Saturday, March 31, 2012


Rail nightmare—stuck up in the sky without power

There has been a public outcry by state officials and customers to find out why it took nearly 19 hours for power to be restored for all but 2,200 of Hawaiian Electric's 291,000 customers on Oahu. Half of the island's customers were without power for more than 14 (10/20/2006)

by Larry Geller

Honest—I woke up this morning wondering what it would be like to be 50-80 feet up in the air in a sealed metal Honolulu rail car with no power, going nowhere. Would it get stifling hot during the day? Would passengers panic after dark? Would the thing lurch to a stop or just glide slower and slower? Do the brakes suddenly set if the power fails?

If no one is driving it, who do you ask for information? For help?

I haven’t researched anything to find out if this is a realistic fear. Maybe they will have backup generators.

Nor am I a transit-phobe—I rode the New York subways for years and have even jumped down to the tracks on a few occasions to retrieve something or other (no, you’re not supposed to do that, but I was a kid, and whatever it was seemed important to get back) (including someone’s glasses once, which as luck would have it, landed right on a rail). But thinking of being stuck up in the sky for a couple of hours in a sealed tube packed with passengers while HECO winds up their generators does make me sweat a little.

Clearly, for a grade-level transit system, someone just opens the doors and everyone who wants to walks outside. The rest party. At least, there would be no panic and screaming. Possibly: “Gee, we’re stopped. What happened?” Or at worst: “I’m gonna be late! Get this thing moving!” Or: “Anybody got some beer?”

Up in the sky on Mufi’s elevated rail tracks, it’s a different story.

I know what triggered this. Last night the fluorescent light in the kitchen was blinking for no apparent reason. This happens on Oahu. Or more likely, I need to change the fluorescent tube. But Kauai just experienced a full-island blackout, right?

Before we left New York we lived in a co-op apartment project that had its own electric generator. I understand they made it through the various giant East-Coast power outages unscathed.  As will the small but increasing number of people with solar panels on their roofs as they listen to the screams of riders on the train overhead, if there are no backup generators hooked to the system.

I hope there is backup. No doubt Doug Carlson will aim one of his daily emails at this article, explaining how it is not a problem. Or maybe he already has covered the issue. I wouldn’t know, I don’t bother to open his emails. I wonder how many people still do.

This isn’t a research article. It’s more psychological. I’m sure others have their own rail nightmares. This was just one of mine.

Update: There is this article. Yeah, if the power fails, they’ll make you leave the train via a walkway up there in the sky. Sure. And the trains will have backup batteries for lights. Hope they maintain those batteries. Sure. Why do I so much not want to be up there in a power failure?


There will be an attendant in each rail car in case of an emergency. There are redundant systems built in so if one area of the island is without power the rail cars can still operate. Of course if there is an island wide outage the passengers will have to exit the cars on to the walkways. This eliminated a monorail type train since each passenger would have to be removed with a cherry picker. Let's remember a catastrophic accident on the freeway could also strand buses and cars on the freeway for hours while the passengers on the train ride home in a timely fashion. One more thing, at grade rail is subject to accidents with cars, trucks and pedestrians. You can see many examples of them on YouTube.

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