Reliability Concerns, Not Safety, Behind Silver Line Delay

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A Silver Line Metro station

The lead contractor building Phase I of the Silver Line Metrorail project has yet to submit a timeline for fixing several significant problems delaying the opening of the rail system from D.C. through Tysons Corner to Reston, Va.

One reason why the Silver Line is not ready to be handed to Metro for final testing is that the lead contractor Bechtel and subcontractor Alstom Signaling have yet to fix reliability problems with the signaling system — specifically, wayside computer units that communicate with Metro's central control. Officials at the agency in charge of the project, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), say the computers, known as remote terminal units (RTUs), are failing too often. The failures do not endanger passengers—but would slow the operation of the trains.

"All of the remaining problems with the train control system at this point in time are reliability issues, as opposed to safety issues," said Pat Nowakowski, the Silver Line project director at MWAA.

"The RTUs are communication devices that actually communicate from the train control system we built out here to WMATA's central control facility," Nowakowski said. "Their reliability is not where we need it to be."

When the systems fail, they are supposed to reboot automatically, but Nowakowski said the RTUs have had to be manually rebooted, a glitch Bechtel has been working on for months.

"We have an issue that has been flagged for some time. We have made improvements in these RTUs. They are performing much better," he said. Bechtel officials were not available for comment; Alstom Signaling referred all questions to Bechtel.

No echoes of Red Line crash

When commuters in the Washington area hear "signaling problems" and "Metro," their ears perk up. Signaling problems were one of several factors that led to the fatal 2009 Red Line crash (pdf), and Alstom Signaling was of one of three co-defendants named in a lawsuit (pdf) against Metro following that disaster. But Nowakowski said the signaling problems delaying the opening of the Silver Line are not the kind that would cause crashes or calamities.

"They may reduce the optimal operation to accomplish that safety performance, so trains may not operate as quickly as they did. There may be delays. From a safety perspective they would operate safely. From a service perspective they are not performing optimally," he said.

Once MWAA is satisfied its contracting team has fixed all the outstanding problems with the Silver Line, the project can be handed to Metro, which will then have up to 90 days to open the rail extension to the public. The latest delay is frustrating the project's supporters throughout the region.

"It is one of the largest transit expansions in the United States. It is perhaps the single most critical investment in transportation in the entire metropolitan region," said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who has helped the project receive federal funding. "I share everybody's frustration, but we want to get it right, and the good news here is that Bechtel, as the contractor, has to bear the extra cost. So whatever the time delay and the cost associated with it, it is not a cost born by the project. It is a liability cost born by the contractor."

"The contract was written very specifically to make sure that if there were cost overruns or delays that they were born by the contractor, not by the project itself. That was done with very careful thought to make sure there wasn't a repeat of some other kinds of projects Bechtel had been involved in around the country," Connolly added.

Federal help incoming for Phase II

While Phase I remains incomplete, Phase II of the Silver Line to Dulles Airport and beyond into Loudoun County is expected to receive a large federal loan (through the TIFIA program) at a low interest rate that will relieve pressure on Dulles Toll Road users. Tolls are supposed to cover roughly half of the entire project's estimated $5.6 billion cost.

Pending final approval by the U.S. Department of Transportation, when MWAA and Fairfax and Loudoun Counties receive loans totaling $1.9 billion, tolls on the Dulles Toll Road should remain constant through 2018. The latest toll increase took effect Jan. 1.

"This project is going to be the recipient of the largest single TIFIA loan—a federal loan for transportation—that we don't even have to start paying back until the project is completed and operational," said Rep. Connolly, who said Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx confirmed the TIFIA loan to him. "Originally there was going to be zero federal financial participation in Phase II, so this is a huge development and a very positive one."

"Following a briefing before the Credit Council, the U.S. Department of Transportation has invited the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), Fairfax County and Loudoun County to apply for a TIFIA loan for the Dulles Phase II Metrorail Project. This invitation is a significant step forward in the overall process required to receive approval for a loan, and comes after a full creditworthiness review by DOT," said the U.S. Department of Transportation in a statement.