Outrageous Outrages Shedding logical light on ridiculous and annoying things

New Train at Dulles Airport

Posted on April 19, 2010

Its what's underneath that counts

I've been flying in and out of Dulles Airport since the mid 1990s. Mostly on United Airlines, but I've flown plenty of others too. One thing it is well known for is the strange way in which it moves people between terminals. For years a network of specialized trucks move people throughout the airport. Like a giant shoebox on huge tires, these trucks held 50 or so people, and departed on a regular schedule. For years, people complained about the system, poking fun at Dulles Airport for not having a train. Until recently, when the truck-haters got their way and the new train was born.

Designed to swiftly move passengers between the Main Terminal, Terminal A, and Terminal C, the underground train was everything everyone wanted. Millions of dollars and years of construction later, we're all happy, right? Have you ever taken the train at Dulles? Were they out of their damn minds? Who designed this thing? It brings outrageous to an entire new level!

Okay, welcome to my first true rant. You already know I travel a lot, but you don't have to travel frequently to be pissed off about this. Anytime anyone spends millions of dollars to "improve" something and ends up making it worse, it simply needs attention. I'm going to try to calmly and clearly explain my frustration so that maybe you can help me in voicing your opinion as well. Or maybe you prefer to just roll your eyes and think "Wow, what idiots." The choice is yours.

Anyhow, you have probably also figured out that the majority of that travel takes me to, or through Dulles Airport on United Airlines. I'm a mid-ranking United brat and its hard to exist without IAD, especially as often as it is my final destination. The C and A gates at Dulles carry United and United Express, respectively. There are still plenty of flights out of B and D (mostly on other airlines) which use the old truck system, but odds are I'm gonna hit C on a trip through town. Before I explain what the train is like, let me explain the old truck system that everyone was complaining about.

Let's say you just landed at Dulles in the D gates. Follow the signs to Main Terminal / Baggage Claim. If you land at D30, you've got a pretty long walk, if you land at D5 you're in good shape. Once you get to where the shuttle trucks are, you turn toward them, take about 30 steps, and you're on the truck. Since a five minute rotation is typical, your average wait time before the truck leaves is 2 minutes 30 seconds. 3 minute rotations are common during peak times, however. Ride on the truck for a few minutes, pull up at Main Terminal, get off. Once you're off the truck you have to take an escalator to an escalator to a hallway, then through the door to baggage claim. A bit annoying, but just a couple minutes of walking. How about the train?

Let's say you land in the C gates. Although C and D form one large building, it is one large building. Like landing in D you follow the signs to Main Terminal / Baggage Claim. Once you get to the turn toward the train, you go down a hallway to a long escalator. Ride the escalator down for a few moments to--one of the longest hallways in the world, I swear to God. They even have moving walkways to try and speed people along, but it is a -really- long walk. At the end you have to take another escalator down to the train. The thing is, after this really long walk, you still have to wait for the train! It can take just as long, if not longer, for the train to arrive. If you're like me and get off the plane first, at least when you get to the truck you can sit down. Not if you are waiting for the train--you stand there and wait, and wait as all the people who got off the plane after you crowd around you complaining about the lack of a train.

After your wait of 1-5 minutes the train arrives. Crowd on, hang on, and it starts moving. Thing is, it doesn't start moving to the Main Terminal, oh no. It makes a stop at the A gates first! I can understand why, of course, because connections are more important than people arriving at their destination. But still, it eats your time. Stop at A, wait for the doors to close after people shuffle their way on and off the train, and we're in motion again, this time finally for baggage claim. When you finally do get to the Main Terminal, you get off the train, take an escalator, and end up--where the people who get off the truck are!

Let me recap riding the train:

  • Hallway starts across from old transport doors
  • Much, much longer walk once in the hallway
  • Same amount of waiting
  • Same amount of riding
  • Just as much walking once you get there

My point is simply that there is no point. The train ultimately accomplished nothing. Perhaps the goal was to satisfy the complainers, or to improve the first impression visitors have when they first land at Dulles. It is our nation's capital after all, so I can understand a desire to make it nice and pretty. But seriously, who came up with this brilliant plan? Was there no way to build an efficient train? One that didn't require more time walking to and from the train than it took for the entire old-system truck ride? One that kept in mind that not all passengers are Usain Bolt? I sure hope my nearly 90 year old grandmother doesn't fly into the C gates!

We all pay airport fees as part of every ticket we buy. The airlines that fly in and out of the airport pay tons of money in rent. So do the stores, the news stands, and so on. We pay the bills at the airport. That means we bought that train. A multi-million dollar train that wastes even more of our time and probably causes even more missed connections. I suppose on the bright side they got to fire a few of the people who drove the old trucks. What a proud moment!

If I ever plan to do anything that costs millions and millions of dollars and just makes things worse, please stop me. Don't even let me break ground. Remind me that what we have isn't so bad when compared to a ridiculously expensive, brand new, shiny, inferior model.

What do you think? I really want to hear what you have to say, maybe I'm nuts. If anyone actually thinks the new train at IAD is an improvement, please comment--set me straight.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons under public domain.

Posted by Reed

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  1. Reed, just want to give you a massive shout-out on this Dulles train post. You are ab-so-freaking-lutely RIGHT ON here. I was — seriously, after years of making fun of the old Dulles “people movers” — downright crestfallen when the wife and I had to trudge through the train system after our honeymoon. It sucked SO HARD — after all that time and money… sigh.

    But you’re a domestic Dulles flyer, right? So at least thank your lucky stars you don’t have to deal with the national embarrassment that is the international arrivals holding pen, baggage collection and “customs inspection” zone.

    • Oh, I have experienced international arrivals at Dulles. Welcome to the USA. Now please wait an hour for your bag, then go herd into that line for an hour or so only to pass through security (again) to catch your connecting flight. I just went through that last week coming from Geneva to San Diego. Not fun, they even put my bag on the wrong belt. I thought it was lost, got into the lost bag line (tried to call United Global Services lost baggage but no cell reception!), and was told it wad on 3. Nevermind my flight was using belt 2….


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