Caltrain, Safety Contractor Trade Lawsuits

SAN MATEO, Calif. (CN) – The San Francisco Bay Area’s main rail transit system and its safety contractor filed parallel lawsuits and continue blame each other for significant delays in the implementation of a safety system designed to prevent catastrophic train crashes.

The Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, Caltrain’s governing body, sued Illinois-based rail-transit contractor Parsons this past week, claiming Parsons repeatedly missed deadlines and failed to implement safety measures according to a contractually stipulated timeline. The board seeks $98 million in damages.

Parsons filed a lawsuit of its own on Feb. 22, also in San Mateo Superior Court, saying Caltrain’s decision to void its contract for the computerized safety overhaul was unlawful, particularly as many of the delays the contractor encountered were created by Caltrain itself.

Caltrain maintains Parsons bears the responsibility for not completing the work by the agreed upon deadline, which was initially slated for about a year and a half ago.

“Despite its repeated assurances, made both orally and in writing, that it would meet the deadline, Parsons failed to deliver the CBOSS PTC system on Oct. 31, 2015,” the board said in its complaint.

The CBOSS PTC system refers to a Positive Train Control system, which is a computerized mechanism employed to monitor and control train movement over the railway network. The system has a backup that automatically stops trains in the event of an impending collision.

Together, the systems are designed to reduce tragic railway accidents typically caused by human error, such as conductors becoming distracted, falling asleep or travelling at excessive speeds.

In 2008, 25 people were killed outside of Los Angeles when a Union Pacific freight train collided with a Metrolink commuter passenger train. The accident is thought to have been the result of a distracted engineer and served as a prompt for the development of system.

More recently, one person was killed and another 110 were injured in New Jersey when a commuter train crashed at the Hoboken Terminal during morning rush hour.

Transportation officials believe these two accidents and similar ones that have occurred around the nation could have been prevented by PTC systems, which is why the U.S. Department of Transportation passed a mandate in 2010 that stipulated commuter rails networks must implement the safety measures.

With this in mind, Caltrain – which operates a commuter rail network in the Bay Area connecting Silicon Valley to San Francisco – put out a request for bids to install its computerized safety system.

Although not the lowest bidder, Caltrain chose Parsons based its representations about skill and expertise in delivering the implementation of safety systems on time and on budget, according to the board’s complaint.

The contract was awarded in October 2011 with a firm deadline of October 2015 for completion of the installation.

With the deadline come and gone and the work still not complete, Caltrain terminated its contract with Parson on Feb. 24, and sued the following week.

“Due to PTG’s continued failure to perform, combined with their potential to cause program delay, the decision to terminate was necessary to keep the program on schedule while also exercising cost control over its delivery,” Caltrain’s chief operations officer Michelle Bouchard said in an emailed statement.

Along with a failure to implement the safety system, Parson neglected to install on-board computer systems necessary to track trains according to the timeline set forth in the contract. The company also failed to cooperate with the Federal Rail Administration at different steps of the system upgrade as required, according to the Caltrain board’s complaint.

“Parsons’ conduct was in flagrant disregard of the regulations and established procedures, and could have caused a significant problem had the software malfunctioned,” the board says in the complaint. “As a purported expert in train technology, Parsons’ actions are particularly reprehensible.”

Meanwhile, Parsons filed its own lawsuit after Caltrain terminated the contract in February, saying the delays in the construction and implementation of the safety system were due to events beyond their control.

“Parsons has provided the JPB with a detailed summary of the issues and events that have caused previous schedule delays,” a Parsons representative said.

Some of the delays were caused by Caltrain’s initiation of changes to the contract and the scope of work. Others included difficulties coordinating with the Federal Railroad Administration, limited access to the track on a daily basis and other issues the contractor say were a result of other parties’ actions, the company said.

Parsons maintains it should have been granted extensions, particularly as Caltrain bears some responsibility for the delays.

“Unfortunately, despite Parsons’ willingness to commit to the schedule proposed by [Caltrain, it] has elected to terminate Parsons’ contract,” the company said. “Parsons believes that it has been wrongfully terminated and that the JPB has no contractual or legal basis to consider Parsons in default of its contract.”

Parsons is also seeking compensatory damages in its lawsuit, but did not specify the amount.

In the meantime, Caltrain has said it will look for another contractor to complete the implementation of the safety system and associated measures.

Most of the installation work has been completed, but Caltrain is looking for another contractor to complete the testing process needed before the system can be up and running.

Caltrain spokeswoman Tasha Bartholomew said customers “should not be worried about the safety of our system as a result of this delay,” and that the rail system is “pretty far along in the process.”

Federal regulations mandate the installation by the end of 2018.

Parsons is represented by Bennett Lee of Varela Lee Metz & Guarino in San Francisco. Caltrain is represented by Andrew Giacomini of Hanson Bridgett, also in San Francisco.