|LIRR Passengers arriving at Belmont Park|
(Photo credit: MTA Long Island Rail Road)
|LIRR Passengers arriving at Belmont Park|
(Photo credit: MTA Long Island Rail Road)
The horses then did their part for the day and ran a mile and a half around the racetrack. Despite the wishes of many, California Chrome tied for fourth place and was unable to complete the Triple Crown, losing out to three other horses, including Tonalist, the day's champion.
Following the completion of the race, thousands of depressed horse racing "fans" decided it was time to head home. Many headed for their cars, some set off on foot, and just shy of 30,000 people made their way for the Long Island Rail Road trains.
And that is when a bad day got worse.
Thousands of attendees rushed the exit to the LIRR trains, and a queue of several thousand people quickly formed. Trains began moving shortly after the conclusion of the race, but people were exiting the venue faster than the LIRR could get them out on trains, so trouble ensued. The entrance to the LIRR station is very close to Belmont Park's exit, so the crowds come quickly and all at once, which is typically a problem with stations that are very close to the actual sporting venue.
Now this is nothing unusual. This happens every year on the day of the Belmont Stakes. Lots of people try to exit the Grandstand at once and big lines form. With higher than normal ridership projected for this year's Belmont Stakes, I wasn't assuming that this year would go better.
The Belmont Park station presents a number of challenges that makes it difficult to move large amounts of people out of the station at once. Forget the fact that it's the only LIRR station with low-level platforms. People make that out to be more of an issue than it really is. It adds a whole three minutes to the boarding process, and they can board multiple trains simultaneously. Considering that most trains got filled up and then sat there for some time waiting to leave the station indicates it had very little impact on the situation. What is a real issue at Belmont Park is the lacking track and power infrastructure. It takes about five minutes to go the relatively short distance from the racetrack station to QUEENS interlocking, The wye up to the Mainline is single-tracked and not in the best of conditions, so trains must move slowly once they leave the Mainline. Westbound trains also have to crossover most of the interlocking to get to the westbound tracks, which can tie things up considerably. Furthermore, power consumption is a big issue. M7's can only operate in "Min" position to keep power draw down, so that short stretch is very slow going. All trains idling in the station have to be quickly put in Lay-Up Mode to also help moderate how much power trains are eating up on the spur.
Between the single-track portion of the wye and the power consumption concerns, the railroad is essentially restricted to only having one train moving at a time between Belmont Park and the Mainline. As if this wasn't a constraint enough, all trains to Belmont Park have to be made up of strictly 8-car M7's, so the short trains further limit how many people can be moved.
But these are perennial issues...the same things happen every year. The LIRR could make improvements to the infrastructure to accommodate the intense volume of people exiting, but such upgrades would be expensive, and is it really worth it? Think about it, horse racing at Belmont Park is only held on Wednesdays through Sundays for part of the Spring, part of the Summer, and part of the Fall. On the days that races are held, the LIRR runs two trains in either direction to and from the park, each having an average of just 35 riders. The rest of the year the station sits dormant. Demand for train service to Belmont Park is microscopic on all but one day of the year. Is it really worth it to make such a significant investment for one day each year? Nope. The same question can be asked of the NYRA and the sport of horse racing as a whole. For a sport that's only popular for two weeks out of every year, is investing a significant amount of money related to anything in the sport of horse racing worth it? Not really.
While most people in attendance at today's event don't give two thoughts to horse racing from the second week of June through the third week of May, many were quick to criticize the LIRR's alleged mismanagement and blundering of the return trip home Saturday evening.
The most common criticism was the "you knew how many people were coming, how come you didn't plan accordingly?" line. Like many things in life, the mere knowledge of something does not make accomplishing that thing possible or practical. I know that Tax Day is coming every year...it doesn't mean that there's anything I can do to stop it or make it less painful. Even the most organized, skilled, and efficient railroad wouldn't be able to move that many people while managing the aforementioned infrastructure constraints, and it's not really financially practical to make an effort to improve those infrastructure constraints.
Each year, the LIRR includes a warning in its special Belmont Stakes timetable (emphasized with boldface, underlined text) that wait times could be as long as two hours for those outside the railroad's queuing area. The additional crowds resulted in waits longer than that for many, but the railroad did end up getting everyone when they said they would (the last train from Belmont Park was scheduled to depart at 10:53pm, and that final departure stuck).
A number of people posted scenes from the queues on Twitter earlier this evening. Note, if you subscribe to get posts via e-mail or RSS, you may have to view this post in your web browser to see the embedded tweets:
@JBossertNYDN we are still at Belmont waiting at @LIRR pic.twitter.com/N9WnGOTbwf
— Mark A. Favors (@MarkFavors) June 8, 2014
@LIRR @raypaulick @MTA lines are inexcusable. What?! No one knew the crowd numbers. Please. pic.twitter.com/2uB8VI46ns
— Lynda Kinkade (@LyndaKinkade) June 8, 2014
#lirr #BelmontStakes nightmare back to NYC pic.twitter.com/QdI9na0ltD
— Jen Ferguson (@artinchaos) June 8, 2014
2 hours in hot, packed crowd to get out of Belmont. @BelmontStakes @nypd @LIRR #mismanaged #dangerous pic.twitter.com/RTwQaxW46A
— Shannon Eblen (@ShannonEblen) June 8, 2014
There was also the expected collection of exaggerations, dramatizations, and sheer hyperbole on social media, but at the end of the night, nobody was stranded, killed, tossed off an overpass, or cut in half with a chainsaw, despite what you might've read online. And other than a few strategic lulls to allow for eastbound equipment trains to pull into Belmont Park, there was no suspension of train service over the course of the evening.
There were reports that the overpass to the station platforms was sagging at a point, but that has not been confirmed by an official source. The entire station is very old and has remained practically the way it is for decades, but this again brings us pack to the point that this is the one and only day each year where the foot traffic volume over the overpass could potentially cause a situation like this, so how much should be invested in the station itself?
Just shy of 30,000 people took the train home from Belmont Park Saturday night--less than the amount of people that arrived there, but considering all 30,000 of those people rushed the gates at once, more than the LIRR could handle given its constraints.
And for those of you thinking of driving next year, the parking lot situation was no better:
@raypaulick @LIRR if you drove and parked in the white or blue field parking you're still here as well. Been in the car since 7, not out yet
— Devin Persaud (@PersaudDevin) June 8, 2014
Belmont blue parking lot is a disaster. Hundreds of idling cars. No rhyme or reason to where people are going. People can't find their cars.
— Jim Baumbach (@jimbaumbach) June 8, 2014
Hour 3 of @TheNYRA Belmont abandonment in parking lot. Still no way out. We are about to elect our own government.
— Rob Westervelt (@slakboy) June 8, 2014
At the end of the day, the LIRR managed to move an enormous amount of people without any major disasters. Many people have compared this to NJTransit's Super Bowl mess-up, but I think once all things are considered, the LIRR did a much better job moving a higher volume of people within its practical limitations. This entire evening played out much like I expected it too (in fact, I had about three-quarters of this post written out Friday morning, I just had to fill in the specifics). There are certain things that could have gone better (like using the east leg of the wye more or making the ticketing situation at the western terminals less messier by giving people more options (i.e. allowing passengers to use commutation tickets they already have or implementing a flat-fare type thing to Belmont Park where simply handing a $10 bill to the conductor at the gate was just as good as handing them a ticket), but I don't consider the evening the utter failure many have made it out to be).
All things considered, I would give the LIRR a 7.5 on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the best) for their performance as a whole on Belmont Stakes day this year. There's room for improvement, but take notes, folks, because things are going to play out very much like this the next time horse racing becomes incredibly popular (i.e. Belmont Stakes 2015).