Football fans and other MARTA commuters pack into a train at the Five Points Station shortly before the start of the SEC Championship between Georgia and Alabama in Atlanta on Saturday. The agency put its best foot forward as it seeks to improve its performance during major events. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

MARTA passes SEC Championship test, but Super Bowl still to come

Fresh from a heartbreaking loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, thousands of Georgia Bulldogs fans departed Mercedes-Benz Stadium Saturday night, ready to board MARTA trains for a somber trip home.

The transit agency did not add insult to injury.

Unlike January’s national championship game between the same two teams, there were no major delays, no overcrowded stations and no lack of MARTA employees to control the crowd and give directions. In fact, several fans told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution they were pleased with the service they got from MARTA before and after the SEC Championship.

“I think it went pretty good, considering the crowd,” said Ed Hutchinson of Valdosta. “You’ve got 70,000 people all in one place.”

MARTA, which is preparing for an even bigger test, the Super Bowl, reported minor delays Saturday. A medical emergency before the game and mechanical issues afterwards slowed some trains. Otherwise, it was “smooth sailing,” agency spokeswoman Stephany Fisher said late Saturday.

“The MARTA team performed at the top of their game last night,” MARTA General Manager Jeffrey Parker said Sunday. “We delivered outstanding service during another large-scale event, moving tens of thousands of football fans safely and efficiently through the city on a rainy evening.”

If things went well, it wasn’t by accident. MARTA is trying to improve its performance at big events, including the upcoming Super Bowl in Atlanta. And it has spent much of this year learning from missteps that contributed to a chaotic scene at Five Points Station after January’s big game.

Back then, hundreds of fans were stranded and it took more than an hour to clear the Five Points station in an episode that dented the agency’s reputation.

Medical emergencies at other stations prevented northbound trains from leaving Five Points, the hub of the MARTA rail system. As more fans arrived from the stadium, the platform became overcrowded, with passengers pressing up against trains. That made automatic train doors repeatedly open, further delaying the trains’ departures.

Passengers told the AJC that some people were pushing and shoving their way through the crowd, and they feared they might be trampled. They said they could find no MARTA employees to provide information and control the crowd.

MARTA later said short-staffing and poor communication contributed to the problem. And it took pains to ensure there was no repeat at Saturday’s SEC Championship.

Trains in much of MARTA’s service area ran every 10 minutes, and sometimes every five minutes. Before and after the game, MARTA police officers lined the platforms at stations near the stadium and at Five Points.

Other employees gave directions and helped load and unload trains, to prevent overcrowding. Though passengers were sometimes lined up eight deep to board northbound trains at Five Points after the game, most were able to depart within a few minutes of their arrival.

Some football fans noticed that MARTA was putting its best foot forward.

“It went smoother than I thought it was going to be,” said Ken Kirk of Homewood, Ala. “It was crowded, but it was going to be on game day.”

“I thought it went great,” said Cumming resident Sean Doyle. “They had people out directing people where to go.”

The Super Bowl – a 10-day series of events, culminating in one of the biggest televised spectacles in the world – will present a greater challenge. And MARTA plans more improvements before then.

The agency is overhauling many of its elevators and escalators, and Fisher said the work will be done in time for the Super Bowl. MARTA also will add signs to direct the big crowds expected for the game and its associated festivities.

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