Plane Train Extension is on Track for 2025 Delivery at Atlanta Int’l

Plane Train Extension is on Track for 2025 Delivery at Atlanta Int’l
Nicole Nelson
Published in: 

It’s no secret that the world’s busiest airport is proudly getting even busier, and as such, leadership at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) is in a continuous cycle of investing in new approaches to efficiently accommodate the growing passenger numbers. To that end, a series of ATLNext development projects have been executed in plain sight. They include extending Concourse T, replacing the ceiling in the Domestic Concourse and many other high-profile improvements. 

Yet, unbeknownst to most ATL passengers, an incredible amount of activity is occurring in cavernous areas 50 feet below the airport’s surface. Crews are digging, blasting, excavating and building to improve the headway of ATL’s high-density people mover. The subterranean work is vital to ultimately accommodating an increasing ridership of the Plane Train, and is largely occurring with minimal impact to passenger service.

“Our goal is to provide a safe and efficient experience for all of our passengers and employees,” says ATL General Manager Balram “B” Bheodari. “Upon completion, the Plane Train expansion will accomplish that, but we are just as proud that this unique and substantial construction project manifested safety and efficiency from the start.”


Project: Plane Train Tunnel West Extension

Location: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Int’l Airport

Scope: 600 ft. of new track, 50 ft. underground

Construction Budget: $266 million

Development Program: ATLNext

Prime Consultant: WSP USA

Design-Build Contractor: Clark Construction – Atkinson – Technique Joint Venture

Tunnel Designer: McMillen Jacobs Associates (now Delve Underground)

Architectural Designer: STV

APM System Design & Installation:

Pre-construction/Pre-design: Aug. 2018

Estimated Completion: Spring 2025

Key Benefit: Better connectivity for passengers; 27% increase in ridership capacity of existing train system

ATLNext program staff report that great strides have been made in the $266 million Plane Train Tunnel West Extension Project, which will lengthen the existing people mover system with a 600-foot tail track. David Pino, an H.J. Russell & Company project manager who is augmenting Department of Aviation staff as area director for the tunnel extension, notes that the ATLNext Project Team recognized very early on that the extension was “an unusual project.”

It was quickly determined that tunneling expertise would be a hard and fast requirement for eligible contractors vying to complete the first western extension of the Plane Train system that was originally built in the 1980s. Given the design complexities, the team also opted to approach the project with a progressive design-build contract when the project first entered pre-construction and pre-design stages in August 2018.

“It was the first time that the Department of Aviation has ever done a progressive design-build,” Pino notes, adding that the team worked with the city’s legal department and outside counsel to write the final contract before putting it out to bid.

The Request for Proposals clearly specified that candidates needed contracting, design and tunneling experience. Ultimately, the winning bids included tunnel designer McMillen Jacobs Associates (now Delve Underground) and design-build joint venture Clark Construction-Atkinson-Technique.

Digging and Blasting

Enabling work to accommodate the tunneling activity began in June 2019.

“The elevator at Bag Claim station was right at the end of the (north) tunnel, so we had to move it out of the way in order to extend the tunnel,” relates Pino.

Once that elevator and all other obstacles were removed, the challenge of “mixed-face” tunneling commenced, with crews mainly working from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. when the train station that serves the Bag Claim area is closed. Dealing with a combination of materials required tunneling crews to use multiple strategies, including a micro-bench cut method to excavate the softer ground in small sections.

“A lot of the tunnel had mixed face, with some dirt and some rock,” Pino explains. “And the rock profile gradually changed the closer we got to the terminal.” 

When crews began to encounter solid rock, controlled blasting began.

“Under the terminal, we had about 200 blasting events throughout the process, mostly at night,” Pino reports. Contractors used vibration and noise monitors to assess the aboveground effects and ensure that airport occupants wouldn’t mistake their work for an earthquake. “All of that went very well,” Pino recalls.

Once the tunnel was fully excavated and aligned, Wael Darwish of WSP USA took over to oversee design and construction of the Plane Train Tunnel West Extension.

In total, the project contains seven design packages, including one in the terminal, one in the tunnel itself, one for the shaft, and one for the bifurcation area, among others.

By January 2020, the project team hit another major milestone when it completed construction of the Plane Train shaft. Work continued despite the COVID pandemic, and there were few design changes until June 2021, when the team made minor revisions to the project’s seven design packages.

Price Check

The ongoing tunnel expansion is being executed in phases that have been contracted via Component Guaranteed Maximum Price Task Orders. Pino notes that September 2022 was a noteworthy point in the process because that was when the team was able to come to a guaranteed maximum price for the construction of the entire project.

Looking ahead, Darwish is pleased that the end date for the civil engineering portion of the $266 million progressive design-build turnback project is just around the corner in spring. The ATLNext development program staff anticipates that the civil components—mainly the tunnel extension and associated terminal items such as new escalator and elevators—will be complete by May 2024.

After that, specialists will install the train controls, and the cars will begin to arrive. “Then, we’ll be able to actually use the tunnel,” says Pino.

Projected Capabilities

With the 600-foot tail track augmentation well underway, Pino says Plane Train riders will begin to realize the benefits in spring 2025, when ATL’s new underground rail service is slated to debut.

“Six hundred feet doesn’t seem like a lot of footage, but it will be enough to significantly reduce train headway and allow us to add more trains in the circuit,” he notes.

In 2022 alone, more than 93 million passengers flew into, out of or through ATL, and many rode the Plane Train to connect among its seven concourses that are flanked by the domestic and international terminals.

Currently, the system has 11 trains, each containing four Alstom Group cars. The extension currently in the works will enable ATL to reduce train headway from 108 seconds to 90—a nearly 20% increase in capacity.

Should the Plane Train Tunnel West Extension project continue to stay on track as expected, ATLNext will deliver a marked enhancement in passenger connectivity—and reap the anticipated benefits of using a new project delivery method.

“We have had construction managers at risk here for a long time, so the construction manager at risk with design responsibilities kind of adds another phase to it,” Pino says of the progressive design-build contract. “It seems to work fine.”

Chris Rogers, senior vice president of Aviation and ATLNext program manager with WSP USA, notes that it has been challenging to execute a project at the busiest airport in the world due to the number of ongoing operations and passengers.

“This program couldn’t have been done without a complete team effort, which was a true partnership with city of Atlanta Department of Aviation,” Rogers says. “This progressive design-build required timely decision-making and precise planning; and the fact that we were able to execute a
project of this complexity to increase passenger flow efficiencies while enhancing the overall experience at ATL is what I’m most proud of.”

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