Trains of Woe

Honolulu’s Italian train supplier has been breaking promises around the world.

Illustration: Dana Paresa

Last month, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser—usually pro-rail in its opinions—editorialized that Honolulu should be open to buying trains for its rail system from someone other than Italian manufacturer Ansaldo.

Why the caution? The news last month that both Denmark and Belgium were cancelling orders of Ansaldo-built trains for an Amsterdam-to-Brussel line, finding that the trains couldn’t handle winter weather, were rusting prematurely and had brakes that were inadequate for the trains’ speeds.

They wouldn’t be the first to fire the Italians. Other bad news for Ansaldo in recent years, pulled from a variety of local and international media:

May 2013: Oslo, Norway, takes 30 of its 32 Ansaldo Transporti-built trams out of service, due to severe rusting. (Ansaldo Transporti became part of Ansaldo STS in 2008)

April 2013: Washington, D.C. Metro finds the brakes, lights and air conditioning of its Ansaldo-built trains so faulty that it would rather spend nearly $890 million to replace them now, rather than continue to pour money into repairs. “ A fleet full of dogs,” said Metro board member Tom Downs.

Ansaldo STS U.S.A. also accepted liability for a June 2009, D.C. Metro crash that killed nine people.

February 2013: Gothenburg, Sweden—all Ansaldo-built trains delivered between 2003 and 2009 taken out of service, due to corrosion.

2012: Buffalo, New York, receives just two of the 26 rail cars it contracted AnsaldoBreda to rehabilitate—six years earlier. The project is now over budget and behind schedule.

2009: Los Angeles, California, receives just 19 of the 50 light-rail vehicles it ordered back in 2003. Not only were the trains late, they were each overweight by up to 6,000 pounds. “The working relationship with them was just poisonous,” said a transportation deputy for Los Angeles County to the Star-Advertiser in 2011. “Every single thing we asked for was like pulling teeth.”

2007: The Boston Globe reports that Boston and Ansaldo have made up, ordering 10 more cars from the company despite a decade-long fight. Boston had ordered 100 cars in 1995, but stopped delivery in 2004 because of poor reliability. “[Transit] officials have fumed over the years that it was their worst purchase ever,” the paper reported. Announcing the new purchase in 2007? MBTA general manager Daniel Grabauskas, current head of  Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit.

2005: Birmingham, United Kingdom, puts up for sale 16 Midland Metro trams built by Ansaldo Transporti after just six years, calling them “rubbish.”

1999 to 2004:  Media in Copenhagen refer to that city’s Ansaldo driverless trams as the “Blunderground.” Trains were delivered late and Ansaldo even charged $35 million to perform safety inspections of its own work.

Honolulu currently has a $1.4 billion contract with Ansaldo Honolulu JV, locally representing AnsaldoBreda (train manufacturer) and Ansaldo STS (signaling systems). Both of those companies are part of Finmeccanica.

It’s been a rough year for Finmeccanica. It lost $1 billion in 2012 and its chief executive, Giuseppe Orsi, was arrested earlier this year, allegedly for paying bribes to sell helicopters in India. At least, reports say he was arrested on corruption charges, but perhaps they meant corrosion.

Speaking of trains: The Pearlridge Express monorail was built by Rohr Industries in 1976. Rohr also built the first cars for San Francisco’s BART system.