The wheels on Honolulu’s struggling rail project might literally be coming off soon.

Project officials shed more light Thursday on the “major” and costly problem that’s emerging with the system’s train car wheels, a snafu they say could delay the elevated rail line’s interim opening by another year.

The wheel flanges, or rims, on the Hitachi Rail-manufactured cars are too narrow, they said, affecting the driverless trains’ ability to safely navigate certain track crossings at the speeds needed to operate on schedule.

HART learned of the problem in either late December or early January when crews discovered early wear on the track crossings, called “frogs,” according to briefings by HART Deputy Director for Engineering and Design In-Tae Lee and Bob Good, HART’s senior project officer.

The trains had been doing test runs for about a year at that point on the elevated track over Farrington Highway in Waipahu.

HART rail guideway car photo op Farrington Hwy Waipahu Sugar Mill1. 30 may 2017
The rail car’s wheel rims are about a half-inch narrower than certain crossings on the track, causing new headaches for the project. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The agency’s subject-matter experts then determined that the trains’ wheel flanges are about a half of an inch narrower than the frogs, and that impedes the wheels from guiding the trains through the crossing, the two rail officials said. It doesn’t affect the trains’ performance when they’re moving straight, they added.

“The variation is so small. It’s a half-inch, and they really didn’t notice it until we started to run and they saw a little bit of an unusual wear pattern on the switches,” Good told the board Thursday.

The problem affects at least five crossings on the Westside, and 12 total such crossings planned for the entire 20-mile line to Ala Moana Center.  HART was hoping to deliver the first 10 miles to Aloha Stadium to the city later this year to start interim service.

HART and Hitachi are at odds over who’s responsible and who should pay for it, according to Interim Executive Director Lori Kahikina.

“It’s probably going to be a drawn out discussion between us and Hitachi,” Kahikina told the board Thursday. “Our stance is, what we have is correct” and that the specifications in the package were properly laid out.

Hitachi’s 2011 core systems contract states that the company “shall finalize the (wheel) profile and retain final responsibility for obtaining satisfactory wheel/rail interface performance and minimum rail/wheel wear rates.”

It adds: “In particular, the vehicle supplier shall verify that the wheel flange dimensions are matched with the flange bearing frogs so as to provide quiet crossing of the frogs with a minimum of impact forces.”

After the meeting, HART officials confirmed that’s the contract language they believe holds Hitachi responsible for the wheel snafu.

It’s not clear yet how much it will cost to fix the problem. HART is still trying determine whether they can solve it by changing the wheels, although Hitachi has discouraged that approach, Kahikina said. Alternatively, they could replace the frog crossings themselves.

There’s also minor cracking in the frogs that was found to have occurred during the casting and which can be fixed at nominal cost, she added.

HART also recently found faulty welding along the line that was done about six years ago under the Westside’s primary construction contractor, Kiewit Infrastructure West, Kahikina told the board. It will cost about $130,000 to fix, and Kahikina said she’s not sure whether HART has any recourse to recoup that cost from Kiewit since that contract has been closed out, she added.

Reckoning With Higher Costs

Earlier in the meeting, rail officials briefed the board on the mega project’s new, $12.4 billion cost estimate, following major setbacks in 2020.

In recent years, HART aimed to have the project done by 2026. Now, the agency gives a 65% chance that it will be done by March 2031. The extra time needed in that schedule is the main culprit that’s driven up costs by about $3 billion, said Nathaniel “Nate” Meddings, who was recently promoted to HART’s project director.

Previously, he served as project controls director. On Thursday, Meddings and other HART leaders said they’re trying to better manage public expectations on cost and schedule. “We wanted to be as conservatively realistic as possible,” Meddings said after the meeting.

Being more realistic means the new schedule is less aggressive. It adds more time, based on what HART has learned to this point, Meddings said. But the more realistic time frame also drives up the cost.

HART rail construction as the guideway construction nears Middle Street.
The city now must cover a $3.6 billion budget deficit to finish the rail line past Middle Street. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“We tried to capture a lot of the known risks on the project,” Meddings added.

HART in previous years has touted risk-management reforms aimed at keeping costs in check, however, so it remains to be seen whether the agency can finally hold the line at its latest price tag.

The schedule also assumes that when contracts are slated to start the city will have the money it needs. The new budget gap is about $3.6 billion.

The over-budget price bids that came in during last year’s scuttled “P3” effort also helped inform the new price tag, Meddings said.

The teams that bid weren’t confident that utilities would be out of the way in time for them to have access to build, and they added “a large dollar value” into their prices to cover that risk, he said.

Ironically, the $450 million utility relocation contract that was delaying things had been issued precisely to eliminate such risk and help drive down cost. HART recently canceled that contract, after spending about $100 million of it to get no more than 7% of the utility relocation work done.

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