After riding only light rail systems and streetcars in the last two weeks, it was nice to finally travel on a real metro once again, after all, my real passion. I arrived on the plane from New Orleans on Oct 7th, so right from the airport to my hotel in downtown I had the chance to use MARTA. In fact, before you actually get to the MARTA station, in most cases you will first enjoy a ride on the underground Plane Train that connects all terminals of this huge airport, somehow in a more logical way than in Dallas-Fort Worth. From the domestic baggage claim it is only a short walk to the MARTA station, and the ticket vending machines seemed easy to handle although they wouldn't take foreign credit cards, i.e. they don't accept foreign ZIP codes, but luckily, there is also at least one staffed ticket counter with a friendly lady helping quickly, so that was a huge plus compared to Chicago O'Hare. I bought a 4-day Breeze card for $20.00, i.e. $19.00 for the 4 days plus $1.00 for the smartcard. The choice of different tickets is also a real plus for MARTA, as you can choose between 1, 2, 3, 4 or 7 days. A single trip would cost $2.50. So, as far as airport connections go, Atlanta can be counted among the best in the U.S., it's a short 20-minute ride to all downtown destinations, and the same train continues further north and also serves Midtown and the Buckhead/Lenox business area, and all for $2.50 or less, and every 5-6 minutes! The Breeze card is needed to get into the station and also to get out, I guess just as a door opener, because with a flat fare system it wouldn't make sense. All gates are for in and out, so be careful before tapping in and make sure noone is coming out the same gate at the same time, as your Breeze pass may then be blocked for a few minutes, if you don't get in immediately where you tapped in. Happened to me once when crowds were coming off a train at North Springs, but describing my problem to an employee, she opened the gate for me. Rail timetables are available at most stations, they include a black-and-white map, no colour maps are available, though, neither full system maps, seem to be out of print, I can only assume that they are waiting for the Streetcar to open before publishing a new edition, otherwise it would be a shame. This brings us directly to MARTA's very bad side, namely bus information. I hardly saw any bus maps posted, and at busstops, except near Five Points or other major interchanges, there is no information at all which bus stops there, where it could take you and when it would happen to pass. So that is a clear fail for MARTA, actually beyond embarrassing! At major rail/bus interchanges there are shelves with plenty of timetables for the lines that depart from there, but honestly, I find these timetables always a bit difficult to read as in the end all you can see for a normal daytime hour is 'buses every 20 minutes' or so. Why is it not possible in so many U.S. cities just to go to a bus stop and see if there is a bus coming and where it is going? Am I really so old-fashioned that I don't want to use a smartphone all the time for these things?
When I left the MARTA system for the first time at Peachtree Center, my first impression of Atlanta was that it is a rather hilly city. Well, Peachtree Center station actually lies deep below the highest point of downtown, so you take very long (and slow as in Western Europe) escalators to reach the surface, but from there you actually walk down in all directions. The second impression was, the street layout is a bit confusing as Atlanta doesn't have a simple and often boring grid system like most U.S. cities. And the third impression was that most streets in Atlanta are called Peachtree, adding to my confusion...
Let's come back to the rail service. The network is pretty simple with basically two routes. Although they introduced line colours in 2009, the signage is still in the original style, with orange for the north-south line and blue for the east-west. I think I even heard a driver once saying 'this is where the West Line ends'. The Gold Line is actually shown in yellow, and if I recall correctly, it was supposed to be called the Yellow Line but apparently the large Chinese community on the northwestern leg objected to this, so they renamed it Gold Line instead.
While the East-West Line seems more like a mere link between downtown (with only two downtown stations, Five Points and Georgia State) and the suburbs, the North-South Line connects many important parts of the city, the airport, the downtown business center, Midtown, which also has lots of offices, the Art Center area, and further north also the Buckhead/Lenox business and shopping area, so it has more of a metro feel to it, although the long station distances in suburban areas also make it an RER/S-Bahn-like rail line, quite like BART.
MARTA uses a logo pole outside stations, with its rainbow colours and the station's name, but on the station building, if there is one, it only says 'marta'. I wonder how locals refer to the rail system? Would they say 'I will take MARTA to the airport' and mean the rail system, as MARTA also operates buses. Or would they just say 'I'll take the train' as there is hardly any other train anyway? Apparently it's not called 'Metro'. But I guess they wouldn't use the line colour either. Inside the stations, there are next-train indicators which usually just say 'Red – North Springs 2 min', depending on the type of screen, this is displayed in the corresponding colour. Generally, these next-train indicators are badly placed. With 183 m long platforms there should be at least three such monitors mounted perpendicularly above the corresponding platfrom edge to be viewed from any point when waiting on the platform, instead they are often placed somewhere in the middle and you actually have to look for them. And again, they often display other things between train announcements, I think this should be strictly separated, you can have all sorts of screens to broadcast adverts or whatever announcements, but the next train should be displayed at all times. Otherwise, directions are given as 'Northbound' etc. When the next train enters the station, you won't miss it, because it blows a full horn twice as it enters the station. Otherwise the trains run rather quietly. Inside the trains, the destination is either announced by a recorded voice or by the driver. On some trains I observed that the 'The next stop is …' message displayed on a rolling indicator remained on even past that station, which can be quite confusing if you don't look up all the time. The train control system should be able to switch to the next station announcement immediately after leaving a station, even though accoustically the announcement may come a few minutes later, given the long distances between some stations. I wonder whether it is really necessary to make announcements like 'Próxima estación' in Spanish, after all, immigrants are still supposed to learn English, I assume, and translating these primitive announcements is a bit like saying, you're too stupid to understand 'the next station is'. Also, I have seen larger hispanic groups in most other U.S. cities. Additional information like 'for elevators get off on the right side' might be more useful to be translated. This information is given at Five Points, where both levels of this immense interchange station have what in Europe used to be referred to as 'Spanish solution' as it had been used in Madrid and Barcelona, i.e. there is an island platform plus two side platforms and train doors open on both sides. Most metro cities would envy Atlanta for this generous interchange station, it actually looks oversized given the number of passengers. I wonder if it ever gets really crowded.
I also felt a bit lonely at Peachtree Center station, where you would expect a real flux of passengers diving into the station or emerging from it at least at peak hours, instead it may occur that you are the only person on the long escalators, and noone is travelling in the opposite direction either. I was actually surprised this morning just after eight, that two of the three escalators went down, I would have expected to have two upwards to carry large crowds up from the train to their offices...
The trains move quite fast or at least at an acceptable speed between stations. The track, however, seems to be damaged on some sections, so the trains start to jump to an extent that it can become uncomfortable for the passengers, especially between Arts Center and the northern junction. This should be fixed immediately before a derailment occurs, or the ATO system has to be reprogrammed to slow the train down a bit on these sections.
Inside, the trains are very spacious, and despite the hard plastic seats, they were quite comfortable for me. I don't know about real peak hours, but during most of the day, they have almost too much spare capacity, so they could actually shorten the trains to 4 cars instead of 6 (the Green Line runs with only two cars), but probably the splitting process is not worthwhile. Now refurbished, the older trains, which originally had these thick colour bars at the front, now look pretty much like the newer Ansaldo cars, with a black front and just a thin band with the MARTA colours. Some of the married pairs are covered with adverts:
All in all, the system is laid out for much larger crowds, they could operate 8-car trains, and certainly at much shorter intervals. Right now, the headways are not bad, but, of course, on outer sections waiting times between trains can be 12 minutes. All in all, MARTA's rail system reminded me a lot of BART in San Francisco. The trains feel light and swift as they roll over a mix of viaducts, cuttings, freeway medians and tunnels.
The stations along both routes have a similar style, most with rather substantial structures mostly made of concrete, either bare and untreated or with some surface finishing, and given the length of the platforms, the stations really appear big. Most surface stations have uncovered end sections, which is nice when taking a photograph. There are plenty of escalators and also lifts. The floor height of the train exactly matches the platform height, so boarding is easy and fast and station dwelling time is rather short, providing an overall good impression of a swift ride.
The underground stations are not bad, but except for Peachtree Center with its bare rock visible on both side walls, they are not too exciting either, they actually appear a bit dated, and although built in the 1970s, they rather look 1960s, with white tiles in some. Fortunately, like the surface stations, all have some sort of artwork or artistic enhancement to make them a bit more exciting:
They are all pretty spacious, though, but certainly lack the grandeur of Washington DC's Metro. Civic Center has a unique layout being placed on the lower level of a road bridge that spans an urban freeway, with windows on either side. Ashby is noteworthy for having each platform on a different level to allow for the grade-separated junction at its western side. Some stations could be better signposted on street level. At North Avenue, for example, the northern access is hidden inside a building, and there is no real hint to that on the street. I walked past that entrance until I found the southern access which has a street level wegde-shaped entrance building. Even at Peachtree Center, the northern accesses are not too clearly identifiable.
The underground stations can get pretty hot, though, as there is no proper ventilation, instead they have placed huge ventilators on the platforms to alleviate the suffering passengers. This platform temperature is certainly also a result of the hot air disposed by the air-conditioned trains. Stations with side platforms have a feature which is basically good, although not so welcomed by train spotters because it obstructs the view of the train on the opposite track: a band with the station name continuously repeated at the height of the window, so passengers inside the train can easily read where they are. The station information panels have rail system maps, a downtown extract, but unfortunately no neighbourhood map, something nowadays really the standard on state-of-the-art metro systems. So, MARTA, catch up!
I was a bit too early to see the Atlanta Streetcar working. Their website even announced test runs for yesterday, but in the end I didn't see any trams moving when I walked past the depot heading towards the Martin Luther King Jr Historic Site. I'm sure, the tram will help a lot to redevelop this east end area, now a bit run down, but already showing signs of recovery with new construction. The streetcar line seemed pretty finished, all the stops were in place with signs, no electronic displays, though, but high enough platforms to allow level access into the four Siemens S70 cars which have been delivered. But before the line actually starts working, I dare criticise two things which I predict will become an issue soon. The first is not so bad, but I think a central stop should have been placed eastbound before the line crosses Peachtree Street, or just opposite the westbound stop called Woodruff Place. The closest stop to what I would consider the most central point is either further west at Luckie/Cone (the signs actually read 'Luckie at Cone') or further east at Park Place, both out of sight from that intersection, especially the latter one, as it is around the corner. The second issue seems more severe, a programmed delay between the last two stops going west, between Carnegie and Centennial Olympic Park, where on two consecutive days I have observed a severe traffic jam on the lane the streetcar is supposed to share. So, I wonder how they will solve this problem. Otherwise, the streets the tram will roll on, didn't seem too busy, but this will be its vulnerable point. Will they dare to divert traffic to other roads? Let's hope that the initial line is a success and that the streetcar system is extended to other parts of the city, too.
Next stop: JACKSONVILLE