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Metro asks safety oversight agency to do more extensive review of Silver Line

Concrete rail ties have been installed at the track crossovers of the planned Innovation Center Metro Station on the Silver Line Phase 2. Officials say the project’s rail ties are flawed.
Concrete rail ties have been installed at the track crossovers of the planned Innovation Center Metro Station on the Silver Line Phase 2. Officials say the project’s rail ties are flawed. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Metro is asking an independent safety agency to do enhanced inspections of the second phase of the Silver Line project — an extra layer of scrutiny to ensure that the rail line is safe to carry passengers.

In a letter sent this month to David L. Mayer, chief executive of the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld asks the commission to conduct a “more extensive pre-revenue service review” of the project as part of its safety oversight responsibilities.

“As you know, there are many issues with the Project, including several material unresolved performance and construction deficiencies as detailed in the attached three letters that WMATA sent to the Airports Authority in September 2019,” Wiedefeld wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post.

The accompanying letters document myriad concerns the transit agency has repeatedly raised about the second phase of the $5.8 billion rail project, which was expected to be completed in August, but now may not be finished until June 2020.

Safety commission officials said they are aware of Metro’s concerns.

Silver Line’s second phase proves more problematic than the first

“The WMSC has been extensively involved in oversight of Phase 2 of the Silver Line for over a year, even predating the WMSC’s certification,” commission spokesman Zachary Radford said. “We intend to keep up our efforts to ensure that [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] commences operations only when all elements are ready for service and all hazards have been properly mitigated.”

As part of its role overseeing Metro safety, the newly certified WMSC is required to conduct an independent review of the Silver Line before it begins passenger service.

For more than a year, Metro and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and its contractors have been at odds over how to resolve the project’s problems. MWAA is overseeing construction of the Silver Line, which when completed will be turned over to Metro to manage and operate.

MWAA officials said they remain committed to addressing Metro’s concerns.

“We’re continuing to work with everyone and will continue to have meetings during the holidays,” MWAA spokeswoman Marcia McAllister said.

Metro orders contractor to stop running test trains, citing construction flaws

Even so, Metro and MWAA and its contractors disagree on whether the problems present safety concerns for rail passengers.

“Multiple third-party experts who have evaluated the products and solutions for the panels and special track work all agree that there are no safety issues and that they meet the specified life expectancy,” said Keith Couch, project director for the Silver Line contractor, Capital Rail Constructors. He was referring to cracks in concrete structures and defective rail ties, two of many problems the project has had.

Wiedefeld, however, disputes that. “Although characterized by the Airports Authority and its contractors as future maintenance issues all four major deficiencies are at risk of being safety issues,” he wrote. “Accordingly it would be premature for the WMSC Board to approve the Safety and Security Verification Report (SSCVR) until the deficiencies are remediated to alleviate the risks.”

More problems for the Silver Line: This time it’s the tracks

Wiedefeld emphasized that Metro will not accept responsibility for the rail line until it receives assurances of its safety from the Metrorail Safety Commission and the Federal Transit Administration.

Chief among the problems Wiedefeld has cited: defective rail ties that were manufactured with too much curvature and could cause trains to tilt outward when they move over those areas. The problem was first identified more than a year ago, but the parties have not been able to agree on a solution.

Metro wants CRC to replace the defective rail ties, but the contractor has refused, instead proposing several other solutions including using shims to level out the ties. Metro has rejected those remedies because they present difficult long-term maintenance challenges.

There are also issues with concrete panels that were installed at five of the six rail stations that are part of the project. An investigation determined that the concrete used for the panels did not meet project standards; they have a defect that could make them vulnerable to cracking.

Metro IG finds new problems with Silver Line construction

“CRC has developed solutions that resolve the technical issues related to the concrete panels and special trackwork,” Couch said. “Extensive testing and engineering analysis has been performed on both components.”

Construction of the rail yard, which is being built by Hensel Phelps, has also been problematic. Metro inspector general Geoffrey Cherrington, who has been conducting his own evaluation of the project, said Metro’s consultants found there were too many small pieces of rock in the ballast for the track beds, which could cause drainage issues and cause the rocks to shift. If not fixed, the movement could cause tracks to shift as trains travel on them. In several management alerts issued in the fall, Cherrington urged Metro not to accept the project unless that and other issues were resolved.

Metro clears the way for test trains to run on the Silver Line

Prematurely accepting the project, he said, “will create extraordinary cost, maintenance and operational issues early once WMATA takes ownership and control of this project. ”

The Silver Line is one of the biggest infrastructure projects under construction in the United States. The first phase of the 23.1-mile line opened in July 2014 with five stations — four in Tysons and one in Reston

Passenger service on the second phase, which will extend Metro service to Dulles International Airport and into Loudoun County, was originally scheduled to begin next month, but it probably will not begin until mid- to late 2020. Phase 2 is 11.5 miles long.