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American Rail in Shambles: Legendary Amtrak Pacific Surfliner Closed Due to Erosion | Frommer's Shutterstock / Cory Woodruff

American Rail in Shambles: Legendary Amtrak Pacific Surfliner Closed Due to Erosion

The famous Pacific Surfliner in Southern California, the second-busiest intercity rail corridor in the United States with some 3 million riders a year, has been closed.

A coastal section of the route—which is shared by Amtrak, Metrolink commuter trains, and freight carriers—is now so threatened by erosion that it now poses "safety concerns," according to Amtrak, forcing authorities to shut down the route, which is a favorite of tourists, between Irvine (south of Los Angeles) and San Diego.

"Working with geologists, geotechnical engineers, and surveyors, we have determined [that] to ensure passenger safety service, suspension is necessary," reads a notice on the website of Metrolink. "Until we have confirmation from the experts the slope movement has stopped, we will not resume Metrolink service."

The route is the only rail link between San Diego and the rest of the country.

Some sources estimate the closure will last about two months, but don't count on it, because this is a recurring unsolved issue.

The same stretch of rail, which was built on an erosion-prone bluff left behind by an ancient landslide, caused another closure in February of 2021. And it's not the only section of the route that has been determined to be extremely dangerous. There's a 1.7-mile patch 40 miles south, through Del Mar, that also concerns geologists.

Experts keep trying to shore up the loose sections with boulders and landfill, but those have been Band-Aid measures thanks to of scanty funding. The problem persists and recurs, and they won't be solved without an appropriate re-routing of the line through safer corridors.

Transportation advocates have tried for years to begin a $4 billion tunnel beneath Del Mar, but political resistance has prevented proper action.

Now, at this point, the earliest such a tunnel could be completed is 2035, according to planning reports.

And it's not the only part of American rail system that has been shut down by benign neglect.

The Gulf Coast route once traveled three times daily between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, but has been dormant for 17 years and counting after Hurricane Katrina knocked it out. So far, no amount of government funds have been able to surmount the thicket of political and bureaucratic hurdles to getting it open again.

Another of America's other most popular rail routes, which departed once daily in either direction and was popular with both sightseers and travelers alike, was the Adirondack, which links New York City and Montréal through the Hudson Valley and historic upstate New York. That was shut down for the Covid-19 pandemic, but despite the return to normal travel operations elsewhere, it has yet to return.

"What’s holding back the Adirondack, the only one of Amtrak’s three international trains still not operating?" asks Streetsblog. "We can’t say for sure because Amtrak and the New York State [Department of Transportation] will not fully disclose the holdups, which stem from negotiations with Canadian railroads over track conditions and access with border-control agencies."

Adding to those closures, which have been caused by infrastructure neglect and political gridlock, in 2020 Amtrak unilaterally slashed daily service in nearly 500 cities in cost-cutting moves designed to put the carrier on more stable financial footing.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle whose constituents are affected by failing rail services have begged Amtrak to restore services, but the rail carrier counters by citing labor costs of its own.

Amtrak, utterly hamstrung by the systems it's currently forced to operate under, is not serving America's needs. And we desperately need it for our future.

The American rail system is clearly in dire straits, and so far, we're not seeing any holistic plans to bring it back to health and thrive in the future. That's not only a risk to commuters and travelers. It's a risk to everyone, because without rail options for freight, inflation skyrockets and our thriving consumer economy grinds to a halt.

Whenever transportation systems rely on increased consumption of more fossil fuels from the oil and gas industries, Americans always seem to find funds. Highways and airports across the U.S. always seem to secure money and land use rights when someone wants to move them forward.

But when it comes to rail travel in America, we're always going in the wrong direction.

The $66 billion in funding from the bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed last year will go toward much-needed improvements such as improving access for disabled riders and fleet upgrades, but these efforts merely shore up a crumbling and antiquated system based on bygone technology.

Like stuffing new boulders under the sagging rails under the Pacific Surfliner, these efforts can only do so much good because they're being applied to a hobbled system. We support that investment for now because that's what it takes to keep things rolling, but there comes a point when the entire thing needs holistic modernization, backed by a blue sky vision, so that we're no longer throwing good money after bad.

To get us back on track and give us the future option of parking our cars—something we'll want to do more often as fuel prices rise and the population increases—we not only need the will to build a rail infrastructure can endure, but also, perhaps more critically, potentially create a brand new system of governance and funding that enables the necessary changes to be made—no more Band-Aids, no more benign neglect. China and Europe invest in their rail systems to give their citizens options and a competitive edge. America flounders.

We don't just need the social will to overrule the forces that try to kill our rail options. We also need a financial and regulatory system that more easily facilitate the development of those options.

Just like the rail beds in Southern California and in the Gulf states, the entire American rail system needs to be reconceived from the ground up. 

If it isn't, Americans won't have travel options in the future.

Update: As of Feb. 4, 2023, the tracks in San Clemente have been stabilized and weekend train trips from San Diego have resumed.