The head of the LIRR said Thursday he was confident it will be able to handle the long lines of fans looking for a train after tomorrow's Belmont Stakes, but was less certain about the long lines that could form at rail ticket machines.
Long Island Rail Road president Patrick Nowakowski unveiled the completed $4 million renovation of the Belmont train station just in time for the big race, at which American Pharoah will compete for the Triple Crown.
The upgrades include new elevated train platforms, reconfigured tracks to accommodate 10-car trains instead of those with eight cars, and new stairs, ramps, lights and digital signs. Construction was delayed by weeks because of severe winter weather, and completion of the project came right down to the wire.
Thursday, LIRR workers scurried to put finishing touches on the station, including installing edgeboards to shrink gaps between the new platforms and trains.
The project aims to reduce the long wait times thousands of riders experienced after last year's Belmont Stakes, when a crush of 36,000 people tried to board trains at once, resulting in delays of up to 3 1/2 hours.
"We needed to do something that would better accommodate that level of ridership. And, in a very short period of time, we've been able to assemble here what I think are great facilities," said Nowakowski, who has said it still may take up to two hours for some fans to board a train.
To help ease their trips to the track, Nowakowski urged racegoers to buy their LIRR tickets before tomorrow. Even though Belmont has already sold close to its 90,000 available tickets, Nowakowski said, as of Thursday, the LIRR had sold just 800 tickets to the park.
"That's not good enough, folks," Nowakowski said. "I do not need 30,000 people all trying to buy tickets at Penn Station at the same time."
Arriving by train Thursday at the newly renovated Belmont station, horse racing fan Lee Lewis, 54, said while he appreciated the upgrades, he was not convinced they will make much of a difference come Saturday.
"Normally, it runs fine. No problems. But on a day like the Belmont Stakes? Forget about it," said Lewis of Brooklyn, who planned to place his Stakes bet Thursday. "I don't believe they'll be ready for it this year. I'm not coming."