Correction to This Article
This article on the opening of the AeroTrain, a $1.5 billion light-rail line that takes passengers from the terminal to many gates at Dulles International Airport, said the Federal Aviation Administration predicts that 26 million passenger flights a year will land at or take off from Dulles within 20 years, more than double the 11 million in 2009. Both the 26 million and 11 million figures referred to passengers, not flights, and only to passengers departing from Dulles, not those arriving.

Passenger train goes into operation Tuesday at Dulles airport

An underground train will begin service at Dulles International Airport on Tuesday, Jan. 26.
By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Passengers at Dulles International Airport on Tuesday will join air travelers from Atlanta to Singapore who are whisked to their gates on sleek, spacious and speedy underground trains.

The AeroTrain, planned for 15 years to replace the unpopular Dulles shuttle buses known as mobile lounges, starts above the baggage claim area and glides along almost four miles of track at up to 42 mph.

With 29 electric rail cars on rubber wheels, it looks like a Metro train, except for the airy platform ceiling, glass-enclosed tubes on the platform and standing-room-only interior that maximizes luggage space with just eight seats.

The three-car train arrives every two minutes during peak travel times with enough room for about 50 passengers with carry-on bags. The cramped, diesel-fueled mobile lounges, which have been crossing the Dulles tarmac since the airport opened in 1962, will become artifacts. Sort of.

It turns out that the $1.5 billion train system, built as workers tunneled for nine years under the Washington region's busiest airport, is a work in progress that's out of sync with the airport's expansion plans. Half of the 49 mobile lounges will stay in service indefinitely.

The AeroTrain runs from the airport's main passenger terminals to the A, B and C gates on a J-shaped route, but it does not serve the D gates or the international arrivals terminal, where arriving passengers are segregated until they go through customs. The station that serves the C gates was built under the site of a future concourse, forcing travelers to backtrack along a temporary 500-foot-long underground walkway.

"The AeroTrain is all about the future," James E. Bennett, president and chief executive of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, said during a media preview Monday. He compared the new train to the airport station on Metro's Blue and Yellow lines, built before the terminals at Reagan National Airport were expanded in 1997. Travelers had to take a bus to the airport. "We build things in response to demands of the Washington market," Bennett said.

At Dulles, the AeroTrain is the centerpiece of a $3 billion expansion launched a decade ago to get passengers onto airplanes faster. It includes a fourth runway, parking garages, 15 new gates, concourse and terminal expansions, and a control tower. The Federal Aviation Administration predicts that 26 million passenger flights will land at and take off from Dulles within 20 years, more than double the 11 million last year.

But the improvements were reassessed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when air travel plummeted and an industry rebound was uncertain. Construction of a new concourse was put off indefinitely, and plans were scrapped for a train connection to the international arrivals terminal. A walkway from the main terminal to concourses C and D was delayed, too.

Bennett said it is too soon to say when a new concourse could open. Airport officials are beginning talks with United Airlines, the dominant carrier at Dulles, and other airlines that lease space there about funding the project.

During nine years of construction, the cost to excavate the station under the main terminal and build a new security mezzanine went from $184 million to $388 million. Airport officials blamed the escalation on unknown site conditions, fire protection enhancements, added baggage-screening equipment and security-related changes.

Bonds backed by airport revenue are paying for most of the $1.5 billion train project, with a fraction of the cost covered by the $4.50 passenger facility fee on each airline ticket. The debt is paid off in new fees to the airlines that operate out of Dulles -- which are reflected in passenger ticket prices -- plus revenue from parking and concessions.

Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport finished a $1.8 billion expansion in 2006. But of the region's three major airports, only Dulles has an underground train.

The AeroTrain joins similar systems operating or being built in Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Orlando, Miami, Singapore, Tokyo and Hong Kong. Orlando and Dallas airports added train stations at their rental car offices, but Dulles officials said the rental car business at the Northern Virginia airport isn't robust enough to warrant that kind of access.

By 2016, Dulles is expected to have a Metrorail station when the Silver Line is extended from East Falls Church to the airport and into Loudoun County.

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