Honolulu Rail Whistleblower: Tracks, Wheels A Maintenance Nightmare And Potential Safety Issue

Local rail officials are gearing up for the final testing of Oahu’s transit line this month, and they’re poised to hand the western half of the system over to the city for passenger service sometime later this year.

But fundamental flaws in the track crossings and train wheels remain, according to a project whistleblower and longtime track industry expert.

That’s despite the relatively cheap and quick fixes that the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation recently took to address those problems.

The lingering issues will leave the city with tracks and wheels that will be incredibly difficult to maintain once the system opens and potentially present a safety problem in the long term, said David Walker, who worked on the Honolulu project as a track construction consultant for the firm Stantec from February 2020 through February 2022.

David Walker speaks to Marcel in the conference room at the Civil Beat office.
David Walker, who spent five decades in the rail industry, including two years as a consultant for HART, says key flaws in the wheels, tracks and crossings of the future transit system will make it extremely difficult to maintain. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“This design lends itself to not being maintained properly,” said Walker, who’s spent five decades in the rail industry.

“I want Hawaii to have a safe, maintainable system. My problem … is that HART doesn’t make decisions in a timely manner. The decisions they do make are not cost-effective.”

Walker’s misgivings, on the verge of rail’s long-awaited partial opening, follow a history of constructionrelated missteps affecting multiple aspects of the transit project. Stantec, Walker said, reassigned him back to the mainland after he repeatedly insisted to HART leaders, including Executive Director Lori Kahikina, that the current design won’t work properly despite the agency’s recent adjustments.

Honolulu’s track layout and wheel dimensions don’t follow industry standards, the design tolerances where the tracks cross paths are too tight, and the tracks’ individual crossing points, called “frogs” in the rail industry, are fundamentally flawed, he detailed in several interviews.

Those issues, which affect the five double-crossing sites on rail’s west-side, could over time lead to what Walker described as “malfunctions, incidents,” and, in a worst-case scenario, “derailments” if not resolved.

The chances of a train derailment are very slim, he stressed, but the situation nonetheless remains “a potential safety issue” and certainly a maintenance headache. “It’s probably not likely that it’s going to derail. Is it a possibility? Yes,” Walker said.

Kahikina and other HART officials declined multiple requests for an interview in recent weeks about the issues raised by their former consultant. They have, however, acknowledged that maintaining the westside track crossings at the required tolerances will be a big challenge in the years ahead.

In an emailed response to written questions, they dismissed Walker’s concerns as the “opinions of one individual.”

Further, an eight-page summary of the situation that Walker sent to HART in September, before he left the project, “has not been confirmed for accuracy and should not be the basis of any assumption,” the rail agency stated.

A Fresh Start?

During the past 50 years, Walker has overseen rail and track work for multiple freight and transit systems across California. He worked at LA Metro before coming to Honolulu. He was dismissed from the local project on Feb. 25, moments before Kahikina disclosed rail’s track gauge problems during a HART board meeting.

Two days before his dismissal, Walker said, he advised Kahikina and top rail officials during a meeting that the best way to fix rail’s ongoing wheel and track woes would be to overhaul those crossings and wheels altogether, replacing them with new, standard equipment.

Earlier this year, HART’s current project director, Nathaniel Meddings, told agency board members who were troubled by the various track and wheel problems that the local rail project had suffered from a quality-control deficiency under HART’s previous leadership. Under the current leadership, Meddings said, the agency has hired a new and more effective quality-control team.

Other rail systems around the country have encountered their own wheel and track problems, Mayor Rick Blangiardi said at a recent HART-led press conference, asserting that Honolulu is not unique.

Kahikina added at that conference: “Normal wear and tear of the track, it actually helps because it actually makes it not-so-tight” and makes the system easier to maintain over time.

But Honolulu will still face maintenance challenges compared to other major U.S. metro systems, according to Walker.

That’s because HART and its engineers made piecemeal changes to the tracks and wheels as they learned of different problems with their alignment, according to Walker.

“If you change one thing, it affects four others,” he explained. “None of it works together.”

That domino effect, plus HART’s insistence on using so-called “flange-bearing” frogs instead of the more commonly used “tread-bearing” frogs used in most U.S. metro systems, has left Honolulu having to maintain track tolerances that Walker said are tighter than anything he’s ever seen.

Under those tolerances, Honolulu’s track width at the crossings cannot deviate more than 5/32 of an inch on the inside end, and no more than an 7/32 of an inch on the outside end. That’s about the width of a standard No. 2 pencil.

A Second Opinion On Frogs

At least a few other U.S. metro systems use flange-bearing frogs, Walker and other rail industry officials say, but typically they’re only used in particular spots. Honolulu has installed those frogs across the full length of track that’s been built so far.

The public learned in March 2021 that there were major problems with the frogs that needed to be fixed.

Around that same time, documents obtained by Civil Beat from HART via a public records request reveal the manufacturer of Honolulu rail’s flange-bearing frogs, Voestalpine Railway Systems Nortrak, advised that the trains should not go faster than 21 mph over those crossings when traveling straight away on the track, based on the frogs’ design.

HART never disclosed that assessment from Nortrak, which was done for the system’s operator, Hitachi Rail Honolulu.

The agency did, however, publicize a more recent and favorable study completed in October 2021 by a separate rail research organization, Transportation Technology Center Inc., or TTCI. That study concluded that the Honolulu rail cars could in fact operate at the faster speeds needed to stay on schedule.

“TTCI was contracted as a leading industry expert to conduct numerous tests and simulations to validate that there is no safety issue crossing the frogs at our current operating speeds,” Kahikina said in a letter to Civil Beat that was included with the Nortrak advisory from early 2021.

The company has been paid at least $508,000 for its work on Honolulu rail, according to HART. The agency did not respond to a follow-up question on whether TTCI is owed more money.

Workers work on train guideway and rails at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.
Workers continue putting in train guideway and rails at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The agency has said it learned of the problems with the wheels and frogs in October 2020, after unusual wear and tear started to appear early on the frogs during testing.

But additional documents obtained from the agency through a public records request reveal that the rail agency’s contractors actually started raising questions about whether it was OK to use flange-bearing frogs as far back as July 2019.

Walker, for his part, said he saw serious and potentially grave problems with the track layout and frogs almost as soon as he landed on the island and started walking along the western route in February 2020. Those concerns, he said, prompted rail officials to change some of the layout dimensions and help avoid a likely future derailment at the crossings.

Nonetheless, the flange-bearing frogs remain on Honolulu’s elevated guideway.

HART officials have said they were chosen to help reduce the noise along the route. The train wheels don’t clang as hard when they roll over that type of frog.

Walker recommended in spring 2020 that HART replace the frogs with the more commonly used ones and standard-sized wheels that would fit them. Those moves, he said, would save money and avoid headaches in the long run.

“When you’re done, you have a system that’s standard in the industry,” he said. “The frogs and wheels are off-the-shelf items that you can get right away and it’s easy to maintain.”

But HART at the time was still determined to have the rail line’s first half ready for service by the end of 2020.

Agency officials didn’t want to go through with the replacement “because of the 8-9 months delay that it would take to design, manufacture, and install the frogs,” Walker wrote in his summary to HART.

“Opening of the alignment to the public was of the highest priority so this option was not chosen,” Walker wrote. HART would try to weld changes into the existing frogs instead.

Two years later, the rail line still hasn’t opened and the welding was only recently completed.

“We’ve wasted all kinds of time,” Walker told Civil Beat.

A Contractor’s Questions

According to Walker, the problem with Honolulu’s flange-bearing frogs boils down to two main issues.

First, the frog angles are only about half as wide as they should be. Second, the frogs’ built-in ramps, which lift the train wheels up onto their inside edges as they pass through the crossings, are too short and too steep.

By industry standards, those flaws wouldn’t matter if Honolulu only intended to run its train cars as fast as 15 mph. Nortrak’s conclusions, for example, were largely based on the frog ramps being too short for faster speeds.

However, the city needs the trains to run as fast as 55 mph in order to stay on schedule.

Shimmick Traylor Granite, the joint venture that’s building the five miles of track and four stations from Aloha Stadium to Middle Street, recognized the problem two years ago, records show.

In July 2019, the company asked HART whether it should proceed with installation of the flange-bearing frogs.

“These frogs are only designed for speeds of 15MPH maximum for passenger rail. STG would like to ask if HART knows about this,” STG’s project director, Dan Howell, wrote to the agency.

Howell wanted to know whether HART “approved the speeds to deviate from the design criteria.”

“If so, please provide this,” he wrote.

HART responded that the frogs would be fine. It cited a general waiver from the Federal Railroad Administration that allowed trains to run at faster speeds over flange-bearing frogs as long as those frogs have the proper angles and ramp lengths.

The FRA doesn’t govern transit systems such as the one HART’s building. It regulates freight railways. Nonetheless, many transit systems adopt the FRA’s track safety standards, transportation officials say.

Even so, HART’s frogs didn’t meet the FRA standards. The local agency’s brief response to STG didn’t address why the frogs would still be OK. It just cited the federal waiver and stated that the waiver’s permission to run full-speed over the frogs “is the key.”

Two years later, Walker put his concerns over that discrepancy in writing, part of his eight-page memo to HART.

“If HART is not following the FRA Safety Standards, then what standards are going to be governed?” Walker wrote.

“The answer is outstanding,” he added.

Asked last month why the waiver applied to Honolulu’s flange-bearing frogs, HART stated: “An analysis of data extrapolation developed at the Transportation Test Center was used to support the FRA waiver.”

The local rail agency did not explain what that means, and it declined the request for an interview to follow up.

A Seattle Comparison

One of the few major transit systems in the nation comparable to Honolulu’s that uses flange-bearing frogs is Seattle’s Sound Transit.

Seattle, however, uses those frogs sparingly and only in areas where the trains run at slower speeds, according to Paul Denison, the system’s deputy executive director of transportation and maintenance.

The flange-bearing frogs are used in Seattle’s heavily populated Rainier Valley to help reduce the impacts of noise and vibration to nearby houses, Denison said.

Sound Transit runs its trains as fast as 55 mph in some places, similar to Honolulu’s future system. However, where the Seattle trains pass over flange-bearing frogs they run at 35 mph, Denison said.

The frogs there typically have built-in ramps that are longer than Honolulu’s. They also follow the industry-standard formula to accommodate that speed, according to Denison.

“That’s something that’s very familiar to me,” Dennison said of the frog design standards.

He couldn’t recall the precise crossing angles for Rainier Valley’s frogs, but Dennison said they adhered to the standards as well.

TTCI, which gave the OK last year for Honolulu’s trains to run at HART’s desired faster speeds, has previously published studies that recommend flange-bearing frog angles be at least 22 degrees wide.

Honolulu’s are about 11 degrees wide.

Nonetheless, when TTCI was hired to study Honolulu’s frogs in particular, it found “acceptable performance at all simulated speeds up to 80 mph” when moving straight through the crossovers, and up to 30 mph when crossing over to the opposite track.

Further, TTCI approved HART’s plan to temporarily weld parts of the frogs and replace its train wheels with skinnier ones to help fix the design problems.

Walker, however, contends that the TTCI report is flawed because the scope that HART’s longtime track consultant requested for that study was too narrow – and purposefully selected to get the desired results for speed.

The TTCI study, he said, basically looked at whether excess force was placed on the track at the frog crossings that could lead to derailment. But that alone doesn’t reveal how fast the trains should actually run there, he added.

“They’re trying to say it will, but it does not,” Walker said. Further, the TTCI study doesn’t say whether HART’s insistence on keeping the frogs is the best approach.

“Is this going to be cost-efficient? Will it be maintainable?” Walker said. The frogs’ fundamental design problems, he said, still should be fixed.

‘That’s Not Normal’

Walker first saw irregularities with Honolulu’s track crossings within days of his February 2020 arrival on Oahu. While using a special rail-mounted cart to haul new strands of track eastward, he noticed that certain dimensions in the Waipahu rail yard didn’t match what was installed on the guideway.

“What is going on? That’s not normal,” Walker recalled thinking.

He then discovered that dimensions for the wheels on the train weren’t normal, either. “It’s not standard in the industry at all, so that raised some more red flags,” he said.

HART later changed the track layout but kept the frogs, and that will leave the city with track tolerances at the crossings that are punishingly slim, plus frogs that are ill-suited for the system, he said.

Kahikina has stated that she’s determined for HART not to leave an operations and maintenance “nightmare” for the city’s Department of Transportation Services.

“She will,” Walker said.

Dave Walker frogs track crossing
David Walker, a former Stantec employee, noticed problems with the rail crossings. He repeatedly recommended that HART replace its track crossings and wheels with standard parts. The rail agency did not heed his advice, and he was reassigned earlier this year. Courtesy: David Walker/2022

“It’s not something that you want to do. You’re not going to be able to maintain it,” he said of the wheels and track crossings. “It’s going to be a maintenance issue forever,” he said.

HART estimates it will cost just under $100 million to operate and maintain the rail line during its first year in service, fiscal year 2023. That estimate then gradually increases each year. By 2027, it’s expected to reach $128 million. By 2034, it’s expected to reach $163 million, under HART’s latest recovery plan.

Walker said that he’s learned through others on the project that HART expects it will cost approximately $6 million to replace all the train wheels alone, not including the more than $500,000 cost to hire TTCI and do the welding. HART said in an email last week that the estimated cost for the new wheels “has not yet been finalized.”

By contrast, Walker said, his suggestion two years ago to swap the wheels with more readily-available standard ones plus replace the frogs would have cost HART and the city around $3 million total based on the prices that vendors and shippers quoted him.

He further questioned HART’s approach because it requires the system’s operator, Hitachi, to create a custom-sized wheel for Honolulu. The company, he said, would then have proprietary control of that design.

HART said that the city won’t have to buy replacement wheels from Hitachi. Instead, the company under its contract will provide replacement wheels needed for the system to operate, HART said in its written response.

“With this project, it seems like we’re re-inventing the wheel every time,” Jade Butay, who sits on the HART board as the state’s Department of Transportation director, said in May. “We get wheels that don’t fit the tracks. It never makes any sense to me. The train has been built all over the world, but for some reason it’s like we’re starting from ground zero.”

“Whether it’s the track, the size of the wheel or the double-crossovers,” Butay said. “It’s frustrating.”

Walker has since retired. He now lives in California.

Read his 2021 summary on Honolulu’s wheel and track issues here:

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