Lee Cataluna: The View From The Skyline Rail Is Not Exactly Scenic - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org

It’s a reality check to see how shabby, cramped and industrial parts of this island have become.

Me: Skyline is a stupid name. It sounds like Skyslide. Everyone over 50 is going to associate it with those huge plastic play structures from the ’70s.

Also me:  Ooh! The train is so high up! You can see everything!

Though at times it seemed like it would never happen, the city’s massive, overbudget, often-delayed rapid transit project is actually up and running. Maybe some of us (pointing that finger at myself) need to be less smug in our doubting. It happened. It’s happening.

If you haven’t checked it out, you should. There’s something affirming in seeing a massive, unruly project like this one finally become something functional.

It’s a short run, just the first phase from East Kapolei to Aloha Stadium, an 11-mile trip that takes a little over 20 minutes. In perfect conditions, it’s possible to drive that distance in less time, but perfect driving conditions are rare on Hawaii’s most urban island.

Skyline has been running its inaugural route for almost two months now, and so far, it’s been running smoothly. The trains leave every 10 minutes, the ride is comfortable, the train cars are clean.

People have been good citizens about the whole thing, keeping the train cars and the stations clean, figuring out this new facet of Oahu life. At this point, ridership is more about taking a joy ride to see what it’s all about, or going from Waipahu to Pearlridge for shopping rather than a daily commute.

Skyline train Kualaka’i East Kapolei station commuter rail stock file
The rail is only open for the first phase from East Kapolei, shown here in an aerial photograph, to Aloha Stadium. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

As more of the rail line opens up, ridership will hopefully increase to provide the traffic relief for Westside commuters that was promised from the beginning.

Those Skyline views, though. Prepare yourself.

Me after about five minutes on the train when the novelty of the experience starts to wear off a bit: Yikes. From up here, this part of Oahu looks so dried-up and scruffy.

When you can see miles of Oahu in every direction, you get a sense of how people live and cope. It’s a reality check to see how shabby, cramped and industrial this island has become. You can get a glimpse of the status of agriculture on Oahu, and with recent events top of mind, a scary reminder of how dry the scrub brush is on Oahu’s plains and how quickly fire could spread.

What you see is not the stunning aerial shots of tourism promotional videos. There are no dark green mountains, no lush valleys, no sparkling waterfalls. This part of Hawaii is concrete and hollow tile and brown weeds.

The water features to behold include the military complex around Pearl Harbor, the families trying to stay cool in the Salvation Army Kroc Center’s splash zone, and some teen boys in Waipahu jumping shirtless into the thick green water of the Waikele stream. The Sumida watercress farm looks so vulnerable surrounded by the concrete commercial buildings.

Another thing that becomes clear is that people who live in Hawaii have a lot of stuff. They have more things than fit into their living spaces.

new construction Skyline Train commuter Mokauea Kalihi transit station public rail
Workers continue construction on Mokauea Kalihi Skyline station in Honolulu. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

There are three self-storage warehouses along this short rail line. There are garages filled to bursting with anything and everything except cars — sagging boxes, rusty exercise equipment, plastic storage bins so full the lid has to be taped down. People who live in apartments use their balconies or lanais as storage. 

There are many apartments that will look out at the train all day, forever. There are schools in the shadow of the rail line, which is at best a mixed blessing. It makes getting to and from school easier, but paying attention and focusing on lessons is that much harder when there’s a train outside the window, even if it is a relatively quiet train.

Below the Skyline tracks are cars. So many cars. Cars on the road, cars lined up in vast parking lots, auto repair businesses, auto parts stores, car dealerships, used car sales. All the cars that Skyline was supposed to replace. That’s going to take a while.

On a recent Sunday ride, a kupuna who looked like she dressed up to ride the train with her friends announced to everyone in earshot, “They spent all this money building this and hardly anybody is using it. Terrible.” She then walked to the front of the train and sat in the lone seat directly in the nose of the first car, as though she was the conductor.

We’re all so fast to pass judgment these days, to proclaim something a total waste and then climb into the front seat and pretend we’re driving whether we know how or not. Skyline is automated and doesn’t have a conductor. That, too, is a metaphor for how Oahu has been overdeveloped, and the only answer ever offered is more development.

It’s amazing that Honolulu finally has Skyline. It is so needed. But what you see from way up there is that Honolulu has grown, unplanned and out-of-control, to the point where a rapid transit system had to be built on a small island.

Read this next:

Beth Fukumoto: Taking Action Is The Best Way To Relieve Anxiety About Climate Change

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


About the Author

Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org

Latest Comments (0)

Great imagery and tale of what Oahu has become in the last few decades. Broken down infrastructure with a struggling working class in a high cost state, run by a very status quo government body, interested only in protecting its longevity.

wailani1961 · 4 weeks ago

The States next step is to up the tax on everything that has to do with cars so that they can force the public to utilize the rail !After your rail ride how many buses do you have to catch to reach your destination ?

CFood · 1 month ago

You can complain all you want but the fact remains: It is what it is. Man, has ruined Paradise into a concrete jungle and this mess. The answer: you got to live with it. Ha Ha Ha

kealoha1938 · 1 month ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email news@civilbeat.org to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.