Correction to This Article
The headline of a Sept. 14 Metro article incorrectly indicated that an underground train system being built at Dulles International Airport will operate on rails. The train cars will run on rubber tires.

Airport's Future Is on Rails

By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 14, 2006

Passengers at Dulles International Airport will be able to check out a new underground train system that one day will carry them from terminal to concourse -- replacing the much-maligned mobile lounges -- starting today, when a walk-in display of one of the train cars will open for public inspection.

The $1.3 billion system, called Aerotrain, is half-done and remains on track for a scheduled opening in 2009, engineers and officials said yesterday during an on-site update of the airport's expansion plans.

The train is part of a $3.4 billion construction project designed to increase the airport's capacity and security by adding a fourth runway, more gates, a new control tower, an expanded security clearance area and other improvements. Construction of the control tower was completed last year; it is expected to open next year, after the Federal Aviation Administration outfits it with its equipment. The runway is to open in 2008.

"We're rebuilding the airport so it can serve the Washington area for the next 40 years," said James E. Bennett, chief executive of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. "When we're finished with the next round of improvements, the [traveler's] experience will be worth the wait and the inconvenience."

The remaking of Dulles began in 2000 but was delayed when air travel declined after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said Margaret E. McKeough, executive vice president of the airports authority. Since then, two parking garages have opened, as has a 1,000-foot moving sidewalk between the main terminal and Concourse B.

The expansion is intended to serve an increasing number of air travelers at the region's busiest airport, which is expected to continue growing as more people move to the Washington area, Bennett and other officials said. In 2005, a record 27 million passengers flew into and out of Dulles, an 18 percent increase from the 22.8 million who used it in 2004.

Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport also is expanding to serve a growing number of travelers. It is most of the way through a $1.8 billion expansion that will triple its parking capacity, widen access roads and add gates, terminals and services. An 11-gate terminal that serves Southwest Airlines opened last year. The airports authority, which also runs Reagan National, is considering ways to expand parking there.

At Dulles, the underground train is designed to reduce crowding and security concerns in the main terminal, as well as speed passengers to their gates.

Currently, travelers check in and pass through security gates on the same level of the main terminal before boarding the mobile lounges. When the Aerotrain line is finished, check-in and security will be done on separate levels, allowing more room for both.

Passengers will go to another level to reach the train terminal, a 54,500-square-foot platform served by automated cars -- similar to those at the Atlanta and Denver airports -- programmed to run every two minutes. When trains arrive at stations, departing passengers will exit on one side of the platform and arriving travelers will board from the other side.

Each car can accommodate more than 100 passengers and will run between stations on rubber tires instead of rails to save money and reduce noise.

"It'll be a fast and efficient service to get you to the terminal in seconds," said engineer Frank D. Holly Jr. "It's a safe, secure underground system that won't be vulnerable to outside threats.

"The mobile lounges on the surface are probably going 15 miles per hour," Holly added. "The trains will go 40 to 42 miles per hour. You'll be delivered to your concourse in 1 1/2 to two minutes."

When it initially opens, Aerotrain will travel in a J-shaped pattern to serve the main terminal, both sides of Concourse B and the C/D Concourse. Eventually, though, trains will travel on an elliptical circuit, serving both ends of every concourse to minimize walking distances. Departing passengers will be told which concourse, gate and train station to use when they check in. The second phase is not fully funded, and no completion date has been set.

The mobile lounge system was state of the art when Dulles opened in 1962. There was no security screening process, and departing travelers could smoke cigarettes and drink cocktails in comfort as they shuttled over the tarmac in lumbering vehicles that looked like something out of a Buck Rogers serial.

Aerotrain won't send the airport's fleet of mobile lounges immediately to the scrap heap, however. They'll continue to be used for some international flights and by some airlines to take passengers directly to planes.

"They offer us a great degree of flexibility," McKeough said.

Several passengers interviewed yesterday said the construction projects haven't been too big of a hassle.

"The trip to the outer terminals takes a little longer in the mobile lounges because of the construction," said McLean resident Marty Fletcher, 44, who flies in and out of Dulles twice a month for work. "But they've done a good job at keeping the construction away. We all look forward to the day the train comes."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company