Santa Barbara mudslides boost traffic on coastal California trains

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Amtrak F59PHI No. 460 leads Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train 769 north into Seacliff, Calif., as the Thomas fire eats at the acres of dry vegetation along the hillsides in the background in December. Heavy rains caused mudslides in the same area in early January.
Alex Gillman
LOS ANGELES — Though it may not be the way to San Jose, Amtrak is now the best way for Southern Californians to visit Santa Barbara, Calif., from the south as the railroad adds equipment to its coastal California passenger trains.

The continued closure of U.S. Route 101 in Santa Barbara County, Calif., following last weeks’ deadly mudslide, has brought windfall business to Amtrak Pacific Surfliner trains, with Amtrak and Caltrans making fast moves to accommodate stranded commuters.

On Saturday, a swollen southbound Coast Starlight brought extra cars and locomotives south from the pool of equipment normally used on Capital Corridor and San Joaquin trains. The next day, normal six-car Pacific Surfliner consists were running as nine-car trains, with power at each end. Platforms at Santa Barbara and Carpenteria, Calif., were said to be clogged with patrons, and long station dwell times, as well as slow orders in the flooded area, made schedule-keeping a challenge.

The Union Pacific tracks fared much better than the adjacent freeway, with mud and debris over the rails but no reports of undermining. Route 101, at several key interchanges, was a sea of mud, with state employees and contractors working though day and night with vacuum trucks and heavy equipment attempting to clear the mess. Each time they would appear to make progress, more wet muck would flow into the area. Surface streets which normally could accommodate some bypass traffic are either closed or open only to emergency and construction vehicles, thus the reliance on the rails — or a 5-hour detour “the long way” — to get in or out of the affluent beachside communities near Santa Barbara.

Local officials apparently explored the idea of using borrowed cars to run shuttle trains back and forth between cities on the edge of the freeway closure — Goleta to the north and Carpenteria to the south — but railroad officials nixed the idea on the mostly single-track route, citing potential delays to scheduled trains and delays to the work crews doing surfacing work and ballast cleaning in the areas where debris had been over the tracks.

Caltrans officials say they'll have a better estimate on when the local highways can open by Jan. 16.

The flash flood was the result of what meteorologists call a “200-year storm event” following the Thomas Fire in the mountains of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, one of the largest wildfires in California history. Two people — including one firefighter — died in the blaze and the death toll from the flood stands at 20. Rescue crews continue to pick through the debris for more victims.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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