The Long Island Rail Road is conducting an internal review of its actions of June 9, when an infrastructure failure caused lengthy delays for riders packed on trains and at station platforms on their way to the Belmont Stakes.
Despite repeated assurances from new LIRR president Phillip Eng that the railroad was ready to handle the large crowds of riders that were expected to take the train to one of horse racing’s premier events, the failure of a component in signal system shortly after 1 p.m. at a key switching location in Queens Village — where trains are routed to Belmont Park — caused delays of up to an hour on four branches.
LIRR spokeswoman Sarah Armaghan said Friday that, in addition to sending the faulty electronic component back to the manufacturer for more information on why it malfunctioned, the railroad is also going through its actions throughout the day — including how it communicated with customers — to improve upon its Belmont Stakes operation in the future. The review will include looking for ways to add redundancies to prevent a similar problem.
In a statement Friday, Eng said LIRR customers “deserve nothing less than reliable train service and accurate communications.
“We are reviewing Belmont Stakes Day operations and pinpointing ways to further enhance our response, customer communications, and opportunities to add further redundancies,” Eng said. “I am committed to improving the way the LIRR operates not just for special events, but for all passengers who ride our railroad.”
Riders caught in dense crowds on trains and station platforms on their way to the race took to social media to share their frustrations and photos — some showing train cars packed shoulder-to-shoulder and toilets overflowing.
“After locking us on a train for over 40 [minutes] then sitting on the platform for another 20, we finally head for Belmont and now we’re locked on the train and not moving at Queens Village,” tweeted Bernie and Jess Watt. “There have been people vomiting . . . It’s uninhabitable.”
Armaghan said that the railroad had prepared for such an incident and that crews quickly responded and were able to manually route trains through the switching location until full repairs were completed just after 5 p.m. She also noted that the railroad safely carried 24,000 people home after the Triple Crown race.
Still, it wasn’t the first time that the LIRR stumbled on Belmont Stakes day. In 2014, 36,000 customers poured into the little-used Belmont station after the race, resulting in dangerous crowding and waits of more than three hours to board trains.
In response, the LIRR and the New York Racing Association spent $5 million to upgrade the station with new platforms, stairs and ramps, and also boosted service for Belmont Stakes day by taking one track out of service on the nearby Hempstead branch and using it to preposition trains serving Belmont.
The improvements resulted in smoother service during subsequent Belmont Stakes races. But, last year, race fans again faced delays after a train struck and killed an LIRR worker on the tracks at Queens Village. The National Transportation Safety Board earlier this year blamed the death, in part, on lax enforcement of track worker safety rules by LIRR management.
The LIRR has also been providing special service to Shinnecock Hills for the U.S. Open golf tournament, adding a stop near the course along its heavily traveled Montauk line.
Delays have been reported — averaging 20 minutes early Saturday, according to the railroad — but due largely to overcrowding and not any reported equipment failures.
Asked about the latest Belmont Stakes service problems, the racing association stood by its “partnership” with the railroad.
“LIRR service plays a very important role for fans on Belmont Stakes day, and is critical to NYRA’s ability to execute a successful event after a year’s worth of planning,” NYRA spokesman Patrick McKenna said. “We appreciate that partnership and look forward to learning about how the LIRR will support the redevelopment of Belmont Park as the nation’s finest sports and entertainment district.”
That redevelopment includes plans to build an 18,000-seat arena for the New York Islanders. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has called for — and the LIRR has committed to — an expansion of railroad service at the Elmont complex.
But state Sen. Elaine Phillips (R-Flower Hill) said the June 9 service issues show the LIRR is not yet ready for the task ahead.
“What happened at the Belmont Stakes is just unacceptable,” she said.
She acknowledged that the railroad’s fast response to the equipment failure prevented the problem from being “a thousand times worse.
“But it’s absolutely clear that what exists has to be corrected. Because what exists cannot handle the types of crowds that we are going to be bringing in to Belmont,” Phillips added. “What’s going to make this project or break this project is going to be transportation.”
The railroad has previously acknowledged the limitations of its Belmont operation — a single track spur just east of Queens Village that carries a typically sparse ridership to and from Belmont Park on a handful of trains a day during racing season.
In an interview with Newsday’s editorial board last month, though, Eng discussed re-imagining the railroad’s service to Belmont with the goal of creating “a full station that supports the development but also fits the community.”