Silver Line to Dulles looks done, but may not open until 2021

The opening date for the Silver Line to Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County, Virginia, keeps slipping, with the latest estimates from construction contractors potentially pushing the start of service into 2021.

The biggest issue is a failure of one of the contractors to properly vet train control software, a problem that is now projected to add nearly six months to the projected completion date.

As of December, construction contractors do not expect to complete the rail yard until Sept. 4, 2020, and the stations and tracks until Oct. 6, 2020.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is responsible for building the line, continues to question those schedules. Due to testing and training requirements, it would be unlikely Metro would even start carrying riders on the line until early 2021.

“At this point, we do not have an agreed-upon date for scheduled completion with either contractor. The Airports Authority is focusing on the safety, durability and reliability of the system,” MWAA Dulles Rail Project spokeswoman Marcia McAllister said in an email.

The Airports Authority believes the schedules are overestimating the length of time for some work, leaving out other critical events, and miscalculating the actual length of recent delays.

“We continue to work with all parties to meet the project goals. Both contractors know what they need to be doing,” McAllister said.

Negotiations continue on plans to speed up work, and there is still hope that trains could start carrying riders in 2020, the latest report from the airports authority says.

“While we don’t have a date, everybody is working to try and wrap it up this year, sometime this year, but there are a number of things that still have to happen,” Fairfax County Transportation Director Tom Biesiadny told county supervisors this week.

The most noticeable of those things is the tie-in work connecting the new stations to the existing system. That’s expected to require at least 10 more weekend closures of the Wiehle-Reston East station.

Metro has not yet approved a new timeline for that work, because of concerns over the untested train control software. That work connecting the stations could begin in March or April. The shutdowns had been planned to run from November into March before the work was delayed.

“We are working closely with all parties to get the trains operational, but a completion date will be contingent upon resolution of outstanding issues and acceptance of the project by WMATA,” Capital Rail Constructors Project Director Keith Couch said in a statement.

CRC is the contractor responsible for building the stations and main tracks. A different contractor, Hensel Phelps, is building the rail yard.

Overall construction work is about 98% complete, so as final touch-ups continue in some stations and buildings, the line looks largely complete to drivers passing by on the Dulles Toll Road or Dulles Greenway.

Ultimately, it will be up to Metro to set a specific opening date for the line once Metro takes ownership of it from the Airports Authority.

Other problems

Contractors are still trying to fix problems with initial construction, including switches that were out of alignment, joints that were not properly installed and fixes for concrete panel problems, the report says.

For the faulty concrete station framing panels, small permanent holes with metal covers are being drilled in panels at each station to allow for easier testing of the inside of the panels for potential rusting risk of the rebar.

At the Dulles Airport Station, the station structure is blocking a crane that’s supposed to lift supporting steel columns into place for windscreens, and that means they are waiting on final approvals of a new plan for how to install all the pieces sometime in the next few months. If traffic changes for drivers approaching the airport are approved, the work could resume as soon as this month.

Switch problems do appear to have been addressed properly along the main tracks, the report found. Several dozen insulated joints in the rail yard have been replaced and ballast testing has been completed.

“We believe extensive testing and engineering analysis shows that any potential issues with the concrete panels and special track work have been addressed,” said Couch, of the contractor CRC. “As we do with all construction-related issues, we have engaged multiple third-party experts who have evaluated the products and solutions, and all agree there are no safety issues, and they meet the specified life expectancy.”

Metro, the Airports Authority and the construction contractor continue to discuss other problems, such as faulty rock ballast supporting some of the tracks in the rail yard.

As recently as a few months ago, Metro had been tentatively planning for a fall opening, but Metro has now slowed down plans to ramp up hiring and training.

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