The Copenhagen rail line officials in Honolulu say they’re emulating faced so many problems that it earned the nickname “Blunderground,” according to a series of newspaper reports in the Copenhagen Post from 1999 to 2004.
City Council Transportation Chairman Breene Harimoto, who visited Copenhagen in late April, said he never heard anyone use that term for the metro system, but said Tuesday he was made aware of some of the early problems with the rail line.
“These kinds of big projects will have problems,” Harimoto said. “No matter how much you plan, there will be problems.”
The Copenhagen line is of particular interest locally because Honolulu officials in March announced they want to award a $1.1 billion contract to the same Italian rail manufacturer — Ansaldo — that handled the design, construction, operations and maintenance for the Copenhagen Metro.
In fact, Harimoto’s fact-finding trip was spurred by Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle‘s March announcement that Ansaldo Honolulu — a joint venture of two arms of the Italian company — was the city’s pick to design, build, operate and maintain the Honolulu line.
“The system owner is Metroselskabet, and we met with their general manager,” Harimoto said. “She was really open about telling us what happened there. She confirmed there were issues but, again, they expect issues with these kind of large projects.”
Newspapers in Denmark reported a slew of troubles with Ansaldo, including doors that wouldn’t close, late delivery of train cars and Ansaldo’s 2002 demand for retroactive payment for cost overruns to the tune of €67 million, the equivalent of about $96 million in 2011 dollars. According to the Copenhagen Post, Ansaldo also billed officials about €24 million, or about $35 million, for “extra work” to inspect the safety of the trains.
Newspapers in the United States have also reported technological and delivery problems with Ansaldo’s work in cities like Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Boston.
In a meeting with Civil Beat on Monday, Ansaldo Honolulu General Manager Enrico Fontana expressed frustration when asked about problems with the Copenhagen system when it initially opened, and avoided explaining exactly what happened.
“Of course in the infant stage, the system had some problems,” Fontana said. “First, these are very typical problems. All our competitors, everybody who is delivering these automatic, driverless systems — they are quite complex. So every high-tech system can face some minor problems.”
Harimoto offered a little more context, but was cautious not to divulge too much. He said city lawyers were “very clear” in warning him about how much to share given two protests by Ansaldo competitors that are still unresolved.
“I hope I’m not saying too much but the metro train doors, one of the issues they had was they opened up completely when more people tried to get in,” Harimoto said. “If somebody’s holding the door it caused delays in their schedule. So, working together, Ansaldo and Metroselskabet decided maybe it’s not the best thing to completely open it and then wait 10 seconds or whatever for it to clear. If I recall correctly, they now open up partially before closing.”
Fontana bristled when asked if these kinds of problems are so “typical” and “minor” that Honolulu should expect to see the same issues Copenhagen saw with its system.
“Look, those doors were brand-new doors made for brand-new vehicles,” Fontana said. “Basically, don’t forget that we are talking about 1998 to 2003, this first train in Copenhagen. The point is: We are not like GM delivering a truck or an SUV. Each project has its own train, so sometimes we have some issues. At that time, from Italy, we had a special task force of engineers and specialists we sent. They were working day and night to fix this problem. I suppose if anything arises here, for sure, we have people coming.”
As for complaints about late delivery of rail cars, Fontana said Honolulu’s schedule offers his company more than enough time to meet deadlines, especially because the guideway itself has yet to be built. Without getting into specifics, Harimoto seemed to suggest that Ansaldo was not entirely to blame for its reported tardiness.
“There were issues about delivery but, again, there are two sides to the story,” Harimoto said. “You’ve got one side and you’ve got the other side. The bottom line is that in the end, the metro people seem to be very pleased with the end-product.”
City rail officials, citing the ongoing protests, won’t speak about how they evaluated Ansaldo’s past record as part of its proposal for Honolulu. But Fontana is quick to defend his company’s ability to design, build, operate and maintain the Honolulu rail line as promised.
“Project by project, our skills are improving,” Fontana said. “If there is still any lack of perfection, we are reducing this time by time.”
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