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Dulles Updates Its People Movers
AeroTrain's Dual Agenda: Improved Service, Support for Metro Link

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Dulles International Airport officials yesterday showed off a new fleet of rail cars that eventually will replace the airport's 1960s-era "mobile lounges" that transport passengers to gates.

The AeroTrain system has 29 electric rail cars that run on rubber wheels on flat concrete rails. It will go into service late next year.

As airport officials stood before the gleaming blue-and-white trains, they were also sending a message to federal transit officials: We can build a subway. The Federal Transit Administration must decide whether to contribute $900 million to an expansion of Metrorail to Dulles. The regional airports authority would be in charge of that undertaking, and some federal officials have questioned whether the agency has the experience for such a large task.

"This has been a very long and very complicated project," said James E. Bennett, chief executive of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which runs Dulles and Reagan National airports. "All work had to be done around regular airport operations. You can't just close a terminal for a week."

Airport officials say the AeroTrain, which will run underground on 3.78 miles of track, will significantly speed up the trip from terminal to gate. The mobile lounges, which went into service in 1962, are diesel-fueled vehicles -- essentially giant shuttle buses -- that cross the tarmac and must yield to taxiing aircraft and other obstacles.

Initially, there will be four stations serving the airport's main terminal, A gates, B gates and C gates in a J-shaped configuration. Construction started in 2002, and tunneling was completed in 2006. The stations are not yet finished, and testing must be done before the trains begin carrying passengers in fall 2009.

Officials showed off the rail cars in the system's new maintenance facility. The 40-foot cars, much smaller than the 75-foot-long Metrorail cars, are designed to carry 70 to 90 passengers. There are only eight seats, which are reserved for the elderly and people with disabilities. Everyone else stands.

The trains will travel at a maximum speed of 42 mph and take 72 seconds between stations. Trains will arrive every two minutes, airport officials said.

"This is part of what will be a completely different way of transiting through the airport,'' Bennett said.

The AeroTrain, similar to train systems in Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Tokyo and Hong Kong, will cost $1.4 billion, nearly half of the $3 billion D2 expansion at Dulles, which includes a fourth runway, parking garages, 15 new gates, concourse and terminal expansions, and a control tower.

But the airport's 49 Kennedy-era mobile lounges are not being retired -- at least not yet. They will be used to serve the D gates and for all international arrivals, because international passengers must be segregated until they pass through customs.

Bennett said the AeroTrain system will expand along with the airport, eventually ending in a loop serving future gate concourses and a future south terminal.

The AeroTrain is just one link in a system that airport officials say will get passengers onto airplanes more quickly and with less hassle.

Instead of the current two-level terminal, with ticketing and security on top and arrivals on the lower level, the expansion plan will add an underground 121,700-square-foot security screening area, with the 54,500-square-foot AeroTrain terminal below that.

Meanwhile, by moving the security lines out of the main Eero Saarinen-designed terminal, the landmark will regain the airiness and dignity of the original design, officials said. The expansion project is expected to be completed in 2011.

Bennett said the airline industry's financial problems have affected the project's planning and implementation. The airport relies on landing and takeoff fees from the airlines. He said that if the airlines were in better financial shape, planning would already be underway for a permanent replacement for the temporary quarters that hold the C and D concourses.

The AeroTrain station that serves the C gates is being built on the site of the proposed permanent concourse, forcing travelers to use a temporary underground 500-foot walkway back to the C gates.

In 2007, 25 million passengers used Dulles, including 6 million international passengers. Bennett said growth in international flights will become an increasingly important part of the airport's business. Dulles serves 42 international destinations through 23 airlines.

Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, which had 21 million passengers in 2007, wrapped up a $1.8 billion expansion in 2006.

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