Caltrain locomotives sit in their bays at the Caltrain station at Fourth and Townsend streets on Wednesday, May 29, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Federal monitor warns Caltrain electrification project faces two-year delay

Independent June report calls progress far behind original schedule.

Caltrain’s soon-to-come electrified trains may one day whisk commuters from the South Bay to San Francisco with BART-like frequency, easing congestion on freeways and bolstering the local economy.

But, a federal monitor has warned, that day may be slipping further and further away.

The Caltrain Electrification Project, part of Caltrain’s overall modernization effort, is facing potential construction delays of two years, according to a contractor’s assessment.

That assessment was documented by an independent federal oversight monitor in a June report.

“The overall progress of work is far behind the original schedule,” that oversight monitor warned. Foundation placement and the installation of the overhead electrical contact system are “far behind” initial projections, they wrote.

San Francisco’s now train-less $2.2 billion Salesforce Transit Center is counting on that electrification project, too. One day, the transit center’s empty basement tunnels will be brimming with modern electric Caltrain cars.

“The more things get pushed back, the more delays we see, the further away we are from a rail system that meets the demands of the region,” said Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents San Francisco neighborhoods where Caltrain service lands.

He added, “We’ve got the most expensive bus station in the world that needs trains urgently.”

That two-year delay is not set in stone, but the report warns that an evaluation is needed to solidify an estimate of just how far off schedule the Caltrain electrification project has slipped.

But the federal oversight monitor wrote in a June report, “The Electrification contractor’s most recent Schedule Update Narrative for May 2019 shows a Substantial Completion date of March 3, 2022, compared to the contractual date of August 10, 2020, which represents a further slippage.”

That continued date slippage is due to a “day-for-day delay” by the contractor, the federal oversight monitor warned. Construction was originally scheduled for completion by 2020, and trains were aimed at being in service by 2022.

Caltrain, for its part, said it is firm that construction is on schedule for 2021, with trains expected to be running by 2022. That date is also a change — Caltrain’s program plan initially showed the electrification project’s “substantial completion” marked for August 2020, but Caltrain acknowledged in its own project report that this date has slipped to September 2021.

“In recent months we have been able to make up some of that lost ground,” Caltrain spokesperson Dan Lieberman said, in a statement. “At this time, we do not expect this to affect the overall timeline of the project, and we’re still looking forward to the launch of revenue service in 2022.”

Caltrain’s $1.9 billion modernization program includes its electrification project, which will electrify the train corridor from San Francisco to San Jose. That modernization program’s chief officer is John Funghi, who was hired in 2017. Previously, he headed San Francisco’s Central Subway Project, a Muni train extension which also has seen its share of delays hit headlines.

Electrification will see Caltrain’s diesel-hauled trains go the way of the dodo, and form the foundation of a track extension into the Transbay Transit Center, now called the Salesforce Transit Center. And the upgrades may also form the backbone of a potential second transbay crossing decades in the future, which may include both Caltrain and BART.

But the recent federal oversight monitor’s report casts doubt that the project will arrive on time.

Caltrain pushed back on a reading of the oversight monitor’s report, which is known in the construction world as a Project Management Oversight Committee report.

That report did not warn of a date slippage, they contend. Lieberman wrote in a statement, “the document states that both we and the PMOC are in agreement on September of 2021.”

While it is accurate that the oversight monitor stated a projected completion date of 2021, they also state that the contractor has warned of a completion date of 2022, and an intensive schedule review is, “expected to be a significant effort, but necessary to gain a clear understanding of the current status of the project’s schedule.”

Traditionally, federal oversight monitors do not revise projected completion forecasts until such investigations are complete.

That PMOC report is also not publicly available on Caltrain’s website, a break in common practice with other transit agencies, leading to concern from Caltrain officials. It is a public document.

Instead, the report was provided to the San Francisco Examiner by a source under the condition of anonymity and became the heated subject of discussion at the Caltrain board’s meeting Thursday.

Cheryl Brinkman, a member of the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which provides oversight over Caltrain, warned agency staff that they should be more transparent with the project’s issues.

“I don’t want us to suddenly down the line have a delay announced every year,” Brinkman said. “I think it just shakes the public’s confidence in what we’re doing.”

At the same meeting, Gillian Gillett, chair of Caltrain’s board, said she spent a “sleepless night” looking over the project’s oversight report, and other such reports.

“Actually looking at the report, it gave me concern,” Gillett told the board. “Notably, that we have an ongoing set of issues with our contractor and that we don’t really have a project schedule.”

Adina Levin, a Caltrain citizen watchdog and co-founder of Friends of Caltrain, said delays are understandable, but transparency is necessary.

“Caltrain electrification can be the foundation of much greater transit ridership on Caltrain and the trains network, with many fewer cars on the road,” Levin said. “There are going to be many bumps and challenges along the way, and sharing updates is better for public confidence than late disclosure of bad news.”

In perhaps some good news for any potential Caltrain mishap, Salesforce Transit Center officials don’t think a two-year delay would impact the downtown extension project, which would see Caltrain extended from Fourth and King Station to the new transbay terminal, which is known as “phase 2” of the transit center project.

“The TJPA is not shovel-ready for phase 2 and a two-year delay is within the design process schedule based on the current timeline and progress,” Christine Falvey, a spokesperson for the project, wrote in a statement. “A two year delay (should there be one, would not impact the project.”

That project is so far in the future, any delay seemingly wouldn’t harm its construction at all.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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