If a train leaves the Dunwoody MARTA station at 6:30 p.m. on a southbound track and it’s crammed with hurried passengers who need to get to the airport, the hospital, the theater, the soccer stadium or just home to walk the dog, when will it reach the Five Points station 14 miles away?
On Wednesday, the answer seemed like never.
Power issues stalled trains, leaving passengers stuck at stations, in between stations and in darkened tunnels. Passengers complained of lax or non-existent communication from drivers. After a while, the air conditioning cut off in the cars, then the lights — and people decided to pry the doors open and walk.
A malfunction in the “automatic train control system” caused the issues, MARTA spokesman Erik Burton said in a statement apologizing on behalf of the agency. The cause of the malfunction is under investigation.
In the moment, passengers were concerned with the cause of the delay, but they also just wanted out.
In one car, Alpharetta dentist Skyler Holcomb watched a man pry open the door in hopes of making a flight with his family.
The family stepped down onto a concrete ledge in the tunnel and walked toward the Arts Center station, about 1,000 feet away.
“The masses followed,” said 27-year-old Holcomb, who made it to the Atlanta United game in the second half after walking out to an Uber.
In another train car, a young woman shouted, “Anybody want to smoke a blunt?” No one took her up on it.
In Brilee Smith’s car, passengers pulled out tiny liquor bottles and started to drink in the dark.
Cell phones lit the hot air.
People filmed and played games. Others walked between the cars and tried to figure out what was happening.
Smith, 27, was racked with anxiety and anger. She fought a spotty cell signal to talk to her husband and keep herself from getting too upset.
“After about an hour, the conductor walked through and said his mic was broken but that we just needed to sit tight,” Smith said. “Then he locked the doors that people had opened. We didn't see him again after that.”
The curtains opened on “The King and I” at the Fox Theater and Smith left her friend waiting alone.
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Paul Kim, a 25-year-old chemist, also missed the show.
He was stuck at the Arts Center station. The doors were open and he was free to go.
But a voice kept coming over the intercom:
We’ll be moving shortly.
“Moving shortly. Moving shortly. Moving shortly,” Kim recalled.
He waited until about 8:15 p.m., more than an hour and a half after he got on at Lindbergh, just one station back. He called an Uber, went home and grumbled to MARTA on Twitter, as did others.
Passengers say they want MARTA to handle future situations better, to make sure to tell everyone what’s going on and to be realistic about how long such delays could last.
MARTA officials said they are working on a review to see how they can improve the response. They also said passengers who climbed out only furthered delays because police had to make sure the tracks were clear before the trains could start moving again around 9 p.m.
Riders from one car were angry after they got out to walk and the train’s operator talked them in to returning to their seats with a promise they’d be moving shortly.
After a few minutes, they got worried the driver would lock the doors, so they walked single file down a narrow ledge in the tunnel.
They looked at the tracks a few feet below and talked about which rail was electrified.
“There’s a blue light,” someone finally said. The light marked the entrance to a stairwell.
They walked out onto West Peachtree Street at John Marshal Law School.
In Brilee Smith’s car, a MARTA employee made a plea to the world outside: “Emergency, emergency. We got kids, ADAs, and pregnant women down here. We need to get them off," Smith remembered.
She said even a MARTA police officer had to borrow a phone with a signal to make a call.
“If there was a true emergency down there, I don't know how they could've handled it,” Smith said. “It seems like every point in the system failed.”
When Smith finally got off the train at 9 p.m., her hands were shaking from anger and stress.
She probably could’ve made it to the Fox during intermission. But she wasn’t up for it anymore.
She just went home.
Staff writer Rhonda Cook contributed reporting.