LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski said Monday the agency will do much better in transporting the huge crowds expected for the Belmont Stakes next month in hopes of witnessing a Triple Crown winner.
After the Long Island Rail Road was besieged last year by 36,000 racegoers -- some who waited more than three hours to board an outbound train at Belmont -- Nowakowski pledged to overhaul the railroad's Belmont operation in time for this year's race, even though the increased capacity would only be needed if a Triple Crown were on the line once again.
Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah's victory Saturday at the Preakness Stakes ensured the LIRR's enhancements will be put to the test on June 6.
"It's still going to take some time . . . But we expect to be much, much better," Nowakowski said at a meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's LIRR Committee in Manhattan. "I've said in the past that I think we can do twice as well as we did in the past in terms of moving trains. I'm hoping to actually do better than that."
Helping ease the burden on the LIRR will be the New York Racing Association's decision to cap attendance at 90,000 fans -- about 13,000 fewer than the number who showed up last year. But MTA board member Jonathan Ballan expressed concern Monday that some fans might not get that message and could pack LIRR trains and stations despite not being able to get to their destinations.
"What happens if they're on their way? The burden may be dumped on us," Ballan said.
Nowakowski and MTA Police Chief Michael Coan assured that they have been coordinating closely with NYRA and other involved agencies, and will have protocols in place to communicate with riders and alleviate crowds, both at Belmont and at origin stations.
"Believe me, there were many lessons learned," Nowakowski told Ballan.
Nowakowski has said the LIRR was hamstrung last year by several operational limitations at Belmont, including only a single track on which to route trains in and out, no train station platforms, and only bullhorns to communicate with riders.
The LIRR has spent $4 million on upgrades since last year's race, including the construction of elevated train platforms, new staircases and a handicapped-accessible ramp, extension of tracks to allow for trains with 10 cars instead of eight, and new signs and public address systems.
Nowakowski acknowledged that construction has not been completed -- in part because severe winter weather slowed its progress. But LIRR officials said the work will be done in time for the race, less than three weeks away.
Nowakowski said the most significant improvement to Belmont service will be the use of a track on the adjacent Hempstead line "as a parking lot" to store empty trains that will be dispatched into Belmont Park to pick up passengers.
"As quickly as we can load them and get those trains out . . . we will have another train following right behind," Nowakowski said.