Atlanta missed a chance to make a good impression on visitors leaving the college football national championship game Monday night, as hundreds of fans were stuck in a chaotic scene at MARTA’s Five Points Station.
Fans arriving on eastbound trains from the stadium late that night found Five Points, the hub of the MARTA system, already packed with passengers waiting to board other trains. It was so crowded, some found it difficult to get off the train they arrived on.
MARTA attributed the backup to problems closing train doors, which caused delays on its north-south lines. It apologized to passengers Tuesday.
“The 2018 National College Football Championship game was an extraordinary event,” the agency said in a statement issued to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “With more than 75,000 attendees, MARTA carried thousands of post-game riders.
“And, while we pride ourselves on delivering routine excellence – with an on-time performance that often exceeds 97 percent – last night we did not provide the level of system reliability our daily riders are accustomed to.”
In part because of “passenger overfill and crowded platforms” after the game, MARTA said, rail car doors would not close. So the trains were at a standstill. Making matters worse, on the trains where the doors were closed, some riders grew impatient waiting and used manually activated emergency releases to open the doors to leave.
In addition, the agency said two people suffered medical emergencies at separate stations, further contributing to delays.
The explanation didn’t square with what passenger Lee Pollock of Atlanta saw. He said the door problem appeared to be mechanical.
“They kept blaming it on passengers getting in the way,” Pollock told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The passengers were nowhere near the door. It was just equipment failure.”
The result was a tense and confused scene at Five Points. MARTA employees prevented passengers arriving from the stadium from taking escalators down to the northbound platform.
As more gathered, some confused fans pushed and shoved their way through crowd. Others tried to escape the tangle of bodies by fleeing up the steps to the main level, only to be caught in another crowd trying to get down to the lower level.
MARTA said its employees and police officers “worked swiftly to communicate instructions to our customers and re-establish service.”
But Colleen Swanger of Cumming said, at times, passengers looked in vain for MARTA police. She described train after train arriving with passengers who were packed in “shoulder to shoulder” while waiting for departing trains. Some cried, while others crawled over cement barriers to escape.
“All it would have taken is for one person to yell ‘fire,’” Swanger said. “It would have been terrible.”
MARTA expanded its service for the national championship. It added trains and ran them more frequently to accommodate the crush of fans who attended the game and other events.
Pollock said he hopes MARTA corrects any problems before Atlanta hosts the Super Bowl next year.
“If you’re going to ask fans to take public transportation, which I’m a huge supporter of, you’ve got to get the equipment to actually handle the crush of people,” he said.
MARTA’s statement acknowledged it has work to do.
“While longer wait times are inevitable during major events even with the higher service levels we put into place for such events, we deeply regret the additional inconvenience that many of our riders experienced last night,” the agency said. “Each and every one of MARTA’s 5,000 employees remain committed to getting it right.”
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