Residents and others have long walked over the tracks, which carry commuters and freight, as a shortcut from residential cul-de-sacs to seaside bluffs and the beach, despite posted no-trespassing signs.
The North County Transit District, NCTD, plans to build a chain-link fence along the right-of-way or the strip of ground adjacent to the tracks. The fence aims “to deter a large number of trespassers, to protect the public from the self-evident dangers,” according to an Aug. 28 federal legal action NCTD filed.
Del Mar residents and city councilmembers have opposed NCTD’s unilateral move, calling for a collaborative approach with more public input. Some have called for additional designated pedestrian crossings instead of uninterrupted fencing.
“More legal crossings and channeling people to them will absolutely make a difference,” Councilwoman Terry Gaasterland told the NCTD board last week.
On Monday, council unanimously adopted a statement of its priorities in response to NCTD’s fencing plan. While “public safety is the number one criterion,” number two is “the ability of the public to safely access the coast.”
“Viewpoints, overlooks and access trails to and along the railroad right-of-way should be preserved, augmented or replaced where feasible.”
NCTD says it would support city efforts to plan for “alternative fencing” — something that allows greater access and looks nicer — and additional crossings, but not at NCTD’s expense.
“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.”
Del Mar would “need to independently acquire cost estimates for construction of an alternative fence,” as well as “assume responsibility for maintenance and repair” and “liability associated with any design deviation or use of NCTD’s right-of-way.”
“Installing new crossings is largely outside the purview of NCTD,” according to a recent NCTD risk reduction study.
But “we’re totally supportive of the city prioritizing funding and implementing a project and we stand ready to help the city go forth and ask for money” from funding agencies, Tucker said.
“Del Mar bluffs is our number one location for trespassing,” NCTD Chief of Safety Sean Loofbourrow.
In addition to public safety, NCTD worries about litigation.
NCTD Senior Legal Counsel Jacob Gould cited what he called an “illustrative” 2017 lawsuit, filed after someone trying to take a selfie on the tracks died.
“NCTD and BNSF [a railroad company] are still in this case … simply because of the ownership and control of operation on that railroad. That’s where the liability arises,” Gould said. “There’s a lot of discussion about, ‘well, folks are assuming the risk,’ [but] the court does not see it that way.”
He expects legal expenses will amount to $500,000, despite “no negligence” on NCTD or BNSF’s part. BNSF would absorb the cost under its shared use agreement with NCTD.
Eight people have died on the tracks in Del Mar since 2014, and others have been hurt.
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.
Sheriff’s deputies have issued nearly 2,000 verbal warnings, but only 171 citations for trespassing.