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Del Mar train tracks
City lawmakers widely agree the regional transit agency should move the tracks off the bluffs to a proposed inland tunnel under the city. Photo by Dan Brendel
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Del Mar city officials blast railway fencing plan

DEL MAR — Del Mar city officials criticized a regional transit district plan to erect fencing along a blufftop railway at their Jan. 11 meeting, saying the plan unilaterally overlooks alternatives that could preserve pedestrian coastal access.

Residents and visitors frequently walk along or across the tracks to reach scenic seaside bluffs and the beach, despite posted no-trespassing signs. Trains, which carry commuters and freight up to 50 miles per hour, struck 12 people in Del Mar over 5 years, according to risk analysis conducted by a North County Transit District, or NCTD.

For instance, an Amtrak train hit and seriously injured a man running on the tracks on July 18. The man didn’t hear the train coming because he wore earphones.

City lawmakers widely agree North County Transit District should move the tracks off of the bluffs to a proposed inland tunnel under the city. SANDAG, a regional agency and gatekeeper for big federal transportation dollars, plans to undertake such a project, at an estimated cost of up to $3.5 billion, but not for decades.

In the meantime, for a “minimum investment,” chain-link fencing along the tracks would provide the “most effective” mitigation of risk trespassers pose, North County Transit District consultant Lurae Stewart told councilmembers Monday.

No councilmembers favor that option.

Del Mar City Hall
Del Mar City Hall. Photo by Dan Brendel

Mayor Terry Gaasterland said the regional transit agency should focus risk mitigation near the existing Coast Boulevard crossing, where most train strikes occurred, rather than uniformly across the city.

“We need to focus the safety resources where they’re needed,” she said. “A few punctuated areas” could become legal crossings, with gates to block pedestrians temporarily while trains pass.

Councilman Dwight Worden acknowledged North County Transit District’s “totally legit” interest in increasing safety, but believes so far, the agency has failed to recognize competing interests and tradeoffs.

“The study NCTD has done so far looks only from their perspective, it doesn’t address the legitimate needs for access and … collaboration with the communities,” Worden said. “For an agency that’s going to increase the number of trains by double, … but basically wash its hands of any responsibility to address the access needs that are caused by that, strikes me as unreasonable.”

Worden said the transit agency should consider alternatives, such as slowing trains through the city, which might reduce risk to a “good enough” level, leaving fencing a “last resort.”

For comparison, cities generally accept the risk of vehicles hitting bicyclists and jaywalkers, without installing physical barriers along roads, he said.

Other councilmembers agreed the agency overstates the risk.

“Savvy beach people and surfers … are very safety-minded and probably cross the tracks hundreds of times a year,” with only a “relatively low percentage” getting hit, Councilwoman Tracy Martinez said. “It’s really hard to quantify the risk” because NCTD counts only strikes, but not crossings that occur without incident.

Because trains pass only occasionally, “for 99.99% of the people that enter the [railroad’s] right-of-way, they are not at risk,” Councilman Dave Druker said.

In the past, North County Transit District has taken a hard line on the matter.

“NCTD is advancing the fencing project in an expeditious manner,” Executive Director Matthew Tucker said in a Nov. 16 letter. “NCTD will not engage in any discussions … to create coastal access or garner approval for installation of a fence.”

While declining to discuss fencing plans in detail, Tony Kranz, chairman of North County Transit District and Encinitas councilman, took a softer tone Monday.

“It’s my hope that we can continue that conversation and get to the point where we have an agreement that people can live by.”