Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell made a surprise visit to the board of directors of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation on Thursday and cautioned that “there will be more problems” in the city’s troubled 20-mile, 21-station rail project.

It only took a couple of hours for Caldwell to be proven right at the same meeting when the HART staff revealed that a part in the floor of rail cars being manufactured in Italy is flawed and will have to be replaced.

The problem won’t cost the over-budget project more money, officials say, but could delay testing of rail cars before they are put into service.

The part is an aluminum beam resembling a two-by-four. Four beams run the length of the floor in each car.

HART Rail Train Number 1. 2 may 2016.
A Hitachi Rail Italy train that was already delivered to Honolulu Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The problem was discovered at the Hitachi Rail Italy plant that’s manufacturing the car frames by a HART inspector doing ultrasonic testing of a weld. The weld was fine, but the testing showed that the beams, whose honeycombed interiors were supposed to come through a mold in one piece, had failed to fuse in places.

During the 30-year life of the cars, the flaw could stretch and lead to cracks, said Justin Garrod, HART’s deputy director of core systems.

Hitachi has agreed to correct the problem, but is still testing to determine its extent. The rail line will include 20 trains of four cars, a total of 80 cars, at a cost of a little more than $2 million per car. Twenty-seven of the car frames are in various stages of assembly, including one complete train in Honolulu and 16 being assembled in Pittsburg, California.

None of the car frames shipped from Italy has been tested yet, Garrod said, although he suspects that at least one beam in every car contains the flaw.

The mold has been redesigned and Hitachi now believes it is able to produce beams without the defect, he said.

Hitachi has not yet determined how it will replace the parts. The process will be particularly tricky in cars that have already been assembled, Garrod said, requiring specialty jigs to hold the rest of the structure in place and a delicate process to remove the flawed beams and weld in new ones.

HART had planned to test the acceleration and braking of the new trains in 2017, and then look at processes such as signaling and automatic operations in 2018. Trains are supposed to start running on a limited basis in 2020, with the full 20-mile system from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center to open at the end of 2025.

It’s unclear if the problem will delay the train testing. Garrod said there are ways to do tests in parallel and compressed schedules. Hitachi also is likely to speed up production of the cars as the process becomes more familiar, he said.

A review of the extent of the problem and proposed solutions should be done by March, he said.

“We get one last chance with the Legislature” — Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell

Caldwell said after his address to the board, in which he warned to expect more problems, that he was unaware of the aluminum beam issue.

During the address, the mayor acknowledged the project’s troubled history, which includes delays and escalating costs now expected to go as high as $9.5 billion under one scenario. He urged the board to ask the staff tough questions and make sure all their concerns are addressed.

“I think it’s incumbent on all of us to step it up,” he said, “and make absolutely certain that in the next four years, and really starting from today, that we address our problems and make sure we don’t make more mistakes.”

The city is expected to lobby the Legislature for another extension of a general excise tax surcharge on Oahu to cover a rail project shortfall that could approach $2 billion. Caldwell said convincing the Legislature hinges on “being accurate about the numbers.” After lawmakers agreed to an extension a year and a half ago, the cost estimates shot up and it became apparent that the revenues would not be enough.

“We get one last chance with the Legislature,” he said. “I want to be fully transparent. Put the bad news out there and put the good news out there.”

He urged the board to consider ways to finish the project before 2025 if possible.

“I wish we could move it to 2022,” he said. “I just can’t believe that we have to wait until 2025 … How much would it cost to go faster?”

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