Despite the ongoing concerns of multiple track experts working on Honolulu rail, the debate over whether to replace the transit line’s unusual crossing points is closed, according to Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation Executive Director Lori Kahikina.

HART remains confident in its outside consultant’s findings that those crossings, known as flange-bearing frogs, are safe to use, Kahikina said Thursday during an agency board meeting.

Further, it is proceeding with special welding and custom wheel retrofits that aim to make the frogs OK to operate, instead of replacing the crossings altogether with standard ones.

“This is a very old issue that is being resurfaced,” she said. “It’s closed, and we’ve been reporting to the board that this is closed.”

Rail construction at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.
The HART board discussed a June memo by a city transportation employee raising continued concerns over the future system’s track crossings. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Still, board members had questions Thursday about whether the city might be on the hook for added costs related to the frogs once the transit line opens – and whether the city’s operations and maintenance contractor, Hitachi Rail Honolulu, could eventually seek compensation for those costs.

“If Hitachi felt it was a requirement, or there was a need to make a claim … then they would bring that forward,” Patrick Preusser, the city’s rapid transit director, told the board. “Right now, there’s no change.”

The board’s latest discussion on the frog saga came after Preusser’s boss, Department of Transportation Services Director Roger Morton, had an internal memo penned by a DTS employee in June that raised strong misgivings about keeping those crossings posted to the Thursday agenda.

It listed several other track managers and compliance officers, including Hitachi employees, who shared the employee’s concerns. The points raised in the memo also reflected those of a whistleblower, David Walker, who raised concerns about Honolulu’s wheel and track interface this past summer.

“This is a very old issue that is being resurfaced. It’s closed, and we’ve been reporting to the board that this is closed.” — HART Executive Director Lori Kahikina

After the meeting, Morton said he added the memo to the meeting because it had recently been circulating among various staff working on rail, and he wanted to emphasize that it did not reflect the department’s official policy. He also had the memo posted in the interest of transparency, Morton said.

Morton declined to identify which DTS employee wrote the memo. It lists two track experts within the department worried about the flange-bearing frogs: senior operations and maintenance manager, Steven Bose, and track compliance officer, Yifeng Mao.

“Some of my staff who have tremendous experience in wheel interfaces are very passionate about it, even after the decision was made” to add welding and change wheels in order to keep those frogs, Morton said during the board discussion. They “continue to have concerns.”

DTS, like HART, considers the frog matter closed, Morton said during the meeting. However, he added that “the door is not closed” to replace them if the crossings cause problems once the rail line opens.

The version of the memo posted to HART’s website includes responses from Transportation Technology Center, or TTCI – the HART consultant that determined Honolulu’s flange-bearing frogs would be OK to use at the speeds required to operate the system.

HART Board Member Kika Bukowski during board meeting held at Alii Place.
Board member Kika Bukoski wanted details about the scope of what TTCI was asked to investigate and whether that included alternatives to the existing frogs. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

It’s not clear whether the DTS employee saw those answers or whether the responses were prepared more recently for the HART meeting.

Walker, the whistleblower, has previously criticized the TTCI report for being too limited in scope.

On Thursday, HART board member Kika Bukoski wanted to know if TTCI was only asked to determine whether Honolulu’s frog crossings could handle the necessary speeds, or if the consultant was also asked to consider “alternatives” that might replace the flange-bearing frogs.

”Internally there were a lot of discussions about how to approach this,” Preusser told Bukoski. “Both kinds of approaches were considered” but the consensus was to give TTCI a scope that didn’t consider alternatives, he said.

Board member Anthony Aalto pointed out that one of TTCI’s written responses states that some freight trains on the mainland travel over flange-bearing frogs going 60 miles per hour. Preusser said that was correct.

After the meeting, Walker agreed – but he added that there’s an important caveat.

The Honolulu frogs have shorter built-in ramps than the ones on the mainland, and they don’t adhere to Federal Transit Administration-accepted design standards for the speeds that Oahu’s driverless trains need to travel, Walker said. That distinction wasn’t made during the board discussion.

HART CEO Lori Kahikina listens to the HART chair during a board meeting held at Alii Place.
HART Executive Director Lori Kahikina on frogs: “This is a very old issue that is being resurfaced.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Another TTCI response says that the Honolulu flange-bearing frogs “were designed and manufactured for HART operation speeds.”

However, documents obtained by Civil Beat from HART this past summer via a public records request revealed that 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.

Hitachi, meanwhile, has a 13-year $918 million contract to operate rail for the city.

When Aalto asked whether Hitachi had approved of HART’s solution to proceed with the frogs, Preusser didn’t directly answer.

“Hitachi was part of the technical working group (investigating the frog problems) and they were involved in hearing out all of the work to get to the point of closure,” he said.

If the company had any concerns with HART’s plan, they “certainly would have been raised during the process, and they would not have carried out the work if they believed that it wasn’t going to be the solution,” Preusser added.

Rail is in the midst of a 90-day trial running phase needed before passenger service can launch, and DTS has been collecting data and investigating the system’s performance. Hitachi will start to replace the train wheels next month, Kahikina said.

It’s still not clear who will ultimately cover the cost of the new wheels.

Nothing indicates that any further track changes need to be made, Preusser told the board Thursday.

“We certainly invite everyone to bring forward any concerns that they may have,” he said. “Collectively, we’ve done a great job to make sure those concerns were brought forward … and ultimately brought to closure.”

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