Honolulu’s Doomed Rail Project

Honolulu’s rail project is in the news again today, which prompted me to think about it yet again. And the more I think about it, the less sense it makes to me.

My first thought, when I heard about the project, was that the image of an elevated railway snaking along Oahu’s southern coast is really not the image of Hawaii that I carry in my head. (At-grade crossings would be a disaster, further snarling the traffic rail is meant to alleviate, and I am not sure a subway is even possible given the physical properties of the island and the proposed route, so elevated seems to be the only option.)

The original $4 billion budget seemed outlandish, and that budget later evolved to $5.5 billion. And even with that kind of budget, the project is expected to take decades to complete.

It may be hard to digest these kinds of numbers without some kind of comparison. Happily, I happen to live right next to a good example of rail done right.

Seoul’s Metro Line 9 was also a $5 billion project. Let’s see what Seoul got for its $5 million investment. (Well, to be fair, this cost was not shouldered directly by the citizens, as Korea’s governments often utilize public-private partnerships, but let’s not think about that for now.)

Line 9 is a heavy rail, all-underground line that includes both all-stop and express trains, with 25 stops over 27km (~17 miles). It was completed in 7 years (or 3, depending on how you count). The line is operated by a private company, France-based Veolia Transport, with construction and maintenance handled jointly by Veolia and Korea’s Hyundai Rotem.

50 days after opening, Line 9 reached the 10 million rider mark. By the end of its first year (July 2010, about the time I started riding it), total ridership had reached 80 million.

Fares are the same for all Seoul subway lines. That is, the fare starts at about $0.82 and increases by 9 cents every 10km, up to $1.18 if you ride the line end-to-end (30 minutes via the express train, 51 via all-stop). It is my understanding that the city prices subway fares such that the system as a whole operates at a slight loss; however, since Line 9 was designed from the start to operate with a lower cost structure compared to earlier lines, it is possible that Line 9 itself operates in the black.

Fares are paid using prepaid transportation cards that can be bought and reloaded at any station (via vending machines) or at convenience stores. (These cards can also be used to pay bus fares, buy things from vending machines and at convenience stores, etc.)

So, that’s what a successful $5 billion rail project looks like. What do you think of Honolulu’s rail project now?

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