MARTA removes Atlanta Streetcar cars from service over safety concerns

MARTA has removed all Atlanta Streetcar vehicles from service over safety concerns, and they won’t return until early next year.

The agency is operating paratransit vans on the streetcar route to provide service until problems with the streetcar wheels can be fixed and the vehicles returned to service. Fixing the wheels and other work will cost MARTA about $7.4 million, the agency informed the MARTA board Thursday.

Board members quizzed MARTA’s staff about the streetcar service, and some wondered why the agency did not have spare parts that could have been used to fix the vehicles in short order.

“I think it’s fair to say, going back a few years, there are things we could have done differently,” Chief Operating Officer George Wright told the board.

The safety problem is the latest headache for a project that has seen its share of problems. Atlanta opened the 2.7-mile transit line downtown to acclaim eight years ago. But after big crowds initially took advantage of free service, the number of passengers fell dramatically once the city began to charge for rides.

The streetcar has other problems. Because it does not have its own right of way, it’s often stuck in traffic and has sometimes been involved in accidents.

MARTA took over the streetcar in 2018 and plans to expand it to Ponce City Market in coming years. The agency says expanding the line to new areas will increase ridership. And MARTA and Atlanta plan to take other steps — such as limiting parking along its route — to improve the existing streetcar’s operations.

The latest problem was caused by wear and tear on the wheels of MARTA’s four streetcar vehicles. That led to an imbalance in the wheels that caused concrete around the rails to deteriorate, Daniel Hecht, deputy chief mechanical officer, told the board Thursday.

Two weeks ago, inspectors noticed concrete problems that warranted a closer inspection. That led MARTA to remove the streetcars from service on Nov. 29 because of safety concerns.

Since then, the agency has been operating free service along the route with paratransit vans. Ridership fell from about 3,500 passengers a week to about 600.

MARTA plans to increase the frequency of the van service to accommodate more passengers. And the vans will get a special wrap that makes them look more like a streetcar so people know the service is still operating.

MARTA has known about the wheel wear for more than a year, and in October 2021 the board approved a contract with Siemens — which manufactures the cars — to replace the wheels and the trucks that hold them. The board recently revised that contract to include brake repairs and other work. The total cost is about $7.4 million.

But the work will now be expedited. MARTA is shipping the trucks via flatbed truck to Siemens in California, where they will be repaired and returned to Atlanta. The vehicles are not under warranty.

MARTA hopes the streetcars will be back in service by the end of March.

Board member Rod Mullice expressed concern that MARTA did not have spare wheel trucks on hand to replace the worn originals.

“Thank you for prioritizing safety,” Mullice told MARTA’s staff. “But I would like to see some redundancy in the system.”