US’ first autonomous metro opened in Hawaii – Planned to reach Int’l Airport in 2 years

Construction of the first full-fledged urban railway “Skyline” in Hawaii, USA has been proceeding in Honolulu on O’ahu, and on June 30, 2023 (Fri), commercial train operation began on the first section.

The Honolulu Metro "Skyline" EMU manufactured by Hitachi Rail (Image by Hitachi Rail)
The Honolulu Metro “Skyline” EMU manufactured by Hitachi Rail (Image by Hitachi Rail)

Hitachi won the order fully, who is strong in Europe

In Hawaii, where only a few railroads remain for tourism, there is a high dependence on private cars for commuting and going out, and serious road congestion and adverse effects on the environment have long been a problem. A metro railway plan to solve these problems was first adopted by the Honolulu City Council in 2006, and the project began with the establishment of a semi-independent organization, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART), as the construction entity.

There were many twists and turns until completion, and construction delays occurred frequently due to factors such as protracted environmental surveys, archaeological surveys and the COVID-19. Another problem was that the construction cost, which was initially estimated at around $4 billion, greatly exceeded the figure and ballooned to more than $10 billion. For better or worse, it’s the largest public project in Honolulu’s history, and the city has dealt with funding shortages several times in the past, including raising excise and lodging taxes.

The first route opened in the western suburbs of Honolulu, 17.7km from the “Kualaka’i / East Kapolei” Station to the “Halawa / Aloha Stadium” Station. Nine stations are set up, and the station names are characterized by notation of place names in Hawaiian and names of districts and nearby facilities written in English. Most of the tracks are elevated, with the exception of the area around the “Hālaulani / Leeward Community College” station where the depot is located on level.

Because there are no level crossings on all lines, it is the first metro railway in the United States that does not require a driver, and achieves fully automated operation managed by central control. Hitachi Rail (headquartered in Genoa, Italy), a group company of Hitachi, Ltd., Japan, has received the order for the development of rolling stocks and the construction of the overall railway system, and will also undertake system operation and maintenance after the start of service.

Hitachi is focusing on the global expansion of its railway business, and has built up a track record mainly in Europe, including the acquisition of a railway system company in Italy and the manufacture of rolling stocks locally in the United Kingdom. The delivery in Honolulu this time is likely to be a big foothold for business expansion in the United States, which has had little presence so far.

(See the chart below for details such as the route map, business hours, rolling stocks and station image of the Honolulu Metro “Skyline”.)

[Chart] The route map, business hours, rolling stocks and station image of the Honolulu Metro "Skyline".

When will it extend to Honolulu downtown?

Twenty 4-car trains will be introduced into the Skyline, with the aim of alleviating traffic congestion with a transport capacity of up to 800 people per train, which is equivalent to the capacity of 10 fixed-route buses. Trains run every 10 minutes, and the initial operating hours are set to be short, from 5:00 (8:00 on weekends) to 19:00. Accessible facilities include elevators, platform doors, and wheelchair spaces on trains. There is also a rack in the car where you can stand and fix the bicycle you brought in.

The fare is $3 per ride, and you can use the same IC card “HOLO Card” as the city bus “TheBus”. Within 2.5 hours after first tapping the HOLO card at the ticket gate, a free transfer service will be applied where the fare will not be deducted when boarding the next bus or train. In order to avoid duplication of public transportation sections due to the opening of the Skyline, some buses have been reorganized into a route network that assumes transfers at stations.

As the second stage of the approximately 30km overall concept, an approximately 8km section will be developed from Aloha Stadium station to the “Kahauiki / Middle Street Transit Center” Station extending east. Scheduled to open in the summer of 2025, a station will also be set up at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport at that point, and it seems that it will be a familiar railway route for tourists.

The third phase, which reaches downtown Honolulu, is expected to take until 2031, approximately 5 km to “Ka’ākaukukui / Civic Center” Station. Originally, it was planned to extend to “Kālia / Ala Moana Center” Station, which is located about 1km further to the east. However, due to a significant budget overrun, the project was reviewed and temporarily removed from the plan and opening date is undecided now.