Fixing the Basics on Rail for Mr. Caldwell and Pro-rail Politicians

article top
City’s rail rendering

BY PANOS PREVEDOUROS PHD – When it comes to the rail, Kirk Caldwell and other politicians suffer from Wind Mill Deficiency. Their Wind Mill deficiency is real and its effects on society are serious. What I mean is this.

Wind mills or wind turbines are rated at a high capacity such as 100 MW for a medium size wind farm, but they come with a capacity factor. The capacity factor for wind mills is 0.3 and some argue that it should be as low as 0.2. (For reference, a coal or geothermal plant has a factor of over 0.9.) So a wind farm of 100 MW has an actual electricity production between 20 MW and 30 MW.


Similarly for rail, a single elevated rail can, in theory, carry more than 100,000 riders if a city buys enough trains and operates them very frequently, which means high acquisition, operation and maintenance costs. The real question is this: After billions are spent to make the rail, will the riders come? The sunny cities of Miami and San Juan have the answer: No way Jose!

Same as the wind mills, only about a quarter of the stated capacity of rail is usually utilized. This means that 75% of the investment does no good for the city that paid for it. Worse yet, most of the rail riders are forced on the rail by bus route closures, as is the plan for TheBus. In other words, rail is a lose-lose proposition: Rail itself is unproductive, and it downgrades the bus as well.

The advantage of buses and Bus Rapid Transit is that you only route as many buses meet the demand and no more. BRT is a far more flexible, demand-responsive and economical way to provide public transit, particularly for cities with modest populations.

Senator Inouye stated that: “Governor Cayetano does not understand that the precious $1.55 billion for Honolulu rail is not transferable but will go back to the federal government.” While I don’t speak for Ben, I have been in many public meetings with him. He hasn’t stated that this amount will automatically revert to his transit proposal, but he mentions the President’s, Congress’ and FTA’s strong commitment and additional special funds in MAP-21 for Bus Rapid Transit.

The plan for the federal $1.55 Billion of the senator-supported rail is predictable: If the check ever arrives, it will be endorsed and mailed to Ansaldo in Italy and New York state were they design and build trains, respectively. Instead of the $5.2 billion rail, Ben proposes a $1.1 billion traffic and transit program called FAST. The Flexible, Affordable, Smart Transportation plan is much more in tune with Honolulu’s needs and budget. Take a look at FAST at Ben’s website (

If Kirk Caldwell and Senator Inouye are really interested in improving transit in the county of Honolulu, they may begin their education on the history of elevated rail in sunshine cities by simply reading about Miami’s Metrorail, and San Juan’s Tren Urbano. Here are a few highlights for Metrorail and Tren Urbano.

Miami’s Elevated Heavy Rail: They got 80% Federal funds but still they run out of money due to cost overruns. (Honolulu gets only 30%).  Ridership forecast was about 200,000 riders (Honolulu’s is about 120,000 riders).  When the first segment of the single line opened ridership was only 10,000.  In 1990, six years after opening, it reached only 25% of its forecast ridership or about 50,000! They too ordered trains from Ansaldo.

San Juan, Elevated Heavy Rail: They got 50% Federal funds but still there was a 74% escalation of construction costs (+74% over budget!)  There was a huge escalation of combined bus and rail operation and maintenance cost after the line was opened. Combined costs shot up by +250%!  There was a downgrade of Puerto Rico’s bond ratings and new taxes were enacted to pay the debt. There was a dramatic decline of total transit ridership (bus and rail) because the train dismantled their bus. It is now more than six years since its opening in 2006 and the train has not reached 50% of its opening year forecast ridership!

I left the worst news for last: Honolulu’s rail with eliminate or terminate the following bus routes at the nearest station: B, C, E, 3, 9, 11, 20, 43, 53, 73, 81, 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 96, 97, 98A, 101, 102, 103, 201, 202 (Source: Rail EIS).






  1. What do Miami and San Juan have in common with Honolulu. Zilch. Nada. Zip. Apples and Oranges professor. And you know it. All three landscapes and transit corridors are uniquely different. And you know it. The City will synchronize lights and the city and the state will build many of the street and highway improvements suggested anyway. The BRT just won't carry enough people for the surging LEEWARD side traffic issue. At the press conference YOU said BRT buses would arrive every 15 to 20 minutes. That's 75 people leaving 4 times an hour or 300 people. The train comes every 3 minutes and carries 400. That's 8,000 an hour. Train headways can be every 90 seconds that's 40 trains per hour or 16,000 passengers. There's NO comparison.

    • I don't know about Miami, but San Juan rail seems to have a lot in common with Honolulu. While Puerto Rico is not EXACTLY like Oahu, it is not apples and oranges. More like hayden mango and common mango.

      1. On an island with year round tropical climate with mild weather.
      2. Similar population densities.
      3. Rail primarily for commute by workers from suburbs to business center. during peak periods.
      4. Largely built across developed land that with low to moderate elevation change.
      5. Rail promoted to reduce traffic.
      6. Rail projected high ridership to justify itself.
      7. Bonds had to be issued to cover cost even though Fed provided 50% of original funding.
      8. Kiewit involved in management and construction on both projects.

      Personally, I think it would be prudent not to dismiss the lessons learned from the Tren Urbano. Because of the disappointing results from that project, a prudent person would proceed with caution instead of the headstrong and unfettered optimism with which our current city leadership seems to be treating our money. If anything, there should be more dissenting voices if for no other reason that to add balance to that optimism.

  2. Your BRT does NOT solve or provide a traffic ALTERNATIVE to the commute transit problem for Leeward residents. And you know it. Show us some numbers for the flyover. How many cars per hour will go through during peak AM travel? You can say whatever you like, but that doesn't mean a thing without data. The Zipper Lane carries 1,600 per hour. The flyover is two lanes. Sounds like a max of around 3,200. The rail can easily carry 8,000 per hour (20 trains X 400 passengers). The flyover isn't a bad idea and it will provide some relief, but it doesn't match the train in its ability to move large numbers of people up and down the H-1 corridor quickly, safely and at an affordable fare. And you know it.

  3. You cited Cleveland as a great success story for BRT, but the average speed for a BRT bus in Cleveland is 12.3 mph – that WILL NOT make people get out of their cars. You also cited Minneapolis – a site of one of the most successful light rail systems in the entire country, and they have elected to spend more money on expanding. Interestingly enough they have already made their ridership projections ahead of schedule. The same "experts" that are cited in Honolulu were used in Minneapolis to oppose rail. They said it could not and would not happen. The reason Minnesota has multiple modes of transportation is that the twin cities and it's surrounding areas are spread over a VAST EXPANSEof land. The corridor we are dealing with is perfectly suited for rail (it is much narrower) and it will work much better than Minnesotta's rail. Why aren't Minneapolis' rail numbers cited above? How about Tampa? Or LA? Because you are skewing the facts. – And you know it.

  4. I will never understand how Rail is supposedly any kind of solution. Look at the scenario. WHO will want to: drive their car to a terminal. Have it parked there alone for ten hours a day. Stand in a noisy rail contraption while being transported to a general area hopefully in a town near their destination. Depart the rail terminal. Try to arrange another way to get to their end destination. Taxi? TheBus? I just do not see it.

  5. Traffic is bad.
    We need to do something about it.
    Whatever we do should make traffic conditions better than they are now.
    TheRail will not do that.
    TheRail = Fail

    • Your argument presumes the capitalistic premise that rail is for the benefit of those paying for it. Fail.

      Allow me to fix that for you.

      Union workers are unemployed because housing boom busted.
      Developers want to put suburbs on farm land.
      Union workers need jobs and developers need infrastructure to support suburbs.
      Workers want someone to pay them and developers want someone else to pay for it.
      Rail provides union jobs and build infrastructure on farm land to support suburbs.
      Government officials, supported by the unions and developers, can take taxpayer money to build Rail and provide rezoning of ag land for suburbs.
      Rail = success

Comments are closed.