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As train shortage eases, Metro and bus systems prepare for Silver Line

Northern Virginia bus systems are syncing routes and schedules to correspond with the 11.5-mile extension, which includes six new stations

The entrance to the Dulles International Airport station. (Luz Lazo/The Washington Post)

Metro cycled more rail cars through inspections Wednesday as the transit system prepared to open the long-delayed Silver Line extension and restore normal train frequencies after struggling through a year-long shortage.

One day after the most significant obstacle was resolved that was holding back the Silver Line, Metro hastened final preparations to meet a goal of opening the 11.5-mile extension to Dulles International Airport in time for Thanksgiving travel. Despite significant progress, questions lingered this week: Metro still needs safety certifications from its regulator, while regional bus systems have asked for about three weeks of notice to prepare for new routes, sync schedules and inform riders of new transit connections.

The Silver Line extension, which includes six new stations in Northern Virginia and will bring rail to Loudoun County for the first time, is the system’s most significant expansion in eight years and a key selling point for booming development along the corridor. It also will lift the spirits of a transit agency beset by pandemic-era ridership declines and a federal derailment investigation.

“When we announce the Silver Line start date and when we start service, I will be very excited,” said Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles), a Metro board member and Loudoun County supervisor who voted to bring the connection to the county a decade ago. “People have been waiting for this for a very long time, and I think they need to see it to believe it.”

Metro approved for more trains, plans to open Silver Line by Thanksgiving

Four years behind schedule, the $3 billion extension comes as Metro is wading out of a turbulent year of service crises and leadership changes. Metro’s customer base has shrunk through the proliferation of telework, creating fare revenue gaps that are likely to persist without luring more riders.

Key to recovery, Metro officials say, was ending a train shortage that began last October when most 7000-series cars were suspended because of a wheel defect found during a federal derailment probe. Metro had been allowed by the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission to restore some cars, but transit officials said restrictions, combined with ridership increases and the need for more trains to operate the Silver Line, left it unable to meet growing demand.

After a public dispute between Metro and the safety commission escalated last week, both sides reached a compromise Tuesday that immediately makes at least 30 more trains available for daily passenger service and includes steps to reinstate the entire series in the coming months. Metro took steps Wednesday to restore the new trains it was allowed to add, although additional details about service changes were expected in the coming days.

Metro hasn’t announced an opening date for the Silver Line’s second phase, saying only that it plans to have service available for Thanksgiving holiday travelers.

“The date will be announced soon, after [the safety commission] concurrence on Metro safety certification, which we will ideally announce before Thanksgiving travel,” Metro spokeswoman Kristie Swink Benson said in a statement.

Metro hasn’t taken complete ownership of the Silver Line extension. The project was overseen by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which has granted Metro provisional control to test and prepare the line. The authority has completed all tasks required for Metro to accept the segment, but Benson said Metro General Manager Randy Clarke will decide the timing of that full transfer. Metro’s board already has authorized him to set a date for the line’s opening.

Benson said wait times on the extension will be about 15 minutes, on average, then decrease as Metro brings in more of its 7000-series cars.

Metro’s regulator weighs request for more trains amid public dispute

Regional bus systems that will connect to the extension include the Fairfax Connector, Loudoun County Transit and OmniRide, which serves the Prince William County area. Because of the project’s lengthy delays, the agencies planned routes long ago that will connect to the new stations.

“The bus systems that are supporting the Silver Line, they had been planning these routes for a while,” said Kate Mattice, executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, which represents Virginia jurisdictions that subsidize Metro.

Loudoun County will have the most intensive work to do, as transportation workers still need to add posts or signs at 175 bus stops, Letourneau said. He said he expects that task to be ready in a few weeks because of work already completed.

“Those routes are in place. We’ve done the planning for it. We’re staffing up to have enough drivers to accommodate that type of expansion,” he said. “We’ll be ready to go, but the logistics that go into that — a lot of communication to the public — needs to happen.

Robin Geiger, spokeswoman for the Fairfax County Department of Transportation, said transportation officials have been preparing for connections and the realignment of bus service in Herndon and Reston for three years, which included three rounds of community surveys and other outreach.

Metro blames regulator for possible Silver Line delay, crowding as tension grows

Dulles officials said they also are preparing for the debut of rail to Washington, but declined on Wednesday to provide other details.

“We have been extensively preparing for the opening of the Silver Line from the airport side of things,” said Rob Yingling, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which manages Dulles International Airport.

Metro officials are planning an opening ceremony for the Silver Line that will include remarks from regional leaders. The ceremony will include a ribbon-cutting and special commemorations of the milestone for customers, Benson said.

Loudoun County officials said the project will change their community, which has been one of the nation’s fastest-growing counties for years. The Silver Line extension will bring two Metro stations — Loudoun Gateway and Ashburn, in addition to the Dulles station — to the county, marking the area’s first rail connection to the nation’s capital.

County supervisors are also debating whether to make future fare evasion offenses at Metro stations a criminal offense or a civil offense punishable by fines. Transit police for years did little to enforce fare evasion throughout the system, but an increase in riders skipping bus fare boxes and jumping rail turnstiles during the pandemic led the agency to announce recently that police will start issuing citations next month.

After lax enforcement, Metro to issue fare evasion citations next month

Loudoun County Supervisor Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn) said Metro’s arrival will transform auto-centric eastern parts of the county to bring more transportation alternatives. He said it will increasingly make the area a destination for visitors and new businesses, supporting the bike paths and other infrastructure the county built to give residents more travel options.

“This is a fundamental change in Loudoun County as a whole, specifically in eastern Loudoun County,” he said. “I think it has given a real boost for our plans for multimodal transportation. There’s now a real impetus to get people out of cars, and they will be able to walk and bike and scooter to the Metro station.”

Ian Duncan contributed to this report.