Wiehle tie-in: How the Silver Line got held up

A few circuit boards at a Silver Line station that has been open for years are now the biggest single obstacle to getting trains running beyond Wiehle-Reston East to Dulles International Airport and Ashburn — at least if coronavirus concerns don’t pose their own problems.

A review of documents obtained by WTOP shows the train control system issue was first identified six years ago, but any concrete actions to address the issues dragged out significantly amid fights among companies, contractors and the public agencies responsible for constructing and operating the lines.

The issues go back farther than 2016 concerns and a 2018 Airports Authority audit cited in a Metro Office of Inspector General report released earlier this month.“ These deficiencies do not engender confidence in system safety,” that report said.

The new documents obtained by WTOP cover parts of the exchanges between the Airports Authority, construction contractors and Metro officials.

They also shed more light on Metro’s decision in December to block the tie-in work at Wiehle-Reston East due to software safety certification concerns just as the work was about to finally pick up this fall.

Only last month, Metro specified some of the documentation requirements it said are needed before the software can be loaded into its systems and the Airports Authority started a new audit.

In recent weeks, the lead construction contractor for the stations and tracks, Capital Rail Constructors, has moved forward with a more detailed review of the software changes that is meant to answer some of Metro’s safety questions.

“CRC believes that with shared leadership and commitment to resolving these issues, a safe, maintainable, and high quality Phase 2 of the Silver Line could be delivered later this year,” Capital Rail Constructors Project Director Keith Couch said in a statement.

Without connecting the train control systems of the first part of the Silver Line to the extension, train testing cannot be completed and the line cannot open, even though the tracks and stations are largely complete.

Metro worries though that when regular service is restored between the shutdowns for testing, the new software could create safety problems for train control and signaling on active tracks.

Some of those concerns could be assuaged with a single longer shutdown rather than repeated weekend shutdowns, something that has become more realistic due to coronavirus-related ridership drops.

“I would say that that is a definite possibility given the current situation,” Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority Vice President for the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project Charles Stark said.

With bus service cut back and fewer people riding the rails, shuttle buses are a more realistic option for a two- to three-week period, even if that Wiehle-Reston East closure overlaps with Metro’s 24/7 single-tracking through East Falls Church that is expected to start in late May.

“We are definitely discussing that with WMATA. We have begun discussions,” Stark said.

Metro has not yet agreed to that, and in fact has not yet approved any new shutdowns for the train control software installation.

Metro has suspended its own regular track work as coronavirus fears have grown, even with significantly reduced rail service that would not be as significantly disrupted. It is not clear how long that policy will be in place, since road construction and other similar projects around the region have continued uninterrupted.

The Virginia Department of Transportation, for example, has continued maintenance and construction work as usual, even as office workers and others have shifted to telework.

Besides the issues on this portion of the Silver Line Phase 2 project, a separate contractor building the rail yard near Dulles Airport also has a number of issues still to address.

While far from final, the latest projections from both contractors call for the line to be substantially complete this fall, which could mean Metro starts service in the first half of next year.

The coronavirus crisis has thrown even those projections into doubt though, since it remains unclear if the finishing work and testing will be allowed to move forward as planned and whether Metro would be willing or able to take the steps needed to launch service if their staffing remains limited and focused on more pressing concerns.

Why was this stuff left out?

The Airports Authority, which is responsible for construction of the line until it is handed over to Metro for operations, initially planned to include the main portion of this work as part of Phase 1 construction, but that work was not done.

Instead, the separate contractors hired to build Phase 2 discovered at least as early as May 2014 that key equipment was not installed that was needed to make the station a “through” station rather than just an end-of-line station.

Eventually, the Airports Authority would agree to pay the Phase 2 contractors at least $2.7 million for additional work, not including any additional costs due to significant schedule delays.

In part, Stark’s understanding is that the pieces were cut out at a time when there was no certainty that Loudoun County would agree to its share of an agreement that was later made to save the extension to the airport and Ashburn.

“N06, you know, might have been a terminal train control room forever,” Stark said.

Problem raised as early as 2014

In June 2014, an Airports Authority letter confirmed that the equipment at issue was “apparently not included” in the scope of the Phase 1 contract.

The Train Control Room at Wiehle-Reston East was designed to allow for Phase 2, but was “only built out to the extent necessary for Phase 1 operations,” the Airports Authority concluded by July 2015.

The situation was further complicated by the Phase 1 builders using one signaling company, Alstom, and the Phase 2 builders using a different company, Ansaldo-STS.

Initially, the documents suggest the Airports Authority aimed to hire Alstom directly to do the final work, but at some point over the next few months that plan fell apart.

By December 2014, the Airports Authority asked the Phase 2 contractors, Capital Rail Constructors, to do the work itself in a letter that noted “this is a time-critical issue.”

In July 2015, it appeared a path forward was in place: Alstom would provide the equipment needed to follow original designs, and the Phase 2 contractors would design and implement the connections between Phase 1 and Phase 2.

The Airports Authority estimated the changes would cost about $570,000, and proposals were submitted by February 2016.

By summer 2016, Capital Rail Constructors had approval to hire Alstom to study the changes actually needed in the Train Control Room, but then those plans were thrown off when they could not reach a deal with Alstom to get the work done.

“At this time the configuration of the N06 train control room (TCR) remains unestablished,” subcontractor Mass Electric Construction Co. wrote at the time.

Since the issues were preventing progress on schedules, the Phase 2 signal work moved forward with the assumption that the Wiehle-Reston East control room would eventually be upgraded as planned.

In October 2016, the Airports Authority and Metro signed off, and by the end of the year the authority offered support for new plans to use a different subcontractor to get the control room back on track.

The Alstom study eventually was done through another subcontractor, at a net cost of $270,393.13.

In June 2018 though, a meeting of the Airports Authority, Metro and contractors included a report that the crucial train control boards needed to finish the tie-in work would take a full year to produce and deliver.

Capital Rail Constructors estimated in July 2018 that the new details of the work and potential delays would push the already delayed opening of Phase 2 back about six months, unless they could find another path forward.

Costs

Throughout the process, there were lengthy debates about who would pay what share of additional costs tied to the delays and additional work.

One plan in late 2017 totaled $2.29 million in total costs for work to be done by another subcontractor. A significant share of those costs were beyond the initial contract, and other funding requests were submitted later.

In spring 2018, contractors stopped work on the project though, since they said approved funding had run out. The Airports Authority was unconvinced about new estimates though, and demanded more specific cost estimates as late as Aug. 31, 2018.

Revisions were submitted in October 2018 to overall plans.

Delays become public as Metro concerns grow

As the scale of the issues first emerged publicly in December 2019, Capital Rail Constructors formally raised concerns about demands for additional safety checks of the tie-in software that are linked to the current delays.

According to a letter from the contractor, Metro and the Airports Authority had agreed that complete factory testing would not be possible since there was no full replica available of the Wiehle-Reston East Train Control Room.

“All parties agreed with this approach … and that agreement has subsequently been confirmed in several follow up conversations with MWAA’s technical staff,” the CRC letter said.

In the second half of 2019, new concerns were raised by a new Automatic Train Control leader at Metro about the software development, the letter said, despite the contractors and Airports Authrority position that the additional information was “not required” and “not practical.”

‘Furthermore, the software in question has been submitted and approved on multiple occasions and is currently in its final approved state, a process which MWAA and WMATA have been intimately involved with and are fully aware of,” the letter said.

The contractors also acknowledged by the end of 2019 though that Metro had “repeatedly” warned that Metro would block the software installation without additional documentation, even if the specifics of the documentation required remained unclear.

They also complained the demands for software certification were not directly included in their original contracts and did not include specific standards that could be met.

Any delays though, such as those we are seeing now, would lead to additional costs and “significant schedule delays,” the December 2019 letter warned.

The letters came just as Metro called off scheduled weekend shutdowns of Wiehle-Reston East for the tie-in work.

The contractors said they did their “due diligence and followed the intent of the contract as well as standard industry practice” in planning for the signal systems changes.

Metro required verification and sign off by Alstom, the original signals provider for the Wiehle-Reston East station.

On Dec. 13, Metro formally canceled weekend shutdowns of the stations.

“The cancellation is necessary because, as discussed in the meeting on December 10, 2019, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) and Capital Rail Constructors (CRC) has not provided the Automatic Train Control (ATC) software documentation required by the Contract and needed to address WMATA’s safety concerns,” A Metro letter said.

Metro said it had warned of its concerns about documentation and management of software configuration “over the past year,” and would not allow any software uploads until the issues were addressed.

Capital Rail Constructors called the requirements “unnecessary” and not specific enough to act on.

“It is certainly not CRC’s fault that WMATA has decided … to take this position at this point in the Project on this previously identified changed scope of work,” the contractor wrote Dec. 23.

The contractor told the Airports Authority to specify which of the options Metro proposed should happen, be it submitting additional documents and testing procedures or getting Alstom to sign off on software and testing plans.

“CRC is concerned that no amount of documentation will be sufficient,” the letter said, also warning that Alstom might not be willing or able to sign off on certain aspects of the work.

Metro initially offered an opportunity for weekend shutdowns to continue in January, if any of the options could be met.

Now, since work has not advanced, the shutdowns would have to be scheduled at least eight weeks out under normal circumstances.

“All of the software and the hardware has been either written or designed or installed and the only thing left is the testing of the new equipment and software,” Stark said.

Letters signed March 6 provide $170,000 for Alstom to review the software and provide an analysis of other existing documentation, and another $360,000 for additional software testing.

Last month, Metro offered more specifics on application data verification, a hazard analysis and software documentation that would be required.

The Airports Authority and construction contractors remain hopeful they will now meet all of Metro’s latest requests to allow work to move forward.

But even now, after years of discussion, “a possibility exists that there might be something else that is required that we don’t know of right now,” Stark said.

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