Commentary: It’s Memorial Day Weekend, Atlanta Streetcar is operating only one trolley, and that’s a problem.

The system is on a reduced schedule during one of the busiest weekends of the year.
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Atlanta Streetcar

Yesterday, I walked to work past the giant electronic billboard above 218 Peachtree Street and glimpsed an ad for the Atlanta Streetcar. It’s a modified version of a promotion that aired in Times Square back in April. “Downtown Atlanta is on the move,” proclaims the tagline.

That might be the case. Too bad that the same can’t be said for the Atlanta Streetcar. For more than a week, service on the system has been delayed, disrupted, and scaled back. Yesterday, as crowds poured into the city for the holiday weekend, the Hawks conference finals game, and a slew of special events, streetcar service was reduced to a single car, forcing passengers to wait 30 to 40 minutes to even board the trolley.

Yesterday afternoon, I walked from the office to the Park Place stop and waited for 36 minutes before a streetcar appeared. A woman sitting on the bench said she’d been there a quarter hour before I arrived; same for the quartet of tourists studying the route map. It would have been faster to walk home, but I was tired; I’d walked to work in the morning, knowing that the schedule had been reduced.  I desperately needed to get to the office on time for a meeting.

The cause for this lack of service? Not technical difficulties. Not another collision. Not a movie production or festival. Streetcar employees simply did not show up to work.

According to spokesperson Scheree Rawles, the Atlanta Streetcar employs seven drivers. Of these, three have the needed commercial drivers licenses (CDLs) to operate the $97 million system. Four drivers are in the process of completing CDL certification. There are three supervisors that have the needed qualifications, and they have been pitching in to operate the cars, according to Rawles. But yesterday, only one driver was on hand. Because regulations restrict the drivers to 10-hour shifts, the schedule was further reduced.

Earlier this week, Richard Belcher of WSB reported that four Atlanta Streetcar drivers had been operating cars without the required certification. In an email, City of Atlanta spokesperson Jenna Garland told me that the situation “is a little more complex than that” because “different agencies require different credentials.” In other words, the City appears to have been operating in good faith that drivers had the needed qualifications. Still, seven drivers for a four-car system seems like understaffing, whatever the qualifications.

Today, Atlanta Streetcar again will operate only one trolley. The City hopes that two cars will be operational on Sunday and Monday afternoon—if the drivers show up, streetcar officials told me Friday evening.

I wish this was an isolated incident and could be chalked up to a misunderstanding about credentialing. But setting aside the licensing question, this is not the first time service has been reduced by drivers calling in sick or not showing up for work. Last Sunday, my parents, who live near Northlake, came intown to ride the streetcar with me. I checked in with Keith Hillsman, the system’s community relations officer, before we set out, to make sure the trip would be smooth. He told me that there would be 20-minute waits (compared to the usual 10 to 15 minute intervals) until 6 p.m. and that service would be reduced to one car after then. The reason? “Two of our operators scheduled to work today are under the weather.”

We waited for almost 30 minutes at the Edgewood at Hilliard stop. A number of people (including an elderly man with a cane) had been there for 25 minutes before we arrived. We gave up and had dinner at Harold’s Chicken & Ice Bar—which has a direct view of the stop. During the hour we were there, one car passed by. Perhaps I shouldn’t take family members on the streetcar: Back in March, I talked my daughter into trying a trip around the loop, only to have the streetcar halt at Centennial Olympic Park to “reboot.” We walked all the way home, without passing a single streetcar in operation. On April 20, I walked to work, passing passengers waiting at every stop, and was told by streetcar officials that service was reduced because of staff absences. In the five months I’ve commuted by Atlanta Streetcar, delays have been commonplace. I’ve walked to work more often than I ever anticipated.

Yesterday, it took me 65 minutes to get home. The lack of reliability has me ready to give up on streetcar commuting.

Of course, that’s a moot point. In July, I’ll be starting a job in Athens, Georgia, and trading my 2-mile commute for one that’s 71 miles. I drove to Athens on Wednesday, and even taking the leisurely route up 78, got there in 70 minutes.

 

Update, Saturday: At 7:15 Saturday evening, I got a direct Twitter message from Atlanta Streetcar saying that a second car went into service after 3 p.m. In my experience over months of commuting, when one car is in service, waits are at least 40 minutes; with two cars, at least 20 minutes; and with three, closer to the 10 to 15 minutes cited in streetcar marketing. I did not get an update about Sunday and Monday service.

Update, Sunday: On Sunday morning, I got a message from Atlanta Streetcar saying that two cars would be in operation from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday and Monday. The streetcar is on holiday hours of 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. for those days.

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