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Silver Line extension opens, adding six stations, Dulles connection after years of delays

The $3 billion, 11.5-mile second phase expands Metro’s footprint to six more stations and provides the debut of service to Loudoun County in Virginia

Riders document their trip during the opening of the Silver Line extension at Dulles International Airport on Tuesday. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

After decades of planning, political wrangling and creative financing, a Silver Line train departed the new Ashburn Metro station in Virginia on Tuesday amid cheers and hoots, marking the debut of Metro’s westward expansion to Dulles International Airport and the edges of suburban Washington.

The opening ushered in a new transit and development phase for the region — one that officials hope will focus growth near rail stations, diversify the region’s housing stock, encourage residents to reduce driving and solidify the Dulles tech corridor’s role as major driver of economic activity.

The $3 billion, 11.5-mile second phase expands Metro’s footprint with six new stations and provides long-awaited rail service to Dulles Airport and fast-growing Loudoun County. The inaugural train’s trek past low-density suburban neighborhoods and occasional open fields ends a tumultuous construction period as the extension arrived four years overdue and $250 million over budget.

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About 100 people waited in the cold outside the fare gates at Ashburn, ensuring their spot on the first passenger train through the new stations. At 1:40 p.m., Metro workers opened the station as riders scanned their SmarTrip cards and raced to the platform, making occasional stops to snap photos of the Silver Line’s gleaming new terminus about 28 miles west of the District.

Digital signs counted down the minutes until departure as people settled into the blue benches of a 7000-series train. Customers who stopped at the new stations Tuesday were greeted by Metro workers handing out commemorative pennants, a tradition that began when the first station opened in 1976.

“Been waiting a long time,” passenger John Gawelek said as the train pulled away from the station.

Gawelek, a retired United Airlines pilot, lives about a mile away in the Broadlands neighborhood. He has been biking around the Ashburn station for more than a year as construction crews finished their work.

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Nearby, 99-year-old Witold Brick, wearing a World War II hat — his jacket zipped to keep out the cold — sat in a wheelchair while holding a commemorative pennant. Brick, a Polish soldier and prisoner of war during World War II, was freed by American troops, his daughter Michelle Guilbault said.

Guilbault, who works at Dulles, said she brought her dad to ride the first train because “he needs to be part of history.”

The new segment, which begins at Wiehle-Reston East, extends west to Ashburn and completes the 23-mile line. Phase 1 of the project, which stretches west from East Falls Church in Fairfax County, opened eight years ago, the same year the extension broke ground.

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For Metro, the opening is a shot of good news after a year filled with challenges, including a train shortage caused by the October 2021 suspension of about 60 percent of Metro’s rail cars. The suspension came after a wheel-safety defect was found amid a federal derailment investigation. Metrorail’s regulator has allowed the transit agency to phase them back in, a decision Metro says allowed it to open the Silver Line without further delays.

Regular passenger service on the extension began at 1:54 p.m. Tuesday, when an eastbound train left Ashburn en route to Maryland’s Downtown Largo station via six new stops: Reston Town Center, Herndon, Innovation Center, Dulles, Loudoun Gateway and Ashburn.

A ride along the segment from Ashburn to Wiehle-Reston East takes 22 minutes. The ride from Metro Center in downtown Washington to Dulles takes 53 minutes. A ride without transfers that spans the length of the Silver Line, from Ashburn to Downtown Largo in Prince George’s County, takes about 93 minutes.

Trains on the Silver Line are running every 15 minutes, Metro officials said, although wait times will decrease as the transit agency returns more cars to service.

The biggest expansion by miles in Washington Metro’s history is ending with the opening of the final stretch of the Silver Line, including service to Dulles. (Video: Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

After years of delays, Tuesday was a celebration for many. Guests attending an opening ceremony and ribbon-cutting at the Dulles station drank complimentary coffee, orange juice or water from plastic bottles adorned with the Silver Line’s gray circular “SV” symbol. The opening of a Dulles station has been sought since the airport opened and coincides with its 60th anniversary this week.

Supporters acknowledged that the decades-long effort to build the rail line was fraught — and at several points it looked as if it wouldn’t happen at all.

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine (D) quipped that the rail line’s boosters over the years “fought off everything other than a plague of locusts to get here.”

In 2014, Kaine told The Washington Post that his work of trying to get rail to Dulles was “the single hardest project I’ve ever been involved with in public life.” On Tuesday, Kaine said that assessment still holds.

“It was a battle to plan it. It was a battle to do the land use for it. It was a battle to finance it,” Kaine said. After a legal tussle over a deal to have the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority take control of the project, Kaine and other project boosters prevailed.

And then on Tuesday, Kaine rode the train.

“It’s not, ‘if you build it, they will come.’ No. It wasn’t even opened yet, and they’re already there,” Kaine said of the burst of development projects near the just-opened stations. “That was really fun to see.”

“Getting big things done is hard, really hard, and it requires some political intestinal fortitude to stick with it,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), a longtime supporter of the project. He said that while the Dulles Airport station was filled with boosters Tuesday, “when we began to try to revive this project 27 years ago, it was a lonely time and place.”

The launch of Metro service means all three major Washington-area airports are accessible via rail. Several travelers already were incorporating the Dulles station into their travel plans.

Hannah Linn, 26, rolled her suitcase off a train on her way to catch a flight to Uganda, where she will be working with her father at a nonprofit.

Linn, who lives in Philadelphia, had come from Arlington, where she visited her sister before the intercontinental trip. She had planned to use a ride-hailing service to get to Dulles until her sister stopped her, telling her the rail extension was opening Tuesday.

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“I’m a huge fan of the Amtrak,” she said. “This was even more convenient.”

Katherine Kortum, a senior program officer for the Transportation Research Board and a former Metro Riders Advisory Council member, was departing Tuesday for a vacation to Portugal.

“When I saw this had opened, I thought the transit gods were smiling,” she said while walking toward the airport terminal from the rail station.

Loudoun County officials hope the extension will further transform the suburb, the nation’s wealthiest county, into a destination for tourists and companies looking to relocate.

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Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, said the line would facilitate the development of diverse and equitable communities around new stations. People helped most by the line, she said, “do not care there’s a ribbon-cutting,” but are those who will see improvements in their daily lives. “This is indeed a great day, but more for them than for us,” Randall said.

The Silver Line was designed with commuters in mind, raising uncertainty about ridership numbers with many workers shifting more frequently to telework. Metro ridership has risen in recent weeks but is still about half of pre-pandemic levels.

At the new Reston station, Fairfax County Supervisor Walter L. Alcorn (D-Hunter Mill) tried to put some of those concerns to rest, saying Reston’s rebound has been helped by its proximity to the new line. People want to be near transit, he said, even as commuting has changed during the pandemic.

“Transit is not dead, folks,” he said. “Transit is alive and well.”

During its regular board meeting Tuesday, the regulatory Washington Metrorail Safety Commission gave a nod to the rail extension’s debut. Christopher Hart, chair of the commission, which last week certified the extension was safe to operate, said, “We look forward to the positive impact this project will have for the region.”

Despite decades of struggle, there were early signs that the new rail line was becoming a fixture of life in and around Washington, almost like it had been there all along.

James Mahony stepped off his eight-plus-hour flight from Paris and, less than an hour after the Silver Line opened, walked aboard and rolled past the new stations as he headed home to Arlington.

“I thought it opened a week ago,” said Mahony, a voice artist who works in television and assumed all the hoopla at the airport was leftovers from some earlier celebration. “So far, so good. I hope it doesn’t break.”

Eric Parton, a software engineer, has watched the line’s construction near his Herndon-area home for eight of the 10 years he has lived there. On Tuesday, his wait was over.

“It’s like we’re connected to the whole world,” he said. “You can go to Union Station, you can go to Reagan. I can just walk to the station and go pretty much anywhere.”

Parton, who lives near the newly opened Innovation Center station, bought a bike after Fairfax County installed bike lanes nearby, making what is a 10-minute walk an even quicker jaunt on wheels.

“To get the view of the whole community from the train was kind of surreal,” he said after exiting an eastbound train from Ashburn and the airport. “It’s like it’s always been open.”

Luz Lazo contributed to this report.