Employees keep trains running on time, on track

By Daniel Silliman


The electric train lurches as it leaves the platform.

First, the orange doors close, and then the modulated and computerized woman's voice, seeming to emanate from everywhere, or maybe from the ceiling, says: "Please hold on. This train is departing."

When it departs, the passengers lose their balance a little, grabbing the tin-colored bars more tightly and putting all their weight on one leg.

The underground, automated train picks up speed, leaving Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport's Concourse C, and entering the tunnel at 25 miles per hour.

More than 50 feet below ground, in a concrete-lined labyrinth, David Bostic read a magazine and the four, orange train cars passed on a monitor behind him.

He didn't look up.

Each train car is powered by two, 100 horsepower electric engines. The cars are hooked up, four at a time, set on the rail and powered by the 6,000 volts and 1,800 amps of electricity coursing from the baggage claim to Concourse E in a self-contained loop.

The four-car train merged left, went a hundred yards down the single track, and paused. A pressure valve switched on, in the concrete tunnel where the two tracks merge near the end of the line, and a 12-ton section of the rail rotated 360 degrees. The section, called "Betsy," flipped over, and the cars moved again, reversing to run down the west-bound side of the airport rail.

Bostic didn't look up at the train passing on the monitor. In front of him lay a train magazine showing multi-colored pictures of the newest airport train systems.

"They're upgrading London," he says turning the page.

"The company tried to keep us abreast of all to the developments in the field. All of the newest things," he said.

Bostic, a Central Control Operator wearing a black, mock turtleneck, sits in a half-darken, underground room full of glowing monitors. He doesn't run the train, but "just keeps track," he says, and is the closest thing to a conductor, on the Atlanta airport's automated train system.

The electric train moves an average of 88,000 people per hour around the airport, says Christopher Smith, the Aviation Transit System assistant manager, more than 210,000 per day.

Last year, the grand total of people on the train came in at more than 74 million, and none of those people had any contact with the 91 workers keeping the system running.

The self contained system is the safest possible way to move masses of people, Smith says. "If there's anything out of place, the system will stop," he says. "If the brake pressure is off, if someone's in the doorway, if anything -- it stops. Everything equates to stop."

While a computerized, female voice instructs the passengers, telling them what to expect, and how to ride the rail, the human components of the system work 50 and 60 feet underground.

As Bostic watches the monitors, a team tests a train car's brakes and speaker system, running it back and forth on a test track. In the cavernous garage, a car without wheels sits on jacks, waiting to be retrofitted with rebuilt motors.

In another bay, a half dozen train cars are parked, all doors open, and a cleaning crew swarms in and out.

Sid Turmer cleans the outside. He's carrying a spray bottle full of window cleaner and a squeegee attached to a four-foot handle. A white rag is tucked into his pants and he hums, moving from car to car.

Officially, the 40 train cars traveling a loop under the airport, are called the City of Atlanta's Automated Guideway Transit System. Generically, the system is called an automated people move.

For the 91 people who work to keep the automated system running, it's just "The Train," or "The System."

Riding the train, two passengers lurch to the left, at the train takes off. One man bumps into another, and says, "Sorry."

The one wears a camouflage jacket over a hunter-orange T shirt. A pair of green, rubber boots stick out of his duffle bag. Next to him, a clean-cut man, wearing a gray suit, keeps one hand on the support pole, one hand on his rolling luggage.

Underneath, a reader board flashing messages in Asian languages, the men lean against a window, not looking at each other, eyes not focusing on anything.

The train's voice says, "Next stop, Concourse B. B, as in Bravo. Next stop, Concourse B."