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Silver Line Is 'Substantially Complete,' With Passenger Service Possible For Summer

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The first phase of the Silver Line will run out to Reston.
William F. Yurasko: http://www.flickr.com/photos/55676959@N00/8563510770/
The first phase of the Silver Line will run out to Reston.

The agency overseeing the Silver Line Metrorail project through Tysons Corner, its lead contractor Bechtel, and Metro announced agreements on Thursday bringing the $3 billion rail line a step closer to completion. A pact between the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) and Metro avoided another prolonged delay but raised new questions about construction and technical problems that have dogged the project for months.

Silver Line this summer?

The outlook for commuters eager to ride the train to Tysons and Reston brightened, as Metro officials for the first time publicly estimated the start of passenger service for the 11-mile line into suburban Virginia.

The first passengers may board the Silver Line in mid-summer, possibly in July, after Metro completes its testing and workforce training, a phase that may last up to 90 days, Metro general manager Richard Sarles announced during WMATA’s board of directors meeting. But given the project’s troubled history and the long list of complex fixes the contractor must now achieve before Metro accepts the Silver Line, officials stressed it will be weeks before a precise opening date can be pinned down.

The first hurdle comes in the next few weeks, when MWAA is expected to hand over the project to Metro once it achieves “operational readiness.” Even then MWAA and its contractor will continue work, including solving the reliability issues with the Silver Line’s safety system, known as Automatic Train Control. The technical problems arose when Bechtel and its subcontractor Alstom Signaling attempted to link the safety systems of the new rail line and Metro’s existing Orange line infrastructure.

Further complicating matters, an official with direct knowledge of the Silver Line negotiations said Metro representatives recently requested changes to completed work already in compliance with the original specifications, and made these changes a condition of the project’s acceptance. The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the negotiations that led to Thursday’s agreement.

Representatives on all sides have been careful to avoid even the appearance of public finger pointing because they must continue to work together for several weeks. Also unclear was how much the punch list items would add to the overall cost and who would pay. Officials declined to comment on possible disputes over money.

A long list of fixes and improvements

In remarks to reporters Metro general manager Richard Sarles denied the transit authority demanded late changes to the Silver Line.

“The issues that we have wanted to get done are issues that have always been part of the project,” Sarles said. “Sometimes when they couldn't get it done the way we wanted it, we looked at alternatives to accomplish that.”

From installing air conditioning in escalator machine rooms to testing heat tape to putting in place ‘blocking capacitors’ to fix ‘bobbing track circuits,’ Silver Line contractor Bechtel — under the oversight of MWAA — has more than a dozen corrections to complete before Metro will consider the rail line “operationally ready.”

After operational readiness has been achieved, MWAA and its contractors have to certify an additional 30 fixes before Metro will open the Silver Line to passenger service, including corrections to the all-important Automatic Train Control system. MWAA has already approved a new contract for Alstom Signaling to replace the Silver Line’s entire RTU communications link whose reliability lapses date to last year.

Outward optimism

MWAA praised the agreement in a public statement.

“Achieving substantial completion is a significant milestone,” said MWAA chief executive Jack Potter. “We have conducted a thorough review of the contractor’s submission and are satisfied that Phase 1 has met the contractual requirements that will allow the project to now move to the next steps in the process to begin passenger service.”

Bechtel also released a statement heralding the “substantial completion” of the Silver Line.

“Substantial completion is an important milestone that signals major work is finished and that soon riders will travel on a 21st-century transit system,” said Larry Melton, Bechtel’s executive director for the project in a company press release. “This achievement is remarkable given the complexity of building a rail line in a densely populated area where 700,000 cars travel each day.”

Optimistic public expressions notwithstanding, Metro expects to take control of a project that is unfinished. But to avoid further delays, transit authority officials said some flexibility with prior agreements was necessary.

For instance, Metro originally was not supposed to take over the Silver Line until permanent certificates of occupancy had been issued for the five rail stations in Tysons and Reston. However, confident the outstanding code inspection issues will be rectified promptly, Metro agreed to accept temporary certificates until permanent ones are obtained.

Thus, when pressed by reporters to name a start date for the Silver Line, Sarles responded, “The last thing I would like to do is to start up a system prematurely and then have problems with opening day and bad service for our customers.”

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