A ride decades in the making: Metro from Dulles

Arriving at Washington Dulles International Airport early Saturday morning was nothing like any of the dozens, maybe hundreds of times I’ve landed at IAD over the past 30 years and change: I walked to a Metro stop at the airport and took the train home, no bus connection needed.

Photo taken from a Silver Line train at Dulles shows the station sign, with IAD's main terminal just visible in the background.

Tuesday’s opening of the second phase of Metro’s Silver Line has been justified grounds for local celebration after years of local angst over schedule slips and cost overruns (even if, by average U.S. transit-construction costs, it can look like we stole the line).

But the debut of a one-seat rail link between our downtown and our international airport–a traveler-friendly feature in some U.S. cities and in many more outside the country–should be even more welcome for Washingtonians old enough to remember 20th-century transit options to Dulles.

When I first started making my acquaintance with IAD, Dulles advertised only one such route: the “Washington Flyer Coach” bus that ran every 30 minutes between the West Falls Church Metro station and the airport, at a cost of $9 one-way or $16 roundtrip that later became $10 one-way or $18 roundtrip. That was so bad that it made “can you give me a lift to Dulles?” a routine test of D.C.-area friendship. It was so inadequate that Metro adding the much cheaper 5A bus in December of 2000–which ran from L’Enfant Plaza and Rosslyn with an intermediate stop in Herndon but only did so once an hour–represented a serious improvement.

But it took having phase one of the Silver Line open in 2014, after local backers overcame such obstacles as the George W. Bush administration’s rail-skeptical Department of Transportation, to make “National or Dulles?” less of a dumb question. The Metro extension’s opening reduced my IAD transit timing from Arlington to an hour and change, factoring in a transfer at the Wiehle-Reston East station to a $5 airport-express bus or a free-with-transfer but much slower Fairfax Connector route.

Yet every time I had to sit around the bus level of that station’s garage and breathe its polluted air, I could only wish that the rest of the line would get past the concrete-drying stage.

Four years later than once estimated, that’s finally happened.

So after a short walk Saturday morning from the terminal to the station–maybe five minutes with stops to take photos–I had to celebrate by taking the Silver Line in the wrong direction to see all of it. I let a train to D.C. go by and instead boarded one to the Silver Line’s Ashburn terminus in Loudoun County.

That neighborhood of the county that in 2012 barely voted to stay in the Silver Line project is now the farthest place Metro reaches from the center of D.C. And as development around the station continues, it now has a chance to follow the path of other Metro neighborhoods and become a more pedestrian-friendly spot–or at least one where cost-conscious travelers don’t have to ask friends to give them a lift to Dulles.

So sick of Silver Line schedule slips

My least favorite genre of local transportation story, by an overwhelming margin, is reports of delays in the second phase of Metro’s Silver Line to Dulles Airport and beyond. Over the past few months, I’ve let myself grow optimistic that this wait for a one-seat international-airport ride would end–and then this week served up a new round of gut-punch news about the project’s long-anticipated entry into revenue service.

Thursday, Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority general manager Paul Wiedefeld used the agency’s board meeting to announce a new problem: incorrectly sealed joint boots connecting third rails to their power supply. It’s sufficiently irritating that these cable-connector assemblies–a basic part of the system that you can easily identify from a train, given that they look like giant orange hair dryers–were not installed right, pushing the extension’s opening into, maybe, July.

But it’s worse that Metro and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, the agency overseeing the construction, apparently knew about this snafu for months but did not see fit to loop in the taxpaying public. To put this more directly: When WMATA and MWAA posted presentations earlier this month about Silver Line progress that didn’t mention this hangup, they lied.

And this development follows a long series of dashed deadline hopes.

In 2014, months after the first phase of the Silver Line had opened, this expansion was projected to open in 2018. A year later, extensive design changes had pushed that timeframe out to sometime in 2020. That estimate held through discoveries in 2018 and 2019 of such problems as defective concrete panels, incorrectly installed railroad ties and flaws in fixes for those concrete panels. But then issues with the train-control system found in 2020 yielded a revised estimate of 2021 that then evaporated as fixes for them dragged on into the summer of 2021.

MWAA declaring “substantial completion” for the Silver Line’s tracks and stations in November, followed by it reaching the same milestone in December for the extension’s rail yard, was supposed to put this extension officially in the home stretch. Instead, these two agencies have found new ways to prolong the punch-list work needed before Metro can take control of the line and then, after some 90 days of its own testing, open the faregates.

I am among the less-inconvenienced stakeholders. I don’t commute to Reston or Herndon and only lose an extra 15 or 20 minutes and $5 on each trip to IAD by having to transfer to MWAA’s Silver Line Express bus at the Wiehle-Reston East Metro station–not that every time I’m waiting for that bus, I don’t think that a completed Silver Line could have already whisked me to the airport.

But the larger picture is that $2.778 billion worth of infrastructure continues to sit idle while MWAA and WMATA point to the other party (or the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, which must provide a separate sign-off) as the reason for the latest delay. I don’t perceive any urgency at either agency’s leadership to put this asset into service–although at this point I mostly blame Metro, since I see the same feckless lack of initiative in the transit agency’s prolonged inability to get its 7000-series trains back into service.

It’s a disgraceful failure of project management all around, and only one thing eases the embarrassment factor for my city: the far more horrific cost and schedule overruns afflicting New York’s transit projects.

Ranking U.S. airport rail connections

PORTLAND–The easiest part of my journey here Thursday for this year’s XOXO festival was the last leg: a roughly half-hour ride on the light rail from the airport to downtown.

Many cities do not offer that kind of convenience, leaving visitors to choose between infrequent buses that get stuck in traffic and don’t have enough room for luggage or ride-hailing services that may not even save that much money over taxis (sorry, New Orleans; you’re guilty on both counts here). But not all airports with rail service get the basics right: a quick and obvious route from terminal to train, frequent service, a one-seat ride to downtown, and plenty of connecting service once you get there.

Here’s my sense of how 10 U.S. airport rail connections rate. It could have been an even dozen–I’ve also appreciated MARTA’s one-seat ride to ATL in Atlanta and availed myself of SEPTA’s less-frequent commuter-rail airport service in Philadelphia–but both of those happened in the prior century, and I’d rather refresh my memories of each first.

ORD: You do have to walk what feels like half a mile of underground corridors to get to the Blue Line station, but then you’ve got a traffic-free 45-minute, $5 ride to the Loop that runs 24 hours a day. Bonus: CTA is one of the very few U.S. transit agencies to take NFC phone payments instead of making visitors choose between paying a paper-fare surcharge or buying a smart card that will collect dust in a drawer later on.

PDX airport rail stationPDX: TriMet’s Red Line light rail takes you to the middle of downtown in about half an hour, the station itself is just outside one end of the terminal, and trains offer almost round-the-clock service, even on Sundays. As in Chicago, you can pay your fare via NFC; unlike CTA, Tri-Met also caps your daily fare at $5 if you use that option.

DCA: National Airport’s Metro connection checks off all the boxes, including a walk from the station to the terminal shorter than many of the planes waiting on the other side. And having spent the years before National’s new terminal opened in 1997 taking a shuttle bus to the Interim Terminal makes me appreciate this convenience even more. But: On weekends, Metro opens too late for even 8 a.m. flights.

SEA: Each time I’ve taken the 38-minute ride on the Link light rail from Sea-Tac to downtown Seattle, I think of Steve Dunne from “Singles” and his dreams of a Supertrain for commuters. Having to walk through a parking garage to reach the airport station, however, is not so super.

SFO: Putting SFO’s BART station at the end of a wye was an epic blunder: At best, only one in two southbound trains from San Francisco stop at the airport—at a steep fare of $9.15 from Embarcadero–and taking Caltrain can require separate BART rides from Milbrae north to San Bruno, then south to SFO. I appreciate being able to walk from the BART station to T3, but everybody would be better off if the Airtrain inter-terminal shuttle went across 101 to a single station for BART and Caltrain.

DEN: The RTD’s A line electric commuter rail replaced a bus that only ran every hour or so with service every 15 minutes during the day, and being able to end your trip downtown at beautiful Union Station is a treat. But at $9, this is on the expensive side.

BOS: You have to take a bus to the T’s Blue Line stop (so does this even count as airport rail access?) and then connecting to the T’s other lines is as much of a mess as anything in downtown Boston. And if you don’t already own a CharlieCard, you’ll pay a paper-fare surcharge because the T doesn’t seem to grasp the importance of selling its smartcards in all of its stations.

EWR: Newark’s station on the Northeast Corridor allows Amtrak to serve as a connecting “flight”–United will sell you that routing if you want to travel from Stamford or New Haven to one of its own destinations. But if you’re only going to Manhattan, NJ Transit’s schedule can leave you waiting at off hours, and the $13 fare is the second most I’ve paid to take a train to a U.S. airport.

CLE: Fun fact: Cleveland was the first North American city to institute rapid-transit service to its airport. And if you start your journey to Hopkins from downtown, your commute can begin in the historic confines of the Tower City complex. But Northeast Ohio is not exactly a paradise of rail transit, which cuts down on the utility of this connection.

JFK: Taking the Long Island Rail Road from Penn Station to JFK’s Airtrain was easy enough the one time I did that a few years ago, but if I had to make that commute more often I imagine I’d tire of the $15 combined cost of LIRR plus Airtrain–or the slower ride on the subway.

BWI: For passengers coming from D.C., BWI’s rail station takes the basics of Newark’s Amtrak connection and makes them worse: MARC runs less often than NJ Transit, especially on weekends, and instead of a short monorail ride you have a bus that takes longer and runs less often. Also, the BWI rail station itself is a miserable concrete bunker that doubles as a cellular dead zone. If, on the other hand, you’re coming from Baltimore, you can take the light rail direct to the airport—but I wouldn’t know about that.

So what about my own favorite Washington-area infrastructure project, phase 2 of Metro’s Silver Line? That will offer a one-seat ride from Dulles to downtown at what I’m guessing will cost $6 and change at peak hours, $4 off-peak and should take about 50 minutes, going by a published 43-minute estimate of travel from Rosslyn to Dulles.

(Having the station be across the hourly parking lot from the terminal doesn’t bother me a bit; the added walking over the rejected station option closer to the terminal, factoring out moving walkways, is 260 feet, and if that’s too much pedestrian locomotion then Dulles isn’t the airport for you anyway.)

They can’t finish that thing soon enough, and when they do I anticipate it will occupy a spot on this list right after National.

Watching concrete dry on the way to Dulles

I find watching paint dry as dull as anybody else, but concrete’s another thing–when it’s reinforced by steel in the service of a large construction project that I will enjoy at some point in the hopefully not indeterminate future.

That’s why I don’t sit on the bus from the Wiehle-Reston East Metro to Dulles International Airport. I stand so I can get a better look at construction of the Silver Line’s extension to IAD and beyond.

Silver Line construction at IADThat project’s opening seems painfully far off when I look at a calendar and note how many months stand between now and 2020, the current if-all-goes-well estimate for its opening. It annoys me to observe how slow we build a railroad on mostly open ground–it’s not like we’re trying to thread the Second Avenue Subway under Manhattan, people!

But seeing bridges placed over roads and streams, the structures of stations emerge from the dirt, and columns rise out of the ground to carry aerial tracks through Dulles reminds me that there is a payday coming… someday.

Gawking from the bus or a car is also one of the few ways to monitor this progress. The Dulles Metro project sends out an e-mail newsletter every few months, and a thread on railroad.net (I know, nerd) sees a post maybe once a week on average, but there’s no Flickr or Instagram account to follow and no construction webcam to check.

Peering through the windows of a packed Silver Line Express bus is not a great substitute for that… or for, you know, having a one-seat and traffic-immune ride to my city’s international airport. But at least it gives me an excuse to give my phone a rest.

National or Dulles? Yes.

SAN FRANCISCO—I took a plane from Dulles International Airport to here on Wednesday, and today I’ll fly home to National Airport. That is apparently an increasingly unfashionable choice.

Headlines like “Dulles International Airport struggles to find its footing” and “So how do you fix a problem like Dulles?” understate how unpopular Dulles has become compared to National. It may not be the airport that Washingtonians love to hate. But it is certainly the airport we no longer have to use.

National Hall with flagThe reason: the exemptions granted by the government to National’s “perimeter rule” banning flights to anywhere more than 1,250 miles away, originally put in place to protect a market for D.C.’s larger airport. Flying here and to other major West Coast destinations no longer requires trekking out to Dulles or connecting somewhere in between.

In my case, that’s meant that all of my family’s travel to see my in-laws in the Bay Area has moved to the DCA-SFO nonstop United launched in 2012, along with many of my work trips to here. National is only 10 to 15 minutes away by cab, and I’ve done the Metro commute in 35 minutes door-to-door. I’ve even walked from National to places in Crystal City. The main hall is a beautiful work of architecture (especially if you remember the Interim Terminal), and the views from the plane taking off or landing are spectacular.

But the price of convenience can be flexibility. There are two nonstops to SFO from DCA, while United alone has 10 nonstops between Dulles and SFO on this coming Monday. (Virgin America has another three nonstops; its useless frequent-flyer program and the lack of  D.C.-S.F. nonstops from anybody else helps explain why I spend so much time on United.) On this trip, a 12:39 departure out of IAD let me sleep in until a normal time and then walk my daughter to pre-school.

Lincoln Memorial River Visual viewAnd for international travel, Dulles is obvious. I do not want a flight to Europe hanging on the odds of a hop to Newark or another East Coast hub not getting delayed or canceled, and working around that by booking an hours-long connection in EWR or elsewhere is not my idea of fun. If I have to connect, I’d rather do that in the EU, where the lounges are worlds better.

Getting to Dulles, in turn, has gotten easier with the advent of Metro’s Silver Line and more frequent Silver Line Express bus service from the Wiehle-Reston East station. My trip out Wednesday ran an hour and 4 minutes and involved zero stress about traffic or parking. I can deal with that; it’s not much longer than the ride to SFO on BART (with longer headways) or to O’Hare via CTA, and it should get a few minutes shorter whenever they finally finish phase two of the project.

That leaves United’s miserable C/D concourse at Dulles–among the worst airport facilities in America, with too few windows and not enough space. I have wanted to apologize to travelers on behalf of the Washington area when I see how packed it gets before the evening bank of transatlantic flights. Any replacement for it seems years off, even as United has been upgrading its other hubs.

Dulles main terminalBut I have found a solution to that, and you can too if you have Star Alliance gold status: the Lufthansa Senator Lounge in the B concourse, steps from the Aerotrain station next to gate B51. In the afternoon and evening it’s got a cold and hot buffet and a full open bar, and those things can take a lot of the sting out of flying out of the dump that is the C/D concourse.

Lufthansa doesn’t mind if you’re on a domestic itinerary, and when you’re done you can reach the C concourse in 15 minutes by taking the Aerotrain back to the main terminal (you’ll still be airside), then staying on as it stops under the A concourse and then concludes next to C. If your flight’s at one of the D gates, you’ll have to switch the mobile lounge at the main terminal; budget a few more minutes and enjoy the view of airplanes on the way.

Dulles gate B51 viewI’m not going to pretend that my travel choices work for everybody, especially for people whose possibly saner allocation of travel funds leaves them without any elite frequent-flyer status. It may not work even if you are a frequent traveler; a friend with 1K status on United got fed up with his upgrades never clearing, switched his business to American and now rarely sees the inside of Dulles.

But I am saying that the “Dulles is the worst ever!” storyline is a little ridiculous, and so are all the ideas you see in comments about this airport suggesting we should expand National’s runways into the Potomac and close Dulles. You know what? While I’m at it, I want somebody to bring the Concorde back so I can fly supersonic across the pond.

Back in the real world, these are the two airports in my life. I might as well use them effectively.

The Tysons Corner El

Ever since I started watching the support columns for Metro’s Silver Line start to rise across Tysons, I’ve had one thought about them: That train will have some nice views up there.

Silver Line track through TysonsThat was not a popular reaction to the decision to string the Silver Line through Tysons on aerial tracks instead of in a tunnel–from the wailing about it, you’d think that this sprawl-choked “edge city” and its six-lane arterial roads would have turned into an oasis of walkability if only the train could have gone underground.

But as I saw today on the first westbound revenue-service train and then on the way home, Tysons looks considerably sharper from 30 to 50 feet in the air. You see its budding skyline swing into view as the aerial tracks swoop above the Toll Road and over to 123, you can gaze beyond the next endless block and too-long stoplight, you can look down on Beltway traffic (go ahead, chuckle at the plight of the drivers below), and as you proceed along 7 you can try to guess which used-car lot or strip mall will get redeveloped first.

(See my Flickr album from today’s ride to Reston and back.)

This elevated perspective may not have the overall beauty of the Yellow Line’s view of the Potomac River from the Fenwick Bridge–or of the Green Line’s ride through the treetops on the way to Branch Avenue–but it is an underrated aspect of the Silver Line that I plan on enjoying on my way to or from Tysons, Reston or Dulles Airport. And the good people of Tysons might as well take ownership of it by nicknaming their stretch of this route the Tysons Corner El.