many markets besides the Convention Center. This includes Petco Park, the baseball stadium for the San Diego Padres as well as the nearby Gaslight District with its many restaurants and bars. The Coaster equipment is usually stored between runs at the San Diego Trolley Maintenance Facility not far from the Convention Center.
Another goal of the North County Transit District is bridging the “Last mile” to and from passenger destinations and station stops. NCTD has recently started an on call ride service to and from the Poinsettia Coaster station in Carlsbad to many of the employment centers clustered around nearby McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad. There is also now an experimental ride service in downtown Oceanside serving the Transit Center. Now in the works is a shuttle bus for the California State University at San Marcos Station to carry passengers to more of the sprawling college campus. At least so far none of the Coaster or Sprinter stations in north county have rental bikes or electric scooters parked there. Another plan according to NCTD in the future are to promote construction of more housing and commercial development near stations. Much of this is happening already at both Coaster and Sprinter Stations. No word if this a direct result of efforts by NCTD or happens independently .