Posted: 11:28 am Monday, May 12th, 2014

MARTA service 

By Tom Sabulis

Keith Parker is general manager of MARTA.

Keith Parker is general manager of MARTA.

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Within the week, the wait for MARTA trains and many buses won’t be so long. The transit agency will introduce a much-anticipated service bump designed to increase frequencies and reduce customers’ wait times. I sat down recently with MARTA CEO Keith Parker to talk about the issue of frequencies (or “headways,” in industry parlance), the subject of today’s lead column. I then spoke with riders to get their opinions about how MARTA can improve customer service.

Transit agency looks to gain speed

By Tom Sabulis

I came across an interesting note the other day on the website for Washington Metro, the transit system in Washington D.C. It read: “Due to the high frequency of service, timetables for peak hours … are not available.”

I did a double take. You mean service there is so fast, they don’t even bother publishing a timetable? I checked to make sure.

“Your assumption is correct,” spokesman Dan Stessel emailed me. “With trains arriving every three minutes in the core of the system — or even six minutes if we’re talking about an outlying station — a printed timetable is not terribly useful. Riders simply want to know the headway (frequency).”

Transit-riding Atlantans only can imagine such service — a system where trains and buses run fast enough that you can just show up knowing your ride will be along any moment.

For years, MARTA has been painfully slow. The trains and buses don’t arrive nearly frequently enough. It’s best to consult a schedule, unless you want to cool your heels waiting on the next ride.

MARTA CEO Keith Parker told me that of all the comments he has heard since he took over the nation’s ninth-largest transit system in December 2012, that’s the one that really sticks.

“The (criticism) that’s most legitimate to me,” he said, “is that the service isn’t as convenient as it needs to be.”

Ever since MARTA made sweeping cuts to service in 2010, the frequencies for trains have been around 15 minutes. The wait for buses could be as long as 30 minutes or more. That’s way too long for big-city “rapid” transit. Systems in Boston and Chicago are significantly faster, thus easier to ride and more accessible, more appealing.

Parker knew he had to hasten service or risk losing more “choice riders” like myself — people who can opt to drive to work if they wish.

Now, the agency has done something about it.

Starting next Monday, MARTA’s train frequencies are scheduled to improve. Trains will run 10 minutes apart during rush hours, with the wait reduced to 5 minutes where the North Springs (Red Line) and Doraville (Gold) trains share tracks between Lindbergh Center and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. On the Blue and Green lines, rush-hour service will be every 10 minutes as well. Where those lines share tracks, from Ashby east to Candler Park, trains will run every 5 minutes.

Weekday midday service will be every 12 minutes on each of the lines, and 6 minutes on the trunks where the Red/Gold and Blue/Green lines merge. Bus service also will be expedited on 17 routes, beginning Saturday.

It’s a good start. But waiting 10 minutes for a subway train can still feel like a like a long time.

In an ideal world, I asked Parker, what would your frequencies be?

“I would say, during the peak (hours), somewhere in the neighborhood of three to six minutes,” he said. “And we’re getting close to that.”

A year ago, I wrote a column reporting that by increasing rail wait times for the 2010 budget reductions, MARTA saved about $1.5 million annually. That’s no small change, yet it seemed like peanuts for an agency with a $434.9 million operating budget — a business whose Job One is to efficiently transport people through the city.

Were the savings worth it?

MARTA has lost 25 million customers — defined as passenger trips — over the last five years. “We went from 150 million customers a year to 125 million customers a year,” Parker said. “It’s a gargantuan drop. And we know some of that is because of service frequency and quality of service.” (Forty of 131 bus routes were also eliminated.)

Parker won’t second-guess decisions to cut service that were made years before he got here. More important is that MARTA gets the new service right. Tweaks will come, but the accelerated speed is no trial run.

“This is permanent,” he said.

Maybe one day, we’ll even throw our timetables away.

Disconnect between bus and train

By Tom Sabulis

On good days, Wilma Milner, 68, can do her commute on MARTA in 30 minutes, traveling by bus from her home in the Atlanta University Center neighborhood to Georgia Tech, where she works as a payroll assistant.

However, on mornings she misses her connection at Five Points, where she changes from the No. 13 bus to the No. 1 bus, her trip doubles in length, and she can be late for work. Making connections on MARTA has become one of her workday challenges. Milner recently gave her customer’s view of MARTA’s performance (her comments have been edited and condensed for clarity and space):

“The biggest concern I have is the disconnect between routes. When we come in in the morning, it’s kind of congested down at Five Points. Even this morning, when we got down there, our bus was getting ready to pull off. It pulls off Five Points at like 7:01 and then it goes and sits on Centennial (Olympic Park) for two minutes. In rush hour, they should be able take those extra minutes for people who are coming in on the train and on a different bus to get a chance to catch it. Because once you miss it, you are late for work. There’s no connect between the buses and the train. It makes us late. It pushes everybody. If they have a problem on the trains, they should allow buses to wait for people. (Five Points) is a main hub, and there’s a disconnect. There needs to be some type of routine, togetherness.

“I know they (buses) have to leave on time, but we catch our bus at home on time. When we get down there in the morning, it seems like the disconnect is between the train and the buses. If the trains are having a problem, the buses on the outside seem like they don’t know anything about it. When you come out of the station, they are already gone.

“I think the real problem is the disconnect between management and drivers on the buses. It doesn’t look like people call in to let others know what’s going on if there’s a problem, or give them a warning that a train is late and to wait a few minutes. That’s the disconnect I see.

“When you get (to Five Points), you’re running like heck to catch the next bus. It’s just a hassle. It’s a hassle. It would help if the buses ran more frequently, during the peak hours, anyway.

“It’s even worse in the evenings; the buses are so crowded, people are standing in the aisles. It’s a problem both ways. We sent an email asking for another bus on route No. 13. A lot of people have asked for extra buses so that in the evening, when you are on your way home, it’s not so crowded. The buses are usually jam-packed. A lot of times, we have to stand.

“I try to catch the (4:45 p.m.) at Five Points, and if you miss that, the next one come about 5:20. That’s a long time. And when you speak to some (MARTA employee) about it, they get kind of haughty-like. You have to kind of (watch) your words when you say something to them. Most of the time, we don’t say anything to them, because some of them are kind of snappy with you anyway.”