The Long Island Rail Road and the New York Racing Association are approaching the home stretch of a $5 million effort to upgrade Belmont Park's transportation facilities to avoid the long delays and overwhelming crowds that plagued last year's Belmont Stakes.
Belmont's spring meet starts Wednesday, and with it comes the return of daily LIRR service to and from the racetrack. And while the LIRR's usual schedule is typically enough to handle the 2,500 trips taken to and from the park in a month, the huge crowd that gathered to see a potential Triple Crown last year proved too much for the system.
And so the LIRR has partnered with the NYRA on a major overhaul of its operation in time for the June 6 Belmont Stakes.
"The LIRR will provide extra service that day and unveil station and service improvements that will help better accommodate the larger stakes day crowd, including faster departures from the racetrack at the end of the day," the railroad said in a statement.
The project includes $4 million the railroad spent to build two new station platforms and to extend existing tracks.
"This will increase Belmont Station train capacity from eight to 10 cars, and further speed the LIRR's operations to move customers in and out of the Belmont in a more rapid and efficient manner," NYRA chief executive and president Christopher Kay told the agency's board of directors last week. "We thank LIRR for their commitment."
The NYRA is spending $1 million to refurbish the aging transit rotunda on the west end of the grandstand. That includes a pedestrian bridge temporarily shut down after last year's Belmont Stakes because of concerns about its structural integrity.
The LIRR last year transported a record 36,000 customers to the Belmont Stakes, where California Chrome failed in a bid to capture the Triple Crown. The larger-than-expected crowds, and limited capacity, resulted in a throng of fans waiting as long as three hours to get on a train after the race.
"Clearly, not everything went as smoothly as any of us would have liked to have seen," NYRA spokesman John Durso Jr. said. "It was important for us to look back and see what went right and what could be improved."
Durso said the NYRA has been working closely with the LIRR and other public agencies on several other improvements for this year's season, including new traffic patterns at Belmont's parking lots, additional entrance and exit points, and the removal of turnstiles at park entrances and exits.
Might use nearby tracks
To increase train frequency on Stakes day, LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski has also said the agency could use tracks on the nearby Hempstead branch. That would allow the LIRR to dispatch a train to Belmont coming from the east as soon as one pulls out westward. Previously, inbound trains have had to wait until an outbound train cleared the track.
Race fan Mark Favors, who was caught in the crowd crush waiting for an LIRR train last year, said, "The proof will have to be in the pudding."
"I guess we will just have to see what the execution is," said Favors, of the Bronx, adding that the NYRA and the LIRR should not have been caught off guard by last year's Stakes crowd. "Everybody and their mother knew about California Chrome. . . . They both said they would be prepared. Now, we have to wait and see."