Here’s the good news: Honolulu rail officials won’t have to replace entire track crossings along the island’s elevated transit route in order to fix the problems with ill-fitting train wheels.

Instead, they can solve that snafu by doing temporary welding work at the crossings and gradually replacing the botched steel wheels with wider ones.

That combined approach has been blessed by TTCI, the railroad expert hired earlier this year to examine the problem, in the firm’s recent report for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation.

It’s sure to be faster and less costly than replacing the crossings, HART officials say, although the specific time frame and pricetag remain unclear.

The bad news, however, is that HART still hasn’t found a contractor who can do the necessary track welding.

Rail crews work on the tracks at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. A new report approves of HART replacing wheels, instead of whole track crossings, to fix major problems along the track. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

That likely means further delay to provide interim rail service, an effort that’s already faced numerous setbacks. Currently, HART hopes to deliver the transit line’s first 10 miles from east of Kapolei to Aloha Stadium by mid-2022, according to agency officials.

HART’s schedule calls for the temporary welding to be done by mid-November but it’s “very, very likely” that won’t happen, HART Project Manager Nathaniel “Nate” Meddings told agency board members during a project oversight meeting Tuesday.

Meddings did not indicate when HART might secure the necessary welders, but he said that the agency is urgently reaching out to companies on the mainland and seeking the best way to get them working on Oahu quickly.

That could involve embedding mainland-based welding crews with rail contractors or seeking special work exemptions from the state, Meddings said.

A solicitation for the welding work failed to draw any bidders by the September deadline. HART officials later said that was because no companies in Hawaii were licensed to do the welding work.

Hiring someone to do the track welding has been “a difficult task,” Meddings said Tuesday. City Transportation Services Director Roger Morton, who sits on the HART board, added that eventually the rail line will need a contractor who’s licensed to do such welding work as part of regular track maintenance.

HART, Hitachi Still Haven’t Decided Who’s At Fault

The steel wheels on Honolulu’s four-car trains are currently 4.75 inches wide, according to TTCI’s Oct. 22 report, which Civil Beat obtained through a public records request.

Previously, the agency had refused to clarify the status of that report and whether TTCI had delivered it.

The firm in its report recommends that the new wheels be at least 5.28 inches wide even though HART had planned to use 5.15-inch-wide wheels. HART representatives said in an email that they plan to follow TTCI’s recommendation for the wider wheels.

The temporary track welding will accommodate both the 4.75- and 5.28-inch wheel sizes, allowing train-testing to continue in West Oahu. The welding will gradually wear off once all the wider wheels are in place, Meddings and other rail officials say. Once it’s gone, it won’t need to be replaced.

Meddings said that the first set of new, wider wheels should be ready in August 2022. It should take about a year to replace all of the existing, narrower wheels, he added.

HART has yet to provide details on how much the fix will cost. During Tuesday’s meeting, board Chairwoman Colleen Hanabusa asked Meddings, “Whose fault is it?”

Meddings replied that HART and Hitachi Rail Honolulu, which created the driverless trains and their wheels, are “saving arguments on commercial liability” until after the crisis passes.

He acknowledged that it’s an important question and that HART is factoring into its budget the risk that it might have to cover those costs.

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.”

HART discovered last year that the wheel rims were too narrow for the track crossings, also called “frogs,” creating potential safety issues.

Read the TTCI report here:

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