Remember all the way back to February when, after a rather boring Super Bowl, thousands of fans got to hang out in East Rutherford or Secaucus Junction waiting for New Jersey Transit to run enough trains to get them home? You’d think the regional rail operators around the city would have learned the lesson that, for marquee sports events at inconvenient locations, regularly scheduled commuter rail service isn’t quite good enough and even the so-called “event” service isn’t enough either.
So when Saturday’s Belmont Stakes rolled around with California Chrome drawing attention for his shot at the Triple Crown, how do you think the Long Island Rail Road handled the post-race crowds? If you said “poorly,” come on down because you’re the next contestant on “The Train Service Is Wrong.” Matt Flegenheimer reports:
For both the horse and the agency, Saturday could have gone better. After watching the colt tie for fourth in the Belmont Stakes, tens of thousands of Long Island Rail Road riders struggled to leave, standing in serpentine lines for hours, berating police officers over a lack of communication from transit and racing officials and, at one point, packing themselves so tightly atop a rickety pedestrian bridge that it had to be cleared for safety.
And so, just over four months after New Jersey Transit’s misadventures at the Super Bowl, the New York City area has been faced with the same vexing question: How has a region that prides itself on handling large crowds for major events — baseball games, political conventions, New Year’s Eve — been tripped up yet again?
The answer, officials and transportation experts said, is a combination of misguided estimates, inexperienced riders and a bit of bad luck, at least at the track. The railroad expected about 20,000 people to ride to the races and had publicized its service throughout the week. Nearly 36,000 took the train to the Belmont station, prompting the railroad to summon extra service for the post-race crush at the track’s typically little-used station.
To make matters worse, MTA officials and rider advocates noted after the fact that the people who rely more heavily on mass transit were the ones at Belmont, something that perhaps should have been a consideration before the event and not after. Still, though, one statement in The Times was worrisome. The Belmont station is season, and the station can fit only an eight-car train set. Thus, with 36,000 people waiting, the MTA can clear out only around 1200 per train. “Could we have gotten three and a half hours down to three hours if everything ran like clockwork? Maybe,” LIRR President Patrick A. Nowakowski said to Flegenheimer. “But you weren’t going to do any better than that.”
Coverage in The Journal took on a different slant still. The delays, LIRR officials told Yoni Bashan, were expected. “There wasn’t a single extra train that we could have run that we didn’t run,” an agency spokesman said.
Therein lies the problem. The MTA isn’t going to upgrade Belmont for one day a year, and, as both papers noted, these complaints never pop up for regular service after events at Yankee Stadium, Citi Field or the Barclays Center, venues located near subway lines. So this may just become the new normal at places that were built for auto traffic without reliable, regular mass transit. Belmont and the Meadowlands will still see many many drivers, but as train travel in the region becomes the norm, longer waits due to infrastructure deficiencies will continue to be a problem. Who’s looking forward for a solution?