Thursday’s designation of operational readiness is the clearest signal yet that Metro and MWAA are satisfied with the project’s standing after working through a lengthy punch list in recent months.
“We’re excited to get to this point, finally,” Metro board member Matthew F. Letourneau (R), a county supervisor from Loudoun, said Thursday during a meeting.
Metro officials did not give an opening date, but interim general manager Andy Off said the transit agency is hoping to see riders 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 through the details.”
The development comes as Metro is slowly emerging from a rail car shortage as it tackles a training and accreditation lapse involving half of its train operators, sanctions for violating safety guidelines on restoring track power, and changes in leadership. The slow return of riders during the pandemic — as thousands more stay home during a rise in telework — has transit officials bracing for a budget hole of up to $500 million starting next summer.
While expenses associated with operating the Silver Line will add to Metro’s burden, agency leaders say the extension is key to generating new customers who have moved into homes nearby and want to avoid heavy traffic.
“It’s obviously very exciting for the commonwealth, but it’s also really important for the system because this is truly an area now with the extension of the Silver Line where we potentially can see a lot of ridership growth,” said Metro board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg. “A lot of people are moving near Metro stations. I mean, it’s just a fact.”
Operational readiness allows Metro to simulate service, run emergency drills with first responders, work out security issues and ensure that construction issues are resolved before Metro takes full possession. Off said more than three months of testing and other preparations will be needed before the extension would open.
The $5.8 billion project will add six stations to the 91-station rail system, extending beyond the existing Wiehle-Reston East station and reaching Ashburn. Metro is training or hiring more than 430 employees to run the extension.
Workers on Thursday were changing locks at stations and buildings along the line to add the extension to 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. Those include a problem with heat tape, which prevents ice and snow buildup on tracks, and money that MWAA will give Metro to pay for remaining maintenance issues. “But we’re confident that we have a clear way ahead on that,” he said.
MWAA spokesman David Mold said in a statement Thursday that the airports authority will continue to work with Metro during the testing process.
“The Airports Authority thanks and congratulates everyone who has worked together to reach this important milestone, and we look forward to the Silver Line bringing new Metro service to Fairfax and Loudoun counties, including a connection to Washington Dulles International Airport, along with new jobs and economic development to the National Capital Region,” the statement said.
Julie Coons, president of the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said area workers have been waiting for the line to open before returning to offices more regularly, rather than fight traffic.
“It will really accelerate the return to work that may still be a hybrid form,” Coons said. “Metro is critical in the transportation options that all of us need to go to work, but also to live a fun and productive life in this region. It’s an incredibly important development.”
Rep. Don Beyer, Gerald E. Connolly and Jennifer Wexton, all Democrats representing Virginia, said in a joint statement they were encouraged that the opening of the extension is near. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, both Virginia Democrats, and Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, both Maryland Democrats, said in a separate joint statement the testing phase puts “us one big step closer” to transportation “capable of keeping up with the National Capital Region’s growth.”
The Silver Line’s first phase, with four stops in Tysons and one in Reston, opened in 2014.Construction of 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.
MWAA declared the project substantially completed in December. Since then, Metro and airports authority officials have gone over items that are incomplete or were 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.
Delays have been costly for MWAA, which paid contractors more than $8 million to continue to supervise the project until it was turned over to Metro.
Off said passenger service for the Silver Line will require fewer than seven or eight trains, although Metro officials are hoping that a current train shortage will be partly resolved when the line opens.
A derailment in October led to a National Transportation Safety Board investigation, which found a defect in the wheels and axles of Metro’s 7000-series rail cars that causes wheels to migrate outward. The series, Metro’s most advanced, makes up about 60 percent of the agency’s fleet.
The safety commission pulled all 748 of the 7000-series cars from service until Metro could develop a plan to operate them safely. The defect progresses slowly, making it possible for Metro to redeploy them if workers are vigilant in their monitoring.
In May, the commission approved reinstating 64 cars — or eight trains — back into service under Metro’s plan to manually inspect wheels each day.
Since the trains began arriving on the Green and Yellow lines on June 16, Metro hasn’t put all of the permitted trains back into service. Off said some have failed daily inspections for reasons unrelated to wheel problems. As an example, he said, radio communications issues in a rail yard recently prevented Metro from adding one car.
On Thursday, he said Metro had seven of the 7000-series trains back in service.
Transit engineers have installed an automated wayside machine near Greenbelt that can perform instant inspections and measurements while recording images of the car’s underside. The device continues to be tested, but Off said it has been consistently accurate.
“It’s not a done deal yet by any means,” he said. “It’s a proven technology — particularly in the Class I freight world, not necessarily used in transit that much — but so far it has been providing good results.”
Transit officials plan to install six of the machines across the rail system. If the safety commission approves the machine’s use, Metro could bring more trains into the daily fleet.
“We believe by the end of summer we will be able to start putting some more out there once we get the automated technology system fully certified and functioning,” Off said.