Electrical Fire Investigation Into Central Subway Could Further Delay Its Opening

A June electrical fire inside the long-delayed Central Subway system was a lot more dangerous than we’d realized at the time, and its aftermath may push the Central Subway’s opening out to 2023 — a full five years past its original opening date.

There’s been a bit of recent discourse about the opening of the long-delayed Central Subway (it was originally supposed to open in 2018! Ha!), particularly in light of last week’s Pete Buttigieg and Nancy Pelosi tour of the facility. We also have Mission Local’s assessment that the project remains an enormous, poorly designed boondoggle that “will cripple Muni for years to come.”

The SFMTA’s website gives the vague, official opening date of “in 2022.” At a September 6 board meeting, SFMTA director Jeffrey Tumlin told the board that it would be “this fall,” but added, “I’m not yet giving a date.”

The good news is NBC Bay Area has a new report that mentions a “planned opening date in November.” Hey, that’s in just two months!

The bad news is that timeframe is in a report detailing that the opening date is completely in jeopardy because of fallout from a June electrical fire that was worse than we’d realized. NBC Bay Area adds that the investigation into the fire and parts requiring replacement “could threaten the already-delayed opening date for the new Muni line until next year.”

We knew that there had been a June 20 electrical fire at the Yerba Buena/Moscone station. What we did not realize was how dangerous it was, how poorly city departments responded to the blaze while it was in progress, and how several firefighters could have been killed. Moreover, if this had been an operating system with passengers, well, we shudder to think what may have happened.

NBC Bay Area has obtained security video of the fire breaking out, and this stuff is scary. At 8:23 p.m. the night of June 20, we see a blast from the back of an electrical cabinet. Two minutes later, a second burst of flames ignites, and then one minute later a third, sending smoke everywhere and molten material gushing out of the electrical cabinet. Fire crews arrived to extinguish the blaze, but couldn’t get in because they didn’t have keys to the place.

They’re able to break in through an emergency exit before any help from SFMTA or Muni arrives. But the smoke is too thick and they can’t see anything. Moreover, they couldn’t use water because of the risk of electrocution, so they have to call in carbon dioxide-equipped extinguisher units. Firefighters eventually put out the blaze, and no one is hurt.

But the California Public Utilities Commission has opened a probe into the incident. More urgently, a none-too-happy SF Fire Department put in a report to the National Fire Incident Reporting System, complaining that, in NBC Bay Area’s words, “the subway’s fire suppression system and emergency ventilation fans did not activate that night.”

And those were not operating by SFMTA’s choice. NBC Bay Area found those back-up systems were shut down “based on the cost” of an “accidental discharge,” in hopes of saving around $42,000. SFFD fumed in their report that “that means you are saying that one of our guys….is not worth $42,000.”

“Somebody could have been killed — they just were lucky this time,” veteran independent fire investigator Ken Buske told NBC Bay Area. “The Fire Department is walking into a situation where things are not as they should be,’’ which he says “then risks the lives of firefighters.”

There is also plenty of finger-pointing detailed between SFMTA and general contractor Tutor Perini. But the long and the short of it is that because of investigations and part replacement, NBC Bay Area says the subway’s opening “could potentially be further delayed to the first quarter of 2023 due to the lack of availability of specialty spare parts.”

Related: Pete Buttigieg and Nancy Pelosi Toured the Central Subway, Said It Looks Great [SFist]

Image: SFCTA

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