Caltrain officials are worried that the railroad’s electrification project may be delayed because of construction challenges associated with underground utilities. 

Crews are currently constructing foundations for the poles needed to support the overhead catenary system, which will power the electric trains.

But that work is slowing down because crews continue to encounter utilities in the ground.

In July, 101 pole foundations were completed, a drop-off from the 122 foundations constructed in June.

John Funghi, chief officer of the Caltrain Modernization Program, attributed that setback to the fact that work is currently being done in San Jose, which is home to a relatively large number of underground utilities along the corridor. 

“We’re struggling right now in getting cleared holes,” he said during a Thursday meeting. “What I mean by clearing the holes is making the necessary design adjustments based on the encountering of utilities. … Some of these utilities are abandoned and there’s no way of knowing if they’re alive or not.”

Electric Caltrain trains are scheduled to debut on May 6, 2022, and to meet that date, crews will have to complete 1,959 more foundations by June 2020, which comes out to a monthly average of 174 foundations. During the meeting, Board Member Dev Davis noted that crews have not yet come close to installing that many foundations in a month.

There is a five-month “float” period for completing the pole foundations without affecting the overall schedule, which means crews would have until November to complete that phase of work. To meet a November deadline, an average of 115 pole foundations would have to be installed each month. Davis described that number as “more doable.”

Funghi said more and more resources are being devoted to overcoming the utilities problem, adding that crews are capable of installing as many as 174 foundations in a month, suggestively if utilities are not a factor.

Still, Board Member Cindy Chavez appeared doubtful that the work would be completed on time.

“At what point do you just change the goal?” she asked. “Because even if you have capacity to achieve something and we’re not meeting that capacity when do you make the call to say we’re not going to be able to meet this goal, we just set it too high, we learned from the past and this is what it means for the future?” 

Chavez added that she had additional thoughts on the subject that were better suited for the closed session portion of the meeting.

Funghi said he remains confident that the project will be completed on time, adding that the prediction is dependent on the prevalence of utilities.

“We believe the goal is very achievable, but it is dependent on conditions in the ground,” he said.

That said, he did note that if the November deadline for completing foundations is missed by, say, one month, then opening day for electrification will also be pushed back by as much time.

Board Chair Gillian Gillett at the end of the meeting announced an ad-hoc committee comprised of board members Ron Collins, Jeanne Bruins and Cheryl Brinkman to “keep this momentum going.” 

A workshop with Caltrain and the FTA will occur in September or October during which officials will further study the timeline of the project and determine if it’s still on schedule, said Caltrain spokesman Dan Lieberman. 

In other business, Caltrain’s annual ridership count revealed a 2.3% decline in weekday ridership, with an average mid-weekday ridership of about 63,597. Caltrain is still above capacity and trains are often packed. Ridership has grown dramatically since 2010, when average weekday ridership was 34,120.

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