After years of delays, Honolulu rail has finally entered the rigorous, 90-day trial running phase that’s needed before the transit line’s first 10 miles can open to the public.

Project officials said the crucial, “full-blown” testing of the trains, stations, operating personnel and emergency scenarios along the westside of the line started Monday. There’s no set schedule, but the public can expect to see driverless trains moving along the elevated pathway from east Kapolei to Aloha Stadium in the coming months at any hour of the day or night, according to the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation.

HART further urged the public in a release Tuesday not to be distracted by the trains or photograph those driverless vehicles while driving nearby.

HART rail cars at the Rail Operations Center (ROC) located in Waipahu near the Leeward Community College.
Driverless trains for Honolulu’s future rail line run along track at the Rail Operations Center in Waipahu near the Leeward Community College. The project started a crucial 90-day trial running period this week for the system’s first 10 miles. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The trial running represents a big milestone for the long-struggling local megaproject. HART and some city leaders have wanted for years to launch limited passenger service so that the public might get acquainted with rail – and see the unpopular project in a more favorable light.

Any issues that occur during trial running could extend the 90-day testing period by a certain length, depending on the problem. Lori Kahikina, HART’s executive director, said in the release Tuesday that her agency aims to hand over rail’s first operational segment to the city’s Department of Transportation Services “by early next year.”

Nonetheless, the serious cracking in several of the concrete piers that support westside rail stations could complicate the city’s ability to eventually launch service – even after a successful trial run.

The hammerhead pier cracking should not impact the trial running itself, according to Kahikina. But HART and its structural engineering consultants are still determining just how severe of a problem the cracking is and what needs to be done to fix it.

It’s not clear whether HART would have to redo the trial running from scratch if the crack repairs cause too long of a delay to passenger service, Kahikina told NewsRadio 830 KHVH on Friday.

“We still need to understand that,” Kahikina told radio host Rick Hamada. A delay of several months could involve a “refresher” instead of a full repeat of the trial running, she said, but “it depends on the duration” of the delay.

Rail hammerhead pier Waipahu
Hammerhead piers, pictured in the foreground, support rail’s future Pouhala station in Waipahu. Rail officials have said they’re not sure whether the cracking could force them to do additional trial running once the issue is fixed. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

In a separate email on Tuesday, Kahikina said that “any further testing resulting from the remedy of the hammerhead cracks would be based on circumstances such as timing, staffing changes, or other factors that would need to be evaluated at that time.”

Consor, an engineering consultant for the city, and Wiss Janney Elstner Associates, a separate consultant for HART, are expected to deliver their findings on the root causes and solutions to the pier cracking by the end of September, according to Kahikina.

Kahikina further indicated to the radio show that weights would be placed on the trains to simulate the weight of passengers.

In any case, the structural engineers investigating the pier cracking have recommended that no people stand along the platforms of the affected westside stations until they have a better grasp of the problem.

Earlier this month, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi said rail’s pier-cracking woes might push the system’s interim opening from later this year to early 2023.

Rail’s trial running has also been pushed back several times since 2020. HART, under its previous executive director, Andrew Robbins, had aimed to have the system ready to ride in October of that year, but Covid-19 and other obstacles derailed that goal.

Kahikina said earlier this summer that trial running was slated to start in July. It’s not clear why it was pushed back another month or so.

HART this week also urged the public to stay away from the stations and off the tracks during the trial running.

The tracks are electrified and anyone who touches them could get killed, Deputy Executive Director Rick Keene told Hamada on Friday. “It’s a very dangerous situation,” he said.

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