Silver Line: Metro takes control of branch, starting testing phase

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Metro is taking control of the Silver Line extension, the transit agency announced Thursday, moving the long-overdue project a step further into passenger service. Passengers can begin boarding trains this fall if testing and safety clearances are completed.

Handing over to the Washington Metropolitan Airport Authority transit agency, which is overseeing the construction of the rail extension to Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County, is one of the final hurdles to completion of the project. The 11.4-mile stretch was initially scheduled to open in 2018 but was delayed by construction issues, frustrating government and business leaders who see the line as the backbone of economic growth.

Thursday’s operational readiness designation is the clearest sign that Metro and MWAA are satisfied with the project’s position after working through a long backlog over the past few months.

“We’re excited to get to this point, finally,” Metro board member Matthew F. Letourneau (R), a Loudoun County supervisor, said Thursday during a meeting.

Extension of the Silver Line of the Metro approaches the finish line

Metro officials did not give an opening date, but interim general manager Andy Off said the transit agency expects to see passengers this fall.

“We are committed, certainly, to this year, without a doubt,” he said in an interview. “We just need some more time to work out the details.”

The development comes as Metro is slowly emerging from a rail car shortage as it faces a training and accreditation lapse involving half of its train operators, sanctions for violating safety guidelines to restore track power, and changes in leadership. The slow turnaround of passengers during the pandemic — as thousands stay at home during the rise of telecommuting — has transit officials braced for a budget hole of up to $500 million starting next summer.

While the expenses associated with operating the Silver Line add to the Metro’s load, agency leaders say the extension is critical to generating new customers who have moved to nearby homes and want to avoid heavy traffic.

“Obviously it’s very exciting for the community, but it’s also very important for the system, because this is really an area now with the Silver Line extension where we could potentially see a lot of growth in passenger numbers,” said the chairman of the board. of Metro, Paul C. Smedberg. “Many people are moving close to subway stations. I mean, it’s just a fact.”

Operational readiness allows Metro to simulate service, run emergency drills with first responders, resolve safety issues and ensure construction issues are resolved before Metro takes full ownership. Off said more than three months of testing and other preparations will be needed before the extension opens.

Lawmakers Send Letter Requesting Update on Silver Line’s Latest Delay

The $5.8 billion project will add six stations to the 91-station rail system, extending beyond the existing Wiehle-Reston East station to Ashburn. Metro is training or hiring more than 430 employees to manage the extension.

Workers on Thursday were changing locks at stations and buildings along the line to add the extension to the Metro’s security system, Off said. The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission has certified the track and facilities, but will still need to certify that the system is operational and ready for service.

The transit agency and MWAA are continuing with final negotiations, Off said. This includes an issue with thermal tape, which prevents ice and snow from accumulating on the tracks, and money MWAA will give Metro to pay for remaining maintenance issues. “But we are confident that we have a clear path ahead,” he said.

MWAA spokesman David Mold said in a statement on Thursday that the airport authority will continue to work with Metro during the testing process.

“The Airports Authority thanks and congratulates everyone who worked together to achieve this important milestone, and we look forward to Silver Line bringing new subway services to Fairfax and Loudoun counties, including a connection to Washington Dulles International Airport, along with new jobs and economic development for the National Capital Region,” reads the statement.

Julie Coons, president of the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said area workers are waiting for the line to open before returning to offices more regularly, rather than fighting traffic.

“This will really accelerate the return to work that can still be a hybrid form,” Coons said. “The subway is fundamental in the transport options that we all need to go to work, but also to live a fun and productive life in this region. It is an incredibly important development.”

Representatives Don Beyer, Gerald E. Connolly and Jennifer Wexton, all Democrats representing Virginia, said in a joint statement that they were encouraged that the opening of the extension is near. Senators Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats from Virginia, and Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, both Democrats from Maryland, said in a separate joint statement that the testing phase brings us “a big step closer.” transport “capable of accompanying the growth of the National Capital Region.”

The first phase of the Silver Line, with four stops in Tysons and one in Reston, opened in 2014. Construction on the second phase began that year.

Toll road users are paying nearly half the cost of the extension, with Fairfax and Loudoun counties, as well as MWAA, also contributing.

Silver Line extension to Dulles is closer to completion after years of delay

MWAA declared the project substantially complete in December. Since then, officials at metro and airport authorities have reviewed items that are incomplete or have been flagged out of concern. With Metro’s declaration of operational readiness, the transit agency will gain provisional control of the extension for testing, but will not gain full ownership until the line is about to open.

The delays cost MWAA dearly, which paid contractors more than $8 million to continue to oversee the project until it was handed over to Metro.

Off said passenger service to the Silver Line will require fewer than seven or eight trains, although subway officials hope the current train shortage will be partially resolved once the line opens.

A derailment in October led to an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, which found a defect in the wheels and axles of Metro’s 7000-series railcars that causes the wheels to migrate out. The series, Metro’s most advanced, represents about 60% of the agency’s fleet.

The safety commission withdrew all 748 7000-series cars from service until Metro could develop a plan to safely operate them. The defect progresses slowly, allowing Metro to reinstall them if workers are vigilant in monitoring them.

In May, the commission approved the reinstatement of 64 carriages – or eight trains – back into service under Metro’s plan to manually inspect the wheels every day.

Return of missing Metro trains generates optimism among passengers

Since trains began arriving on the Green and Yellow lines on June 16, Metro has not put all permitted trains back into service. Off said some failed daily inspections for reasons unrelated to wheel problems. As an example, he said, radio communication problems in a rail yard recently prevented Metro from adding a car.

On Thursday, he said Metro had seven of the 7000 series trains back in service.

Transit engineers installed an automated roadside machine near the Greenbelt that can perform instant inspections and measurements while recording images of the underside of the car. The device continues to be tested, but Off said it has been consistently accurate.

“Your it’s still not a deal done by any means,” he said. “It’s a proven technology – particularly in the Class I freight world, not necessarily used as much in transit – but so far it’s been giving good results.”

Transit authorities plan to install six of the machines across the rail system. If the safety commission approves the use of the machine, Metro can bring more trains to the daily fleet.

“We believe that by the end of the summer we will be able to start rolling out a little more once we have the automated technology system fully certified and working,” said Off.

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