Plowing forward through partisan-fueled funding delays and initial contractual wrangling, a $2.4-billion program to electrify 52 miles of commuter rail in Northern California—the largest effort of its kind in the nation—is nearing the terminus after seven years.

The planned shutdown of Caltrain train service between San Francisco and San Jose June 8-9 is slated to be the last, as the agency tests its new electric train fleet with anticipated passenger service in September. The project will increase corridor capacity to 110,000 from 65,000 daily riders.

“It’s a 100-year corridor,” says Pranaya Shrestha, Caltrain chief operating officer. “Taking a diesel corridor and electrifying it was a huge undertaking. We had to keep diesel service in place while working with Balfour Beatty to upgrade and put in infrastructure for electrification.”

Caltrain hired Shrestha in 2021 from HNTB as interim program chief to get the project back on track after delays and cost increases to the original $1.98-billion estimate. Unexpected underground conditions, the pandemic and a three-month deferral of a $647-million federal grant in 2017 were all contributing factors to the missed deadlines. In February 2017, a group of Republicans wrote a letter to then-U.S. Dept. of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, urging her to defer the grant based on their opposition to the planned California high-speed rail system, of which the otherwise stand-alone project is a component.

Contract disputes with main contractor Balfour Beatty and a new federal risk refresh report in 2021 estimated that the project would need an additional $330 million, Caltrain said in June 2021. “The project was identified as at-risk by Federal Transit Administration and the California High Speed Rail Authority since they invested in it,” Shresthsa says. “We had to do a recovery and remediation plan for them. It’s been quite a turnaround in two years.” 

The turnaround also included the way the entities did business. “We were at a point where we needed to change the relationship,” says Shresthsa. “We addressed potential claims and change orders.” The agency also installed a $50-million jointly managed risk pool with Balfour Beatty to address future risks, he adds.

The emphasis on collaboration entailed a “zipper” approach where the agency and contractor had their top leadership counterparts meet regularly, he adds. “The chairs did monthly phone calls and visits. The CEOs had weekly call-ins. It could be as simple as grabbing coffee together.” 

“The risk pool was ingenious to making this a win-win,” says Keith McCoy, senior vice president of operations with Balfour Beatty. Major disputes were settled by fall 2021, and “we’ve resolved every issue since.”

Overcoming Unknowns

The overall $2.4-billion program includes purchase of 133 rail cars which will provide a total of 19 seven-car trainsets. A 25-kv AC Overhead Catenary System (OCS) will serve as the power source for the new electric vehicles. The OCS will be powered by two traction power substations, one switching substation and seven paralleling substations. Balfour Beatty also replaced signal systems and existing facilities.

Crews typically only had five-hour windows of night work, including mobilization and safety briefings, says McCoy. “This was not normal construction, with a fence around it. [Non-revenue service] trains were running right through.” 

The infrastructure upgrades included construction of two, double-circuit 115-kV transmission connections from the substations in South San Francisco and San Jose to Caltrain traction power stations, rebuilding the two substations that enable electric company PG&E to support redundant transmission feeds and maintenance facility upgrades to support the new system.

The new OCS poles are typically spaced 180 ft to 200 ft apart, with heights between 30 ft and 45 ft. Poles sit on drilled piers up to 36 in. in diameter with average depths of 30 ft. “Everyone sees the catenaries and poles, but they don’t see the underground part,” says McCoy. Work included tying off the tracks, grounding, and building ten substations to feed the catenaries. 

Underground conditions included “stuff left over from a 100-plus-year corridor,” says Shresthsa. “There were lots of conflicts—old foundations, lots of leftover project debris abandoned in place.” Part of the new collaborative approach was giving authority to managers in the field to address issues quickly, he adds.

With electrification of traditionally diesel-train corridors still relatively new, everyone had to overcome a learning curve. The workforce—including electrical unions and maintenance facility staff—had to be trained, notes McCoy. Along with Caltrain consultants, “we pulled in [Balfour Beatty] sources from across the world to figure it out,” he says.