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Metro has ordered Silver Line builder to stop running test trains because of construction flaws

The new rail yard at Dulles Airport is approximately 97 percent complete as Phase II construction continues along Metro's Silver Line in July. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Metro officials are so concerned about the quality of the tracks being built for the Silver Line rail extension that they have ordered the builder to stop running test trains, officials said Wednesday.

The news came on the same day that board members of the agency overseeing construction of the multibillion-dollar rail project sought to play down reports of problems, suggesting they were overblown and that the staff managing the project deserves praise, not criticism for its work.

Asked later about Metro’s directive, Marcia McAllister, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), said Metro officials want to do their own inspections before they allow test runs to resume.

A spokesman for the contractor, Capital Rail Constructors (CRC), said it has not been told to stop running test trains. Asked to respond, MWAA said it hadn’t told CRC because no test runs were planned so it didn’t think it needed to.

For months, MWAA and its contractors, which also include Hensel Phelps, have been grappling with a growing list of problems on the $5.8 billion project, including rail ties with too much curvature in them to meet Metro standards, defective concrete panels at several stations that must be treated with special sealant, and contamination in the ballast that supports the track in the new rail yard.

The project, which is the second phase of Metro’s Silver Line rail extension, is more than a year behind schedule. MWAA is managing construction of the project; Metro will own and operate the line once completed.

At its regularly scheduled meeting Wednesday, MWAA’s board appeared unfazed following a project update report, saying it was moving forward and would be ready to carry passengers in July 2020.

“I want to compliment you and your staff,” Robert W. Lazaro Jr., who represents Virginia on the 17-member board, told Charles Stark, the project’s executive director.

“A lot of folks would prefer to run around saying their hair is on fire,” Lazaro said. “There are no surprises here. We’ve heard about this for a long, long time and we’re working through those issues.”

The board members’ attitude did not sit well with Metro officials, who heard a lengthy presentation at a meeting of their board last week on the project’s problems.

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“Metro’s inspector general, board of directors, and leadership team could not have been more clear last week: The deficiencies on this project are significant, impact safety and reliability, and must be resolved before Metro will accept the project,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said. “We hope this message is getting through to the Airports Authority’s contractor.”

The prohibition on running test trains could further delay the rail project. Contractors began running test trains in February.

Earlier this month, Metro Inspector General Geoffrey A. Cherrington, who is conducting his own audit of the project expected to be released later this year, issued two management alerts to top agency officials and members of Congress about problems that needed immediate attention. He found the sealant being applied to fix the defective concrete panels might not be working. He also identified problems at the rail yard being built. He urged Metro not to accept the project until all the problems are fixed.

Metro’s IG finds new problems with Silver Line construction

Accepting prematurely, Cherrington wrote, “will create extraordinary cost, maintenance and operational issues early once [Metro] takes ownership and control of this project.”

In a separate letter sent the same day to MWAA chief executive Jack Potter, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld also expressed concerns about the quality of the work on the rail project, saying that “there have been a series of significant quality related issues with certain elements of the project.”

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On Wednesday, Lazaro also played down reports of tension between MWAA and Metro, saying that while “some folks want us to engage in a yelling match with our colleagues at the Metro center and other places,” MWAA’s staff should be praised for “being capable and calm.”

Keith Couch, CRC’s project director on the Silver Line, also briefed the MWAA board at Wednesday’s meeting, but board members had few questions.

The first phase of the project, four stations in Tysons and one in Reston, was built by a consortium led by Bechtel and opened July 26, 2014. Phase 2 has six stations, including one at Dulles International Airport, and will for the first time extend Metro into Loudoun County.

In response to a question from board member Katherine K. Hanley, Stark said the project is not “currently over budget.” However, in past interviews, Stark has conceded that officials have not tallied the costs for the months of additional delays and change orders that have accumulated since construction began five years ago. Those costs could easily eat into the project’s approximately $550 million contingency fund.

The newest developments mean more uncertainty for a project that Virginia spent decades lobbying to build. The ­23-mile rail line is one of the largest infrastructure projects of its kind under construction in the United States.

Even as MWAA board members said they believed the rail line would be ready for passengers by July 2020, a presentation by the contractor given Wednesday said work probably would not be complete until June 2020. Once the contractors complete their work, Metro will need time for its own testing, a process that could take several months.

Why the Silver Line’s second phase has been so problematic

A new set of problems for the Silver Line: this time it’s the rail yard

Silver Line contractor has new problems with the tracks it’s building

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