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The Room that Makes the Trains Run

A look inside MARTA's operations room

The nerve center of Atlanta’s electric rail system hides in an unmarked concrete building east of the city limits in DeKalb County, behind a fence topped with three strands of barbed wire. The outer gate opens only with an electronic key card, which also opens the building’s front door. To reach the control room, you pass another tall metal door marked with a sign that says This Door Must Be Locked at All Times. Cell phones are forbidden in the control room. Sunlight is scarce. The bosses of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority want no distractions for the workers who on an average weekday keep 242,000 riders safe.

The Rail Service Control Center runs nonstop, seven days a week, with nearly sixty workers in rotating shifts. They are the railroad equivalent of air traffic controllers. Before them, two Mosaic Display Boards dominate the room’s eastern wall. The boards resemble the black grids from the old board game Battleship, magnified a thousand times. They show diagrams of MARTA’s 48.1 miles of tracks, with 750 volts of direct-current electricity flowing through the third rail. The left board shows the trains moving. Each train glows red against the tracks.

“You’re only as good as your last rush hour,” says a sign on the wall behind the controllers. About thirty trains run every rush hour—twelve to fifteen east and west, seventeen to twenty north and south. They go an average of 55 mph, including stops, reaching 60 mph on the long stretch between Buckhead and Medical Center. The controllers use a computerized system called Automatic Train Control to keep the trains spread out just enough so they arrive at each station every six minutes. According to Gregory Edwards, the control center’s acting general superintendent, their average on-time rate is 98 percent.

The trains look essentially the same now as they did in 1979, when they first started running. But the insides are much newer, thanks to a rehabilitation effort that involved shipping the forty-ton cars to New York and back via tractor-trailer. The refurbishing saved $408 million for a system that’s always short on cash. With a huge budget shortfall this year and no dedicated money from the state, MARTA will have to cut rail service by 14.2 percent this fall. Your $2 fare doesn’t come close to covering operating expenses. To break even without external funding, MARTA would have to charge $7.27 per ride.

New Year’s Eve is usually the second-busiest day of the year. Independence Day is the busiest. Crushloads are not uncommon on those days. A crushload is a technical term that describes 250 people packed into one car, or 2,000 on an eight-car event train. Controllers help guide the event trains from hidden tunnels called pocket tracks. A pocket track is a rail spur between stations, out of the way of general train traffic. The event train can lurk there until the waning seconds of the fourth quarter of the Falcons game and then roll into the Dome station to pick up eight crushloads of fans in various states of anger and euphoria and inebriation and carry them east to Five Points, where some will get off and go south toward Airport and College Park, the second- and third-busiest stations in the system; and some will go north, through Peachtree Center, the deepest station, 120 feet beneath Downtown; and some will keep going east, toward King Memorial, the highest station at seventy-five feet above the Old Fourth Ward, where you can stand on a clear day and see Stone Mountain.

Photograph by Caroline Kilgore