City officials tried to play down the recent flaking and spalling along the train tracks. That only prompted more questions.

City transit leaders on Friday dismissed the notion that Honolulu’s new Skyline elevated train has endured any unusual or premature track wear, but some of the board members overseeing the system’s ongoing construction appeared unconvinced.

The issue came up during the latest Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board meeting, and in response to a Civil Beat story published Jan. 5 on defects found along key parts of the track late last year. 

“I would not consider it unusual — it was just a normal operation of the railway,” Department of Transportation Services Director Roger Morton, who sits on the HART board, told his colleagues regarding the track defects. 

“For us, we were surprised to see a story,” he said.

Train tracks Skyline Rail Station
Flaking and spalling damage has appeared at track crossings similar to those seen here. City transit leaders say it falls under routine maintenance, even though a former track inspector expressed concerns there could be long-term issues. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

The story was based on inspection reports and emails from a former Department of Transportation Services track inspector who said the damage’s appearance just six months after rail operations started pointed to “long-term” track issues that should be addressed. 

Neither Morton nor his deputy, Rapid Transit Director Patrick Preusser, mentioned those reports Friday. HART board members did not bring them up either.

Preusser told the HART board that the track defects fell under routine rail maintenance. The contractor hired by the city to run Skyline, Hitachi Rail, has its engineering department doing an analysis to determine the root cause of the track damage, Preusser said. 

Switching from a grease lubricant on the track to one that’s oil-based could help minimize future flaking and “spalling” along the track, Preusser added. The damage has appeared at track crossings and areas where there’s stronger forces at play due to the grade, speed and braking, he said.

But Preusser’s comments only prompted more questions from the board. 

“Patrick, I’ve got to tell you, I thought it was nothing until you just started to talk,” HART Chair Colleen Hanabusa said. 

Hanabusa asked whether the damage had anything to do with the larger, custom-designed train wheels or the welding HART had done to help deal with Skyline’s troublesome “frog” problems at the track crossings. Preusser said that it didn’t.

Board member Robert Yu, president of Oahu Transit Services, which runs TheBus, also expressed some skepticism.

“It almost seems contradictory when you and Director Morton mention that this is all routine maintenance and is not a big deal but then on the other hand you’re testifying that you have investigators looking into it, right?“ Yu told Preusser. 

“It just seems a little weird if it’s routine. Why would we go through all that? Is it really routine?” he added.

Preusser responded that any time Hitachi discovers a defect there’s always “some level of analysis performed to …  try to mitigate that defect or prevent it from re-occuring or prevent it from getting worse.”

Hanabusa on Skyline’s track defects and DTS’s assurances that they’re routine: “I’ve got to tell you, I thought it was nothing until you just started to talk.” (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Meanwhile, board member Anthony Aalto questioned whether there was any sign that it’s a “fundamental design problem.”

Preusser responded, saying: “We have not received any information to date to suggest that there’s a design problem that needs to be changed.”

The former DTS track inspector’s concerns over the defects came to light after several employees and consultants on the Skyline project in recent years expressed their own misgivings about the system’s unusual track crossing design and the narrow track tolerances that accompany it

The flaking and spalling along the track started to appear about six months after operations launched on Skyline’s western half. However, HART Project Director Nathaniel Meddings said at Friday’s meeting that the damage could be due to the tracks being more than a decade old, following years of delay to reach that interim opening.

The tracks, Meddings said, were purchased in 2012 and installed in 2016. The system finally opened along the first 11 miles last year on June 30.

“Hitachi ran trains up there for years with no maintenance” because such maintenance wasn’t required, said Meddings, who became project director in 2021. He called this lack of required maintenance a “gap in scope” and a “huge lesson learned for these types of projects.”

Morton, meanwhile, said that Hitachi incurs all operations and maintenance costs under its contract with the city. 

 “But what about a design defect?” Hanabusa replied. “That’s not O&M.”

She asked that DTS provide the HART board with the final analysis on Hitachi’s findings into the defects. That report is expected to arrive in April.

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