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Safety system problem delays opening of Potomac Yard Metro station in Alexandria

Metro said the extra months will allow the agency to complete the design and implementation of the system

Construction progresses at the Potomac Yard Metro station. (City of Alexandria)
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The opening of the Potomac Yard Metro station in Alexandria, Va., is being pushed back to the fall of 2022 after a problem was identified with a critical safety system at the station, Metro said Monday.

The transit agency said the design of the automatic train control (ATC) system did not meet requirements to ensure safe train operations, adding that it needs to be redesigned. Metro said the problem was a result of “management decisions for which Metro is accountable.”

The ATC system relies on track circuits to transmit speed commands so that trains maintain a safe distance and stop when the track ahead is occupied.

The Potomac Yard station had been scheduled to open in April 2022. Metro said the extra months will allow the agency to complete the design and implementation of the safety system.

Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson on Monday said the news was “deeply disappointing” and called Metro’s mistake “inexcusable.” The project, which has been in the works for more than two decades, is a key part of a redevelopment plan south of Reagan National Airport.

“With the large investment of $370 million being made by the City and other governmental and private partners to fund the station construction, internal systems should have caught the error,” Wilson said in a statement.

Metro, which is managing the project, took responsibility for the error but did not provide more information about the nature of the blunder beyond a news release. The problem appeared to stem from the agency not properly noting specifications for the ATC system in the construction contract with the builder.

Wilson said the city recently learned that a critical ATC component for the station was not included in the contract.

“It was essentially a pretty major exclusion from the contract,” he said.

He said Alexandria will hire a construction consultant to review the schedule and determine whether the station can safely open sooner than September 2022.

A problem with the ATC system also was identified in Phase 2 of the Silver Line extension project last fall. In that case, Metro said the track circuit of the system design did not comply with requirements and industry standards, attributing the mistake to the project contractor.

New, potentially ‘significant safety concern’ identified with second phase of Silver Line

Metro again cited the ATC system earlier this month in saying that the extension would be delayed because of work needed to merge systems between the line’s first and second phases.

A failure of the system can have catastrophic consequences, as was the case in the 2009 Red Line crash near the Fort Totten station. Investigators determined that a faulty track circuit made a stationary train invisible to an approaching train’s ATC system, causing that train to proceed at 55 mph and slam into the stopped train. Nine people were killed and dozens were injured.

The Potomac Yard station is being built on Metro’s Blue and Yellow lines between the Braddock Road and Reagan National Airport stations. It is east of the Potomac Yard Center and north of the Potomac Greens townhouse community, between the George Washington Memorial Parkway and the CSX railroad tracks.

Construction began in 2019 and was expected to be completed next spring. The project is part of the city’s plan for the 295-acre former railroad yard south of the airport that is being transformed into an urban center.

Wilson said the city will work with Metro to ensure that the delay is as short as possible. He said construction was on track for the spring opening until the latest issue was identified.

“We’re disappointed and we’re frustrated. This is something that should have been obviously included from the beginning, and even if it wasn’t included from the beginning, it should have been identified quite a while ago,” Wilson said. “It’s really a shame because the team working out there is doing a great job. It looks like a Metro station already.”