Dulles International Airport offers something very few airports in the United States can – direct access to a metro rail system.
After finally completing the years-long construction project, the Silver Line Metrorail trains began operating at Dulles International Airport in November 2022, taking passengers to Reston, Tysons Corner, and Washington, D.C.
The much-needed plane-to-train connector was essential for the airport, considering the greater Washington D.C. area perennially ranks as one of the the top five cities in the U.S. with the worst traffic congestion annually. The sheer volume of flyers traveling in and out of IAD
All of this to ask, why don’t more airports offer access to trains? In many cases, the answer is an obvious one:
It boils down to money.
Direct airport trains don’t exist because of one reason and one reason only – money.
In a quote from Bloomberg, it all makes logical sense, “Given the high potential costs of air-rail connections; it is likely that only a limited number of places could demonstrate potential benefits high enough to justify improved air-rail connectivity investments.”
Simply put, it is too expensive, and there are too many obstacles to connecting more airports to railways. Airports will often not take on this type of massive investment. If the airport wants to build a rail connection, the airport must provide the project funds.
However, up until 2022, there were only two possible ways airports could raise money to fund such a project – Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) or Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grants.
The Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) Program allows the collection of PFC fees from fliers, up to $4.50 for every enplaned passenger at commercial airports controlled by public agencies. This is how airports make money.
There are also Airport Improvement Program grants, in which the federal government provides funds for airport improvement projects.
These fees, which are factored in the price of every ticket, are utilized to fund FAA-approved projects that enhance safety, security, or capacity; reduce noise; or increase air carrier competition.
However, neither PFC nor AIP funds can be used toward plane to airport transit.
But in 2022, as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed by President Biden, for the first time, federal funds started flowing toward airport transit projects. Unfortunately, it was for multimodal off-airport bus service, not train service.
Given the funding situation, at this time, the investment of a mass transit train to an airport is more likely to come from the surrounding municipalities, not the airport.
In Europe, there are more trains, but there are other factors that come into play. For starters, London’s Heathrow airport – one of the world’s busiest – charges an unruly passenger facility charge and recently pushed to increase the amount. And not to mention the fact that funding models vary country to country.
The denser metropolitan areas in European cities already rely more on mass public transit by train, unlike the United States, which is car dominant.
Trends for the future
With so much focus on electric vehicles, automation, and the infusion of technology into mass transit, there is optimism.
In 2013, Miami International and only two other major airports – Newark International in New Jersey, and Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, California – offered plane-to-train connections.
Present day, there are over 20 major airports in the United States that have plane-to-train options, such as Atlanta, Dallas, and Boston.
Recognizing the need for transportation alternatives, many cities are looking for ways to combat congestion and utilize technology. Many major metropolitan areas have begun to use AI to assist traffic signals in working in unison more efficiently.
Transit technology and other forms of more innovative routing have made it possible for cities to manage their fleets properly and cut down on wasted spending.
All this to say, while there may be quite a long wait for a plan to train connection in your local cities airport – there is hope with utilizing technology and AI!