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  • Roux Reilly

Climate Change and Coastal Infrastructure: How Amtrak is proving to be a Case Study for the future


A little over a month ago, Amtrack’s Pacific Surfliner had to halt all trains traveling from Oceanside to Irvine due to emergency repairs needed along the oceanfront tracks in San Clemente. Heavy rainfall from Hurricane Kay, high tides, and rising sea levels caused the soil under and surrounding the rail line to destabilize enough for the company to deem the route dangerous for passage.

This disruption caused an understandable ripple of discontent throughout Surfliner’s customers. “I had to wait at Union State for six hours,” said Julie Hotz, a passenger traveling for work during the initial shutdown, “to get on a train to a bus because there’s no direct service down to San Diego.” As of right now, Amtrak has in place scheduled bus services to get passengers from Oceanside to Irvine while the tracks continue to be repaired.

Track shutdowns like these are a major inconvenience for the almost 3 million people who annually rely on the Surfliner to reach their destinations in the 27 major cities it connects throughout Southern California. Instances like these, which include over 40 miles of track connecting two major cities, Los Angeles and San Diego, will only continue to perpetually expand in extremity because of the rising agent that is climate change.

While soil erosion by itself and in small instances is nothing to be too concerned about, combined with rising sea levels and increasing tropical storms exacerbated by climate change, is. Climate change accounts for the rise in strong weather, such as the increase in tropical storms, which beat down on the tracks and erode the soil, and the rise in sea level, which creates larger waves that tear away the shore from the land.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, by 2050 sea levels off the coast of the US are set to rise 10-12 inches, which will be as much as the rise measured from 1920-2020. It will create massive shifts in coastal flooding because of an increase in storm surges whereby 2050 damaging flooding is expected to occur 10 times as often as it does today. These storm surges will continue to damage coastal infrastructure, such as the Surfliner’s rails, and impede coastal transportation.

In the case of Southern California’s Amtrak shutdown, the specific issue is how climate change both underpins and exacerbates the damaging effects of human development on coastal infrastructure. Bob Guza, a professor at Scripps, says that so much of the landscape has been altered by people that these track failures due to coastal erosion keep happening. Guza explains that this includes two distinct types of developments. The first is the damming of rivers, which keeps sand from replenishing beaches, and the construction of railroad tracks, which tend to be supported by concrete walls of rocks or other materials against the sea. He further adds that the excessive watering of vegetation both on private lawns and golf courses also adds to this issue.

Previous attempts to keep railroads and passenger cars from disappearing into the sea have only addressed the short-term problem, that is, fixing the stability of the rails to the point where the train cars can safely move on them again. Just last year in September this exact problem of coastal erosion eating away the Metrolink tracks caused a three week long temporary shutdown. The area affected was the same as this year’s– the tracks along San Clemente’s coastline. In response to this, Paul Gonzales, spokesman for Metrolink, the Orange County rail company, told The San Diego Union-Tribune that freight cars will deposit tons of boulders and other rocks onto the ocean-facing side of the tracks in Orange County as reinforcements against the sea and coastal erosion.

38% of Southern California’s coastlines are armored in this way, however, this actually speeds up the process which is making our beaches disappear and destroying coastal infrastructure faster. This is an example of human development that fixes the short-term problem of stabilizing the train tracks, but may prove damaging in the long-run. As emphasized by Timu Gallien, a professor at UCLA, the main problem is that coastal sediment is not getting replenished thanks to urbanization, dams, and ‘coastal armoring’ like the repairs being done for Amtrak right now.

This type of solution works… until it doesn’t, as evident with last month’s reopening of this coastal wound. There are bigger fish here at play, and it’s important to understand the tricky situation these types of transportation companies are in whose tracks run along the ocean. Short term solutions are effective because of their ability to be erected quickly and maintain the efficiency of transportation for the Surfliner– solutions that seem more practical than long-term solutions that include constructing an entirely new train line further inland near Del Mar that would cost upwards of $300 million and take decades to complete. After all, Surfliner, Amtrak’s second-busiest rail corridor that boasted 2.7 million passengers in 2019 cannot afford to simply retire one of their most prosperous tracks for decades to rebuild it more inland.

The rise in sea levels and coastal erosion exacerbated by climate change poses serious economic and general transportation implications for the US. This issue is not confined to the theater of the West Coast, the East Coast is also facing similar, if not worse, challenges. Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC) route is one of the busiest and most important modes of transportation for the East Coast, as it connects eight states and the District of Columbia and provides transportation for more than 260 million people per year. In 2018, a climate study completed by Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. and Stantec Inc titled “Amtrak NEC Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment described a portion of the NEC’s route between Boston and Washington as facing “continual inundation.” This included excessive flooding along the tracks, rising sea levels, and storm surges, all in abundance to an extreme that would effectively increase erosion of the 10-mile section of the 457 miles of track and impact the smooth function of the NEC.

Even with the dangers presented to the track in the wake of the Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment, both the authors of the report and Christina Leeds, Amtrak spokesperson, downplayed the “relocation of the infrastructure [in Delaware]” as it would be “expensive, disruptive, or impractical… and well beyond [the company’s] means.” Those opinions were released in 2018, but if the 2021 and 2022 emergency shutdown of the San Clemente tracks has taught us anything, it should be that Amtrak needs to change its frame of mind in which they view the severity of these challenges climate change poses. This proves just how unequipped the US is in dealing with the ramifications of climate change on coastal infrastructure.

When short-term solutions are put in place, like building temporary flood walls that could be made relatively quickly and cost $24 million per mile of track, they only temporarily solve the problem. But with how pivotal this transportation system is to the country’s economy and millions of passengers, a drawn-out long-term solution halts all production and impedes the company’s ability to maintain its schedule. But the flooding of tracks and erosion of soil cannot be overlooked for long, as climate change continues to eat away at the country’s coastlines. As stated by Stephen Gardner, Amtrak executive vice president, and chief commercial officer, we’re in the heart of all our cities, if there’s a risk, there’s a risk to much more than us.

In the face of all of this, what exactly is being done to mediate this complex and multi-dimensional issue? One of the most important long-term solutions is the development of natural infrastructure. As defined by the NOAA Office for Coastal Management, this includes the incorporation of mangroves, wetlands, oyster reefs, and sand dunes into coastal renovations to function as a more reliable and successful buffer against the inching threats of coastal flooding and erosion. It is estimated that natural infrastructure will provide $23.2 billion in storm protection services every year.

As sea levels continue to rise due to climate change and exacerbate coastal erosion and the effects of human development along the United States coastlines, Amtrak must adopt new strategies to ensure the security and safety of its coastal infrastructure for its passengers. This includes considering the possibility and immediate implementation of long-term strategies to protect the rail line and the millions of people that rely on the network for transportation. The incident of a portion of Surfliner’s tracks in San Clemente falling prey to coastal erosion and rising sea levels is a reminder of the reality of climate change and its presence in our day-to-day lives.

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