Dulles's mobile-lounge replacement flunks reliability test

The AeroTrain system, which will take Dulles International Airport passengers between the terminal and gates, will run underground.
The AeroTrain system, which will take Dulles International Airport passengers between the terminal and gates, will run underground. (Katherine Frey/Post)
Buy Photo
By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 2009

A December start date for Dulles International Airport's new gate-to-terminal train service appears increasingly unlikely after it failed to pass an important reliability test for the second time, officials say.

Tara Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, cited "testing delays" on the part of Sumitomo Corp. of America, which shares a contract with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to design, build and operate the $1.4 billion AeroTrain.

The AeroTrain will replace the airport's 1960s-era mobile lounges that take passengers between the terminal and gates. The lounges are essentially giant shuttle buses that cross the tarmac and must yield to taxiing aircraft and other obstacles. Airport officials say the train, which will run underground on 3.78 miles of track, will significantly speed the trips.

Hamilton said Mitsubishi, which built the rail cars, delivered them on time this summer. However, Sumitomo's task of testing and verifying that it works properly is taking longer than anticipated. The authority has been saying for over a year that the system would be ready by the end of 2009.

In a statement, Jewelle Yamada, a spokesman for Sumitomo, said the AeroTrain has hit snags in the final phase of reliability testing. Before passengers can use the train, it must pass a 30-day system demonstration test. For 30 days, the AeroTrain has to be able to operate round-the-clock under real-world conditions. A failure forces the testing cycle to restart from day one.

Yamada said that the system ran well in September for 18 of the 30 days but that testers stopped it after it encountered problems. It wasn't clear what caused the malfunctions, but Yamada said making the required fixes took longer than expected. Yamada said so-called "start-stops" are "not unusual for these types of high-tech systems." He said that the problem is fixed and that a new testing cycle is expected to begin early next week.

"It's uncertain that we will begin to operate by the end of the year," Hamilton said. "We will know later in the year when we can set a date for operations."

The AeroTrain represents almost half of the cost of the multi-year, $3 billion expansion of the airport that the authority has undertaken in recent years. Capital projects also include a fourth runway, parking garages, 15 new gates, concourse and terminal expansions, and an additional control tower.

The AeroTrain is separate from the $5 billion construction project to bring Metrorail service to Dulles. The new Metro route has been dubbed the Silver Line.

Hamilton said the agency is working with Sumitomo to ensure that the train system meets the airport agency's specifications. "That is the most important consideration, even if it requires a later opening schedule," she said. She stressed that no passenger operations at Dulles would be curtailed because of the delays.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company