The wheels on Honolulu rail’s train cars don’t fit properly where the transit line’s tracks cross together, project leaders disclosed Tuesday. It’s a “major” and “expensive” defect that could delay the system’s interim opening by another year.

The flaw involving the Hitachi Rail-manufactured wheels requires the driverless train cars to drastically reduce speed at track crossings along the line, Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation’s interim director, Lori Kahikina, told City Council members Tuesday.

Those crossings are known as “frogs” because they resemble that part of a horse’s hoof, she added.

The periodic decreases in speed will keep the trains from arriving at the line’s stations on time unless the problem is fixed, Kahikina said.

She added that the defect represents a safety issue.

“It doesn’t fit correctly during the crossing,” Kahikina said. “This is a major issue that needs to be done.”

HART rail guideway car photo op Farrington Hwy Waipahu Sugar Mill1. 30 may 2017
HART says the rail has a new, major glitch in which the wheels on the system’s driverless train cars don’t properly fit at the track crossings. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It could require replacing the frogs, which would be very expensive and cause an approximately one-year delay, she added. “We’re still assessing how we’ll address this issue.”

It’s not clear whether Hitachi, taxpayers or both would bear those costs. After the meeting, Kahikina declined to comment further until after HART staff briefs the agency’s board on Thursday.

This latest problem to ensnare Honolulu’s struggling, multibillion-dollar rail transit project arose during a council briefing on HART’s budget that grew remarkably tense and heated at moments.

North Shore Councilwoman Heidi Tsuneyoshi, a vocal critic of the project, repeatedly pressed Kahikina for more details on rail’s actual costs so that the council could be more informed prior to its upcoming budget votes.

“Every year that we’ve had budgets … it’s never actually what transpires,” a visibly frustrated Tsuneyoshi said. “Everything is only a guess.”

Lori Kahikina, Director Dept of Environmental Services City of Honolulu gives press conference about a COVID-19 positive workers that are in quarantine now.
HART Interim Director Lori Kahikina: “I’m being open and honest and I’m getting beat up for it.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Kahikina has not yet briefed the HART board on the agency’s new cost updates, however — that’s slated to occur on Thursday.

Materials posted for the public meeting put the total price tag at $12.4 billion, with a budget shortfall of nearly $3.6 billion.

Nonetheless, during her testimony Tuesday Kahikina grew upset at the pressure to preempt her board. The timing of such requests for more details has put her in a tight spot during her first several months leading HART, she said.

“I’ve been beat up in the newspaper because I’m being too open and honest,” Kahikina told Tsuneyoshi. “I’m going to get beat up at the board because I’m sharing information to you, to the stakeholders, the public. As the interviews come up I’m being open and honest and I’m getting beat up for it.”

The exchange grew so heated that the council’s new budget chairman, Calvin Say, gaveled and called for decorum.

Several minutes later, Kahikina apologized to Tsuneyoshi. She disclosed the problem with the trains’ wheels, even though she hadn’t briefed the HART board yet.

“At the risk of getting beat up again, I’m going to share with you folks. I didn’t mean to bring it up today. This thing affects the opening” of the line, she said.

Kahikina, who became HART’s interim director in January, said that she and rail’s new second-in-command, Chief Operating Officer Rick Keene, first heard about the problem a couple of weeks ago.

HART officials first learned of the problem late last year, she added.

On Thursday the agency’s board is also slated to get an update on construction. There’s a slide in that presentation labeled “Track Issues.”

Not only does it mention “wheel/rail interface” — which appears to refer to the defect Kahikina disclosed — it also mentions “cracking in the frogs.”

There are five such frog crossings on rail’s west side, Kahikina told the council Tuesday. That 10-mile stretch runs from the fields east of Kapolei to Aloha Stadium, and the driverless rail cars can now be regularly seen doing test runs there.

Contractors Covered Costs On Previous Glitches

The wheels aren’t the first glitch to arise with the trains. In 2016, a defect surfaced in some of the aluminum beams that formed the bottom of their carshells. That was early in the manufacturing process, however — only one completed four-car train had been delivered to Oahu at that point.

At this point some 15 trains have been delivered to the rail operations center in Waipahu. That includes all seven trains that are expected to be used for the line’s interim service to Aloha Stadium, HART officials say.

Then, in 2019, some 24 train cars had to be retrofitted in order to be more fire resistant after a sample used for the cars had failed roof and floor fire testing.

The system has also dealt with some defects on the elevated track itself. In 2016 thousands of “shims” — plastic paddings along the track — were found to be faulty and needed to be replaced by Kiewit Infrastructure West, the prime contractor. Kiewit further had to replace several metal tendons within the elevated guideway whose strands had snapped.

Honolulu City Council member Heidi Tsuneyoshi during public testimony on Bill 85 and 89 at Honolulu Hale.
Honolulu City Council member Heidi Tsuneyoshi: “The next generations of residents are not going to be able to handle what this project has put us through.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In the case of all those defects, the contractor covered the expense.

More recently, Hitachi lacked the licensing needed to install closed-circuit cameras along the line’s west side, leading to some delay in the testing process.

Later in Tuesday’s meeting, Tsuneyoshi struck a conciliatory note.

“We are both very passionate. We both have common interest to make sure that the residents of Hawaii don’t suffer with this. This has been ridiculous,” Tsuneyoshi told Kahikina, choking up.

“The next generations of residents are not going to be able to handle what this project has put us through. So with you, I look forward to you and I sitting down and talking about this.”

Tommy Waters, the council’s chairman, encouraged Kahikina to continue to be forthcoming. He said he didn’t think the HART board should hold it against her for sharing details ahead of Thursday’s briefing.

“Maybe we need to have a conversation with HART, the HART board and ourselves that we all share information equally,” Waters said. “If you come to us first or you come to them first. Whoever calls you to speak, just tell the truth. That would be super helpful.”

Kahikina said she strongly agreed.

“This is exciting, huh?” Ewa Beach Councilman Augie Tulba said after the exchange between Tsuneyoshi and Kahikina.

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