Super Bowl Transit Had Problems: Media

Although NJ Transit handled a record number of customers to Sunday’s Super  Bowl, most media reports focused on the problems fans encountered in getting to MetLife Stadium, and on leaving.  The railroad reported it handled about 28,000 riders each way, roughly a third of the total attendance at the event.  Its previous record of passengers to the event was about 22,000, NJT said.  Later, NJT would say that National Football League planners told NJT to expect only about half the number who eventually used the trains.

Problems with handling such a huge passenger load may have been inevitable, but began with congestion at ticket lines in New York’s Penn Station early in the afternoon.  The first train to the stadium was scheduled to leave at 1:41 p.m., but it appears that many fans wanted to get there even earlier, leading to overcrowding on the first trains.  NJT, working with police and other security organizations, had set up a security checkpoint at the Secaucus Junction transfer station only a few miles from the stadium; all riders had to transfer there and pass through the airport-like security checkpoint.  This rapidly became overcrowded and, in the warm weather, the riders found the temperature uncomfortable as they waited in checkpoint lines at Secaucus.

Customers stuck in the hot lines chanted “AC! AC!”, and The New York Times reported that a policeman, only half kidding, replied “Welcome to New Jersey.”  Riders began to complain on social media such as Twitter, leading to reports, later denied, that some riders had fainted in the heat; the Associated Press reported that “a handful of fans . . . collapsed in the chaos.” The AP quoted an NJT spokesperson, William Smith, as saying that “it was kind of a bottleneck; a number of trains arrived at once.”  Some trains were held back at New York’s Penn Station, Smith reportedly said, and one rider reported having sat in his train for half an hour in New York.  Navigating the complex Secaucus station proved a challenge for some; one fan, on crutches, said he had to climb stairs at the station because the escalator wasn’t working, the AP reported.  Eventually, the railroad caught up with the demand and all the passengers got to the stadium.

In contrast, those who used cars and buses to reach the stadium reportedly had fewer problems.  A lane was dedicated in the Lincoln Tunnel to the bus fleet, and congestion there was rapidly corrected.  Few could drive their own cars: the stadium parking was largely given over to media and security arrangements, and the limited number of parking passes sold at $150 quickly became available in the secondary market at higher prices.

If the trip to the stadium had problems, the trip home was predictably even more difficult.  Attendees arrive at major events over a period of hours, but once it’s over, everybody wants to leave at once.  In this Super Bowl, the blowout victory by Seattle over Denver caused some to leave even before the end, possibly easing the transportation challenge.  Nonetheless, congestion rapidly built up at the stadium rail terminal; media reported that information signs within the stadium and a New Jersey State Police Twitter feed  advised attendees to stay inside longer and “enjoy the stadium”.  Not all did, and a half an hour after the game ended about 10 p.m. there were reports of congestion, unruly lines, and security personnel forming human chains to direct the crowds.  For a brief period, only one train was reportedly allowed to load at a time at the station, which has track capacity for three trains.  NJT had assigned their newest equipment, the “multilevel” fleet, to the stadium-Secaucus shuttle operation; these cars are flashy, but critics said they are slow to load and unload, as most passengers have to climb or descend narrow stairways to reach seats.

By 11:20 p.m., nearly 90 minutes after the game ended, NJT had handled 13,000 riders, but that left thousands more still waiting to leave the stadium; simple arithmetic would suggest that 15,000 riders were still waiting to get home or to their hotels.  Some reports suggest that even more riders tried to use the trains to return than had come via train—NJT has reported a return count of 32,900.  Trains continued to leave, but the Times reported that lines were still long at the stadium at midnight, about 2 hours after the game ended.  Around midnight, NJT summoned 20 buses to shuttle some riders to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan; about 1100 riders were put on the buses in addition to the 32,900 rail riders, according to NJT’s John Durso, Jr., quoted by WCBS-880 radio news.  (Statements by NJT Executive Director Jim Weinstein, reported days later by WNYC Radio, upped the bus count to 30 and the passenger count by bus to 2000.)  The vast majority, however, went by train to Secaucus, where riders still had to transfer; but without the need for security inspections on the return trip, things went relatively smoothly, with Lackawanna Coalition observers reporting no major problems as midnight approached.  NJ Transit reported that the lines at the stadium had largely disappeared by 12:45 a.m., nearly 3 hours after the game ended, according to the Times article.

Despite the problems and delays encountered by many of the riders, NJT was quick to declare success; NJT Executive Director James Weinstein said the railroad did “an excellent job,” and spokesperson Durso said, “the service plan did accommodate all of our customers; it was all done without incident. NJ Transit was able to set a record last night for ridership, and we would look at that as great success.”  NFL Executive VP Eric Grubman said that the lesson was that next time the NFL should pay as much attention to transportation contingencies as to weather contingencies.  Weinstein, Durso, and Grubman were all quoted by WCBS.

Read the New York Times article (paywall) at: