Photos courtesy of MARTA

Photos courtesy of MARTA

When high-profile sporting events, concerts or conventions come to town, you can bet it's something that local public transportation entities have been planning and preparing months, or even years, in advance for. Running rail transit services on any given day requires planning. When mega-events are on the schedule, like the Super Bowl, advanced, detailed planning that encompasses the management and transport of massive amounts of passengers is required.

In February 2019, Atlanta hosted Super Bowl LIII, which tasked the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) with providing rail service to nearly one million people over a three-day period. I reached out to MARTA officials about the experience to find out challenges they faced and lessons learned.

MARTA GM/CEO, Jeffrey Parker:
Event. In February 2019, Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta.
MARTA routinely handles large-scale events such as Atlanta Falcons games, Atlanta United matches, including the MLS Cup, NCAA football and basketball championship games, large conventions such as Comic Con, conferences, and concerts. Additionally, MARTA has coordinated rail services for two past Super Bowls and the 1996 Olympic Games.

Planning. MARTA began planning for Super Bowl LIII two years ago with visits to previous host cities Houston and Minneapolis. Representatives from each department in the authority began to develop a detailed and sustainable service plan for the 10-day operational period surrounding and including the Super Bowl and the departure of visitors after the event. MARTA provides rail service from the venues that housed all the large events leading up to and including the Super Bowl, directly into the world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International.

A year out from the event, these representatives began to meet consistently to discuss all aspects of the plan and adjust it if necessary. The plan was designed to accommodate MARTA’s regular riders, visitors in town for the game, and the volunteers and staff working at the event venues and at the hotels, restaurants, and bars surrounding them.

The agency treated every large event in the year leading up to the Super Bowl as a “dry-run” that it could learn from and fine-tune as needed. “MARTA developed a plan that would not result in fatigued staff, vehicles, or infrastructure and one that considered every possible service interruption scenario,” Parker says.

Best Practices for Rail Service Planning

1. Large-scale events require agency preparedness. This means pre-planning, planning, training, dry-runs, live runs, and acquisition of goods and services. It also means making all available resources contribute to the success. Often there is no bigger stage for a transit agency than a large-scale event. Many of the riders are riding your system for the first time. This is a great opportunity to turn a discretionary rider into a regular rider.

2. Do not forget about your regular riders and how they will be impacted before, during, and after the event. The customer service you provide during the large-scale event will make a lasting impression on your regular riders and the value you place on them.

3. Learn from the event sponsor, the venue operator, your transit peers, and any relevant non-peer. Large-scale events are recurring and common in major cities with transit. Make visits to the cities when they host their large-scale events to experience the event or a similar event well in advance (years ahead if possible).
4. Build networks and partnerships with experienced peers and advocacy groups and organizations. Provide a means or role for them to participate to lighten your agency’s load. MARTA had several national transit peers provide police support and crowd control, filling key slots on platforms, station entrances, and parking lots. This is important in preventing fatigue. This requires a safety and security plan in addition to an operational plan. They are different, although complementary.

5. Don’t exclude any employee that can contribute. Customers love ambassadors and friendly faces. Make sure transit staff are educated on the event itself, entry gates, and seating as event attendees riding transit expect you to have that information.

6. Over-plan resource needs by 15% to 20% to have extra staff or vehicles ready to go if a location becomes overwhelmed. Run extra service beyond what is forecast to keep patrons moving. Crowd management and metering is vital to provide a safe, positive rider experience.

7. Use all media outlets and business partners to make the “know before you go” slogan work for your agency. This is especially critical for travel time, fare media, and parking. Being late to the event can easily be blamed on your transit agency because riders didn’t know.
8. Look at the full duration of the event including in-bound and out-bound travel patterns, and other events associated with the big event. Most large-scale events are multi-day and visitors come from all over the country, and often the world, to participate.
-MARTA Chief of Rail Operations David Springstead

Special considerations. MARTA included all 4,300 employees in the 10-day operational period. The agency expanded its existing Transit Ambassador program to include more than 600 administrative staff who were positioned in MARTA’s 38 rail stations and worked over 3,320 additional hours to provide customer service to riders.

MARTA leveraged relationships with other transportation providers, local and national police agencies, local municipalities, and public safety agencies to assist.
A budget of $2 million was established for additional rail and bus service, staff training, customer service and operations support, cleaning during high-volume periods, communications and marketing, wayfinding signage, crowd control equipment, contingency plans, and supplies.

MARTA designed a plan that would be flexible to accommodate changes in event schedules and crowd sizes. Instead of a fixed schedule, MARTA ran a demand-based rail service during peak ridership periods to clear platforms quickly. MARTA staged trains at end-of- line stations and in pocket tracks to quickly accommodate growing crowds and front-line operations staff and supervisors were placed at critical stations and rail interlockings.

From January 30 to February 5, MARTA provided 24-hour continuous rail service. Restrooms were kept open 24 hours as well and custodial services were shifted to keep trains, trackways, and stations clean. MARTA also suspended all construction work on the system during the 10-day operational period.

Challenges. On the evening before Super Bowl Sunday, MARTA had a trespasser on the tracks at a rail station and several small fires on adjacent CSX tracks at another. Extensive planning ensured both incidents were handled quickly with minimal rail service disruption. In the planning efforts, the agency made sure to have contingency plans for every possible service interruption scenario and trained staff on how to handle these situations safely and efficiently should they arise.

MARTA Chief of Rail Operations, David Springstead:
Lessons learned. Special event planning and execution requires the support of the entire authority. Safety and service are top priorities, and while the responsibility for these functions falls on Operations and Police, the plan is only successful if all departments collaborate early and often in meetings, table tops, and live dry runs to fine-tune the service plan.

Centralizing the planning effort under a lead program manager who collects all departmental plans into one single playbook is key. The MARTA playbook is not unlike the game plan or playbook that sports teams use to prepare. Key roles and responsibilities are identified, and physical and human resource needs are forecasted and allocated to critical locations within the system.

MARTA practices and trains over and over for the event.

Contingency plans that look at all possible scenarios are developed in case there is an operational, security or medical emergency that prompts swift action.

All hands-on deck. Using re-deployed staff, whose normal function is largely administrative and behind the scenes, and placing them on the front lines after customer service training has been an overwhelming success. This initiative needs to come in the form of a policy or procedure to make it an agency priority. MARTA remains focused on customer service during large events, flooding the stations with helpful, smiling staff.

MARTA began planning for Super Bowl LIII two years ago with visits to previous host cities Houston and Minneapolis.

MARTA began planning for Super Bowl LIII two years ago with visits to previous host cities Houston and Minneapolis.

Chief, System Safety, Security & Emergency MGMT., Wanda Y. Dunham:
Safety and security. MARTA facilitated table-top exercises with the assistance of almost 30 public safety agencies, to prepare contingency plans for every scenario.

The MARTA Police Department hosted the region’s largest emergency preparedness exercise at the rail station that serves Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The drill simulated an active shooter on a train who had taken hostages and involved the FBI, TSA, and the NFL, among others.

Other preparation included crowd control training, active-shooter training, hazardous-device awareness, sex-trafficking detection training, and regional information sharing through WebEOC — a web-based crisis management system.

During Super Bowl weekend, 500 sworn officers with the MARTA Police Department and other agencies patrolled the entire rail system to ensure customers were safe and their belongings secure. The uniform patrol division was supplemented by the Special Operations Response Team and K-9 teams trained in explosive detection.

Hours were spent looking at threat vulnerability or weaknesses in the infrastructure that could be targeted or exposed. The analysis included the structural integrity of tunnels and bridges and locating all ingress/egress points that could be used to gain access to the MARTA system and enter the Super Bowl “hot zone.”

MARTA’s extensive systems testing focused on normal, emergency, and standby power systems; fire protection; communications; and our CCTV monitoring network, which includes approximately 15,000 cameras located on buses and trains, as well as inside the stations.

MPD also utilized the See & Say app, which is a free download that allows customers to report crimes and suspicious activity in real time using their smartphones.

Additionally, MARTA analyzed the security and stability of the train control and SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) systems.

Stay tuned for more best practices from agencies including SEPTA and San Diego's MTS on