July 2014 Union Strike

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Sunday, June 8

Belmont Stakes 2014 Sets Ridership Record, but could the LIRR Handle It?

On Saturday, millions of people tuned in to see California Chrome attempt to complete the third and final leg of the coveted Triple Crown at the 146th Running of the Belmont Stakes.  While many tuned in on television, the New York Racing Association reported that 102,199 people showed up at Belmont Park to see the race in person.  The hype leading up to this race was huge, and it was the talk of the town for some time.  The LIRR typically carries an awful lot of people to Belmont Park on the day of the Belmont Stakes, as train service to the racetrack's own station is increased significantly on this special Saturday.  This year, however, was a record year for the LIRR.  After the last westbound train arrived, just shy of 36,000 people had arrived at Belmont Park on LIRR trains (about 35% of all attendees).  This blew the LIRR's projection of about 21,000 fans taking the train to the Belmont Stakes out of the water and almost 10,000 more riders than NJTransit took to the Super Bowl back in February.

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 LIRR was able to get everyone there without many issues.  Of the 18 scheduled trains and 10 passenger extras on-top of that, the trains were crowded, but most people got there.  The first train out to the racetrack in the morning had more standees than people seated, and there were multiple instances throughout the day of people getting left on the platform at Jamaica because the trains from New York were so full, but everyone eventually got to the racetrack in some form or fashion.

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:




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:



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). 

14 comments:

  1. The situation played out just like it did ten years ago when "Smarty Jones" was going for the Triple Crown. The same thing will happen the next time a horse gets two thirds of the way to winning it. Horse racing in America is dead, it's not worth spending a penny on the station if it's only going to be used to serve the track on race days.

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  2. Hoops and HorsesJune 8, 2014 at 1:34 AM

    To me, this is NO SHOCK WHATSOEVER!!

    The savvy traveler who is experienced on Belmont Stakes day like myself KNOWS to walk the mile or so from the track over the Queens Village station and get the train from Queens Village to Penn Station or Flatbush Avenue. I did that when Smarty Jones went for the Triple Crown in 2004, walking over there to catch a MUCH LESS crowded LIRR train back. You don't wait at the Belmont Park LIRR station.

    If it had been up to me, I would have kept Belmont Park open until either Midnight or 25 minutes following the end of Rangers-Kings while offering simulcasting following The Belmont Stakes. Doing so would have smoothed the flow of people leaving Belmont all at once considerably. The fact NYRA didn't do this likely cost them 10-15,000 who were "on the fence" about going, but didn't specifically because they didn't want to miss ONE MINUTE of Game 2 of Rangers-Kings in the Stanley Cup Final.

    If the LIRR ran until 12:30-1:00 AM (last train 30 minutes after the end of Rangers-Kings), there would not have been the problems, plain and simple!

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  3. Honestly, this isn't much different than the Super Bowl. Any event like this is going to involve transferring an impossibly large crowd of people on commuter rail rolling stock and infrastructure that is not designed to cope. The parking lot fiasco is a bigger deal, I think. They could have done a much better job here, but the railroad did exactly what it was expected to do.

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  4. 7.5?!? Are you kidding. That was a disaster.

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  5. As a visitor to the USA from Australia, and having attended many race Melbourne Cups with larger crowds than yesterday at Belmont Park, I was amazed and disgusted with the exiting from the grandstand to the trains last night. To stand in a crush of people for two hours, with no information from the Racetrack authorities or the LIRR as to what was happening at any point in time, or of the reasons for the delay, was incomprehensible. To whoever wrote the above nonsense self-awarding the LIRR 7.5 out of 10 for the way they handled last night, you clearly are delusional. To finally be herded on to shuttle buses and deposited on a train somewhere one had no idea where , was the ultimate stupidity. Take a trip to Flemington in Melbourne and see how a good Racing Club and an efficient railroad company work!!

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  6. The wait was expected. What was not acceptable was cops telling everyone waiting at 9pm that there were no trains, it was a safety issue to continue waiting, take a seat, and there is no further information. After a period of time they sent everyone outside into a dark parking lot to wait, again with no further information or direction other than to say the bridge was unsafe. I have been to prior Belmonts with comparably large crowds and it has never been so unsafe or mismanaged as it was yesterday. If Queens Village is so close as some commenters have stated, then that route should be publicized as an alternative and LIRR should use double decker trains.

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  7. This was a DISASTER. No one was out there guiding and informing the masses of people. The track and LIRR are lucky no one was hurt. The whole situation was incredibly dangerous and not well thought out. Period. If something did happen-which easily could have- this would be all over the news and you'd have to do something about it. There needs to be a plan to deal with waiting masses of people being corralled this way and that with zero information. Even if you can't change wait times, there need to be organized systems. What a cop out piece of writing.

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  8. Is there a reason the LIRR didn't use diesel equipment and run 8 c3's. They would have lessened crowding and there wouldn't have been the problem of third rail power issues. But, I do agree with you Patrick, the LIRR does warn EVERYONE about the possible 2 hour wait, and with 10,000 more people than expected, they did a okay job.

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  9. The station platforms can only handle 8 units due to the location of the switches, so adding a locomotive on to the front would result in having to take a car off. The best they could do would be run 6 car diesel sets, and that only affords marginally more seats than 8 car M7's can. Considering the M7's are more reliable, and there are far more of them (and they can run through to NYP), they are the best option for this scenario.

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  10. Sorry, but could you possibly provide evidence for your claim that you "have been to prior Belmonts with comparably large crowds and it has never been so unsafe or mismanaged as it was yesterday" considering yesterday's crowd shattered records?

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  11. Horse racing is dead in America. There's no comparison.

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  12. NJT made it abundantly clear at Super Bowl, and every rush hour at NYPS, that bi-level cars have horrible ingress/egress capabilities, and if anything, would have made matters worse. However, the NJT MLV's have a particularly stupid inner door design with little ability for people to access the vestibule doors.



    Perhaps they should have run M-3's , which draw less power, and can run faster there. But LIRR, as with the M-1, is deliberately not properly maintaining them and running them into the ground to make the case for M-9. Budd MU's ought to last 40 - 45 years.

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  13. 3rd largest crowd. No records were "shattered" yesterday.

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  14. Nearly 400k people attended the triple crown races, and tv ratings for the Belmont exceeded game 1 of the NBA finals and game 2 of the NHL SC- reports of horse racing's demise (aka it's"dead") have been greatly exaggerated.

    And yesterday's attendance was their third highest, with the highest days happening in the last 10 years. It has never been as bad as it was yesterday.

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