Scores of flashing fire trucks, ambulances, police cars and other emergency vehicles converged on the Ewa plain Saturday, part of a coordinated exercise involving a simulated train derailment at the western end of Oahu’s future rail transit line.

Firefighters ascended ladders that stretched more than 50 feet in the air to reach the top of the rail line’s elevated guideway, where a driverless train sat parked about 100 yards from the Kualakai station. Separately, emergency crews rappelled down the guideway wall and lowered mannequins in stretchers, simulating critically injured passengers, onto the ground.

Shortly after the exercise ended Saturday, the city’s emergency leaders dubbed the effort, which was several years in the making, a success.

An HFD high-altitude rescue team lowers a mannequin on a stretcher, as though it was an injured patient in a train derailment, during a simulated disaster exercise on Saturday. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

“I really feel proud to be a city employee today,” said Honolulu Fire Battalion Chief Joseph Kostiha. “Rest assured, the community can feel safe that we all are on the same page on how to respond effectively and for the greater good of the community and the ridership of the train.”

The large, multi-agency drill represented just one of numerous steps that the city and the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation need to complete amid the intensive trial period that’s underway, sending driverless trains running at all hours across West Oahu.

Until that trial’s done, the long-awaited partial passenger service to Aloha Stadium can’t begin.

“We have rail opening within our sight,” said Roger Morton, head of the city’s Department of Transportation Services, which will eventually assume control of rail from HART for operations.

Morton added that the objective is to provide a safe and secure transit system.

“We need to reassure our community that rail and transit and buses are a safe way to travel,” he said.

HART Executive Director Lori Kahikina didn’t have an estimate Saturday on when trial running would be completed. The process involves completing some 144 different scenarios, moving from the easiest ones to the hardest ones, followed by 30 consecutive days of running the system near flawlessly, she said.

Even if everything in the process went perfectly, trial running would take about 90 days, project officials have said.

Questions remain about the cracking in so-called “hammerhead piers” supporting stations along rail’s western half. The piers at this station, Kualakai, have not been flagged as problematic. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi, who was on hand for the exercise Saturday, has said that he expects rail’s partial opening to occur early next year.

But Kahikina said the unresolved issue of so-called “shear” cracks forming along the massive concrete piers that support most of the westside rail stations could affect that opening date. Those piers are known in the construction and engineering fields as “hammerhead” piers.

“If the hammerheads are not addressed we are not handing this over to DTS,” Kahikina told media after Saturday’s emergency exercise.

Consultants examining the hammerheads were originally supposed to deliver their preliminary report on the matter to HART by late September, with findings on how severe the cracking problem is and what the best solution would be.

That report still hasn’t arrived, although HART did receive some “preliminary information” from its consultants on the issue, according to a statement from the agency last week. Kahikina was slated to give the board an update on the issue this past Friday. That board meeting was canceled, however.

“The structural engineers are still doing their analysis, and we don’t want to rush them, either. Safety is paramount,” Kahikina said Saturday. “If we rush this, and it’s not correct, then we could have issues.”

She added, however, that the engineers “believe that there’s two different methodologies of possible solutions to address the hammerheads.”

Kahikina declined after Saturday’s media briefing to comment further on the hammerhead status.

‘Critically Injured Patients’

Honolulu’s Emergency Medical Services Department, which also participated Saturday, had some 60 people play patients who were injured in the faux derailment, some of them critically and even a couple fatally injured.

Emergency personnel started training for this exercise — and how to respond in general to future incidents along Honolulu’s rail line — in 2020 as the Covid-19 pandemic emerged.

Honolulu firefighters ascend rail’s guideway via ladder to establish a base for rescue personnel to access the simulated stalled driverless train. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

Honolulu EMS teams traveled to Boston and Pittsburgh, which have similar transit lines, to work and train with their counterparts there on how they respond to rail emergencies, according to James Ireland, the city’s EMS director.

“Rail is new to Honolulu … and it has certain nuances that are unique to rail,” he said, particularly the elevated guideway.

Saturday’s exercise involved at least six fire trucks and a dozen ambulances, along with numerous police cars and buses all visible along Kualakai Parkway. City and rail officials wanted to publicize the event as much as possible so that residents didn’t think an actual massive emergency was taking place on the rail line.

The emergency crews did not use sirens so that the exercise could be less disruptive to the surrounding community.

Officials also said the exercise would occur annually going forward.

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