The Ansaldo Honolulu JV staffing problems that came to light last fall have persisted in recent months — and they’ve continued to worry those who oversee the island’s rail project, according to documents provided by the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation.
As recently as April, HART officials continued to raise red flags that “unacceptable” personnel vacancies within Ansaldo would hurt rail’s construction progress if they weren’t filled as soon as possible, letters obtained through a Honolulu Star-Advertiser public-records request show. The Hitachi-owned firm has a $1.4 billion contract to create and run rail’s train cars and its operating system.
“Recent and near term vacancies of (Ansaldo’s) current key personnel and other critical project personnel are again causing major concern,” HART Project Manager Justin Garrod wrote in an April 13 letter, echoing his earlier frustrations that go back to last summer.
The issue over Ansaldo vacancies — and HART’s concerns — first surfaced in October.
At that time Ansaldo’s project manager in Hawaii told the Star-Advertiser that the firm had already filled most of the positions in question months earlier, before HART raised the issue in July.
However, the recently obtained letters show that HART was still demanding that Ansaldo fill those key positions in September.
They included a communication lead engineer, a traction electrification lead engineer, an interface manager for construction and a project control manager.
“It has been almost two months since HART provided notice to (Ansaldo) on this matter. Today there is very little progress made,” Garrod wrote Ansaldo Project Manager Enrico Fontana in a Sept. 15 letter. “HART wants to reiterate our concern regarding the lack of the above personnel.”
Fontana recently declined to respond to several questions on the matter, including why HART was still asking Ansaldo to fill those jobs in September if they had already been filled. He deferred to HART to answer any further questions on the issue.
They newly obtained letters further show that Ansaldo has struggled over the past year to keep all of its key positions staffed — or to hire qualified candidates — to HART’s satisfaction.
In at least one instance, Ansaldo appointed someone to a key management role without HART’s consent or approval, and the rail agency found that person lacked the necessary experience, according to a May 3 letter from Garrod.
However, HART opted to conditionally approve the Ansaldo staffer, who was hired to serve as an interface manager during construction, because she demonstrated she was capable of doing the job. The rail agency is slated to review her approval again in October, according to Garrod’s letter.
HART flagged 15 or so positions dubbed “key” or “critical” between July and April that Ansaldo needed to fill to keep progress going smoothly. Correspondence shows that Ansaldo has filled at least five of those positions.
Garrod described the Ansaldo staffing as a “work in progress” in a recent emailed message sent via HART spokesman Bill Brennan.
“Some Ansaldo employees have left to take promotions at other companies. Maintaining adequate staffing levels will continue to be a challenge throughout this entire project due to the location and extremely hot construction climate,” Brennan’s message stated. “But it will be a challenge we will continue to monitor and address.”
Garrod further downplayed the concerns expressed in HART’s letters to Ansaldo.
“No impacts have been realized due to staffing vacancies. HART is working collaboratively with (Ansaldo) to make sure that we have a fully staffed team ready to meet the needs of the project,” Garrod stated in another email sent by Brennan.
Ansaldo has increased its staffing on Oahu by more than 40 percent over the past year, to 37 employees from 26, and it plans to have 50 local employees by the end of the year, according to Garrod.
The firm delivered the first train cars on time in March.
Brennan said that the urgency expressed in Garrod’s letters could potentially give the local Ansaldo office more leverage to request the staffing it needs from its company headquarters in Italy.
Ansaldo has been contracted to operate the planned 20-mile, 21-station elevated system across Oahu’s South Shore. However, rail officials now say they won’t be able to build the entire system so it reaches town on the project’s current budget of about $6.9 billion. The island’s top political leadership, including Mayor Kirk Caldwell, has recommended the city complete the system at Middle Street for now.
It remains to be seen how such changes would affect Ansaldo’s contract with the rail project.
>> July 15: HART tells Ansaldo that it “is concerned that the continued vacancies of Key Personnel and other important positions are affecting (rail’s) progress. Without immediate action to have these personnel available in Honolulu, many on-going and future issues will not be addressed in a timely manner, which will further affect the Project’s progress.”
>> Aug. 18: HART approves Ansaldo’s pick for a new communications lead engineer, to replace the outgoing one.
>> Sept. 15: HART tells Ansaldo that the “continued absence of many Key Personnel and many critical positions is unacceptable.” The agency reminds the firm that it’s been two months since it first brought up the issue, and adds that “without immediate action to have these personnel available in Honolulu as soon as possible, the Project’s progress will be further impacted and any corrective actions, as a result, will become more difficult.” It asks Ansaldo for an “immediate action plan” to fill the vacancies.
>> Oct. 9: Ansaldo Honolulu Principal Program Manager and Managing Director Enrico Fontana tells the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that “all but the field supervisor positions were filled by Ansaldo specialists” when the firm received HART’s July 15 concerns over vacancies.
>> Oct. 27: HART accepts Ansaldo’s picks for a new traction electrification lead engineer and a new communications lead engineer.
>> Nov. 17: HART accepts Ansaldo’s pick for a new project controls manager.
>> March 11: HART accepts Ansaldo’s temporary pick for a safety and security certification manager to perform that job for the next four months.
>> April 13: HART expresses more concerns about the “lack of personnel required to support on-going (Ansaldo) Core Systems activities on the Honolulu Rail Transit project.” The rail agency acknowledges that Ansaldo has filled some jobs, but more vacancies are “again causing major concern.”
>> May 3: HART accepts Ansaldo’s pick for a new interface manager, even though Ansaldo already designated the new manager without HART’s approval. The rail agency says the new manager lacks the proper experience, but it finds that she has demonstrated she’s capable. HART grants conditional approval.
Ansaldo Staffing Letters