Special Report: On the Front Line—MARTA has a plan in place to preserve social distancing when shelter-in-place orders are lifted

Written by Bill Wilson, Editor-in-Chief
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MARTA is ready to deal with social distancing as soon as shelter-in-place orders are lifted.
MARTA

Clear the area. That should be the first priority for transit agencies when shelter-in-place orders are finally lifted. As a measure of preserving social distancing, rail platforms will have to be cleared immediately … and Atlanta’s MARTA is ready to give the order.

Dave Springstead, chief of Rail Operations at MARTA, has a list of schedules he can pull from and can change headways in the heart of Atlanta from five, eight, 10 or 12 minutes apart. There is always an empty train at the ready, one that can be thrown into the rotation at a moment’s notice.

“If we start to see the ridership increasing we will implement an insert train,” Springstead told RT&S. “We will throw an extra train in there and clear the platform, and if it looks like that took care of the issue because a bunch of people left the certain location than the insert train is all you need.”

MARTA’s Rail Prep strategy gives the transit agency the flexibility. Several CCTV cameras are lined across the entire system, and all of them are connected to MARTA’s control room. Supervisors also do ride checks, and revenue is being checked constantly to locate any hot spots. Several locations also have a standby train with an operator ready for action if he or she gets the call. Springstead said they also will be adding social distancing decals on all the train cars and will be making automated announcements.

Right now MARTA’s service has been cut in half, as ridership is down 77 percent due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Springstead told RT&S that number has been holding steady over the last nine to 10 days. MARTA’s revenue comes from fares and a local sales tax.

“We will probably be in the low 20th percentile for a while,” he said.

Before the pandemic, MARTA was running 20 trains on its north-south line and 13 trains on the east-west line. Now the numbers are 10 on the north-south line and 6 on the east-west. However, the trains have not shortened in length … they are still six cars long to help with social distancing.

MARTA reached out to the airline industry for sanitation help. The agency has purchased fogger machines and misters, and also has done demonstrations on the equipment with personnel. The plan is to start fogging and disinfecting the insides of the rail cars starting the week of April 20.

“We teamed up with the airlines and asked them how they clean the airplanes, and we swapped information on materials and chemicals and such,” remarked Springstead. “So we have been partnering with the airlines. If somebody comes up with a good idea we infoshare.”

Like many agencies, MARTA has been taking advantage of the decline in ridership by ramping up its maintenance and construction activities.

“The only silver lining to this whole situation is that the stations are so sparsely utilized it creates a great advantage for our maintenance and construction people to go in and make repairs,” said Springstead.

MARTA is currently focusing on its Track Renovation 4 project, which involves working on large sections of track and fixing the rail, train control, ballast, crossovers, etc., and replacing where needed. MARTA also is in the midst of an audio/visual information system upgrade. A tunnel ventilation system upgrade in downtown Atlanta also is taking place.

“The one thing we don’t compromise is no matter whether you are running half the service or all of the service the trains are traveling over the system every mile of every track, just with less cars,” said Springstead. “So the standard of safety and maintenance remains unchanged.”

Ridership, however, might be on the brink of being different. Now that companies have been forced to accept telecommuting during the pandemic, more could be working from home when the shelter-in-place order is lifted. That means less could rely on public transportation.

“Ridership may look different when the pandemic is over because everyone has got a taste of telecommuting and this is a good pass or fail litmus test. So a real point of interest for transit and the railroad in the U.S from a passenger standpoint is how quick does the ridership come back and does the ridership come back to the levels it was before? I think those questions remain unanswered,” said Springstead.

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