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San Diego MTS: Where Public Transit and Hollywood Unite

In late July, it’s not uncommon to see Klingons, Darth Vader, Spiderman and Superwoman all boarding the San Diego Trolley. Comic-Con International, one of the largest entertainment and comic conventions in the world, brings more than 160,000 attendees—and thousands more for people-watching—each year.

This annual invasion creates both opportunities and challenges for the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS). During the five days of the event, MTS provides an additional 250,000 passenger trips, which presents logistical challenges to provide extra Trolley (light rail) service to the front door of the convention center. The extra train sets on the system, which allow MTS to double its service frequency to 7.5 minutes, also mean that MTS can generate more advertising revenue.

During Comic-Con week, MTS’ iconic red Trolleys turn into rolling billboards for major players such as Fox, ABC, TBS and SyFy channels. Collectively, the networks have purchased a record 44 advertising wraps on the vehicles for Comic-Con 2018, compared with 21 wraps for Comic-Con 2014. All told, the event will help MTS realize about $500,000 in advertising revenue.

The popularity of Comic-Con creates a very challenging environment for operations and MTS has developed a tested blueprint for success. Among the tips that may help other agencies prepare for large events in their cities are:

* Implement a vacation restriction for operators. On a normal weekday, MTS deploys 64 full-shift train operators. During Comic-Con, the agency schedules 115 full-shifts—an 80 percent increase in staffing;

* Pre-position mechanics at key points along the busiest line segments to speed up response time to mechanical failures; and

* Commit an employee in maintenance and one in operations to take ownership of the vehicle wrapping schedule. The train wrapping process takes about eight hours, meaning there is lots of coordination necessary to get 44 trains wrapped ahead of the convention.

No matter how many space aliens and superheroes attend, MTS has a front-row seat and an important role in this action-packed event for San Diego.
Conan O’Brien promotes his live shows during Comic-Con on an MTS Trolley advertising wrap.

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