Editorial: NJ Transit and the Super Bowl: We are Concerned and We Want Answers (Updated)

There have been a number of significant developments concerning NJ Transit’s performance in getting fans to and from the Super Bowl game last Sunday.  At first we reported that NJT had done an “incredible” job of moving everybody.  There were no wrecks or injuries, so they deserve credit for that.  Still, as we found out late Sunday night, thousands of fans were left at the Meadowlands Stadium, and it took hours to bring them out on the shuttle trains NJT was running between the stadium and Secaucus Station.

We have presented some updates since the game, but we have learned more since the last update.  Transportation Commissioner James Simpson told Karen Rouse of the Bergen Record that there were 60 to 80 buses ready to help evacuate fans from the stadium after the game, but they were not deployed for the purpose.  A report in the New York Daily News on Thursday placed the number of buses at 100 and called NJT “bus boneheads.”  If these reports are true, this is a massive service and planning failure, costing fans up to an extra hour of waiting time after the game.  Martin Robins, the original Executive Director of NJT, who spent most of his career at the Voorhees Transportation Institute at Rutgers University, told NJTV that NJT’s capacity was limited to bringing about 13,000 fans/hour to the game and back to Secaucus, and that NJT should have insisted to the NFL that its capacity was limited to that number.  Joseph Clift, our technical director, believes that the actual crowd could have been accommodated, but it would have taken better planning, more rapid transit-oriented rail operation, and extensive use of buses to supplement the rail service.  NJT reported that almost 28,000 fans used the trains to get to the stadium, and that over 33,000 used them to leave after the game.  We do not understand how so many more fans could have used the train to leave than to arrive at the stadium, given the security restrictions in place for the event.

As an organization representing NJT’s rail riders, the Lackawanna Coalition is deeply concerned about NJT’s apparently substandard performance.  Our mission is to represent the riders who use the Morris & Essex (M&E), Montclair-Boonton and Gladstone Lines, and connecting transportation.  All M&E trains outside peak commuting hours stop at Secaucus, and Montclair-Boonton and Gladstone Line riders can get to Secaucus by changing trains at Broad Street Station (Newark) or Summit.  Therefore, any trains that operate to or from Secaucus are within our purview, and lie within our area of concern.

Essentially all media reports indicate that the “Mass Transit Super Bowl” was a fiasco.  The Sporting News, which has no reason to cover a transit story on any other occasion, called it an “apocalypse.”  Star-Ledger columnist Paul Mulshine, who attended the game, called for the ouster of NJT Executive Director James Weinstein.  So did the Bergen Record in an editorial.  We believe that it would be fair to give NJT management an opportunity to tell their side of the story.  Therefore, we have prepared a list of questions and concerns to present to them.  We will tell you what they say, if they respond.  We will tell you what they have to say, so you can draw your own conclusions about NJT’s performance concerning this big event.

We express our concern that thousands of fans were kept waiting at Secaucus Station on their way to the game, crowded into the corridors, and denied access to the rotunda area, where the rest rooms and food stands are located.  This created a hazardous situation.  The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) set up a security checkpoint before the entrance to the rotunda area, and another on the mezzanine level on the way to the platform for the shuttle trains to the stadium.

  • Is there any evidence to indicate that this level of security was needed, especially since we have been informed that there was a third checkpoint at the stadium?
  • What efforts did NJT management make to convince the TSA and other security agencies to streamline the security process and allow fans into the rotunda area of the Secaucus Station?
  • During Super Bowl planning, did NJT management ever argue that a full personal security check at Secaucus Junction would complicate an already complex rail trip, especially for first-time rail users, and push for moving the check to another site, such as a MetLife parking lot?

As late as Friday afternoon before the game, NJT’s official estimate of the number of fans to be carried on the shuttle trains was 12,000, possibly as high as 15,000.

  • What was the source of that estimate?
  • Did NJT have enough information about the other modes of transportation to the stadium to accurately estimate the number of fans who would arrive by other means?
  • That total, deducted from the total stadium capacity, should have yielded an expected total for the NJT operation.  Did anybody in NJT management do those calculations?
  • When NJT knew the actual number of fans who used the trains to get to the game – more than double their estimate – in the late afternoon on Sunday, what special preparations did NJT make to bring that record number of fans back to Secaucus and on to other destinations?
  • Was any effort made to use Fan Express buses, after their scheduled service was completed, once NJT management recognized their volume problem in the late afternoon on Sunday?

Our observer at Secaucus recorded a train arriving from the Meadowlands Station an average of every 10 minutes for 2 hours after the game ended, but not more frequently, and with a gap of almost 40 minutes between 9:29 p.m. & 10:08 p.m., mostly before the game ended.  A review of the events of that time clearly indicates that such a level of service was insufficient to evacuate the stadium in a timely manner and does not appear to reflect the “load-and-go” rapid transit philosophy of moving large numbers of riders after large events.

  • Why did no trains arrive during the observed gap in service, when they could have carried Broncos fans leaving the game before its end?
  • Why did trains leave only every 10 minutes, and not more often? Were more trains operated than the 19 scheduled to arrive at Secaucus after 10 p.m., and what were the actual departure and arrival times of all Meadowlands trains operated?
  • Are there any operational restrictions that prevented more frequent service?

We have heard reports, as yet unconfirmed, that security officials were preventing more frequent service.

  • Is this true and, if so, what were the circumstances behind this decision?
  • More generally, what were the circumstances that prevented NJT from accelerating the start of return service and significantly exceeding the scheduled frequency of trains from the Meadowlands, when tens of thousands of fans were eagerly waiting to leave?
  • Exactly how many people were transported to the stadium by rail, and exactly how many people were transported back to Secaucus from the stadium?

We have seen reports that 28,000 went to the stadium by rail and 33,000 came back.

  • Given this disparity, where does NJT management believe that these extra return riders came from?
  • Where did they get their tickets?
  • How does NJT management believe that they got to the stadium in the first place, given the security restrictions on stadium access?
  • What are the official Meadowlands rail service ticket sales for the Super Bowl, and do these numbers corroborate or require changes in the initially reported ridership numbers?

We do not wish to rely entirely on reports in the media, but those reports, coupled with those of our observers in the field, tend to indicate that NJT did not plan for or perform well at the “Mass Transit Super Bowl.”  There may be a high-level investigation of this performance, and we want to give NJT management an opportunity to explain NJT’s performance to us, as the representatives of the riding public.  If much of the negative results from Sunday’s operations was actually caused by circumstances beyond NJT’s control, it is fair to give NJT management the opportunity to explain these factors to us, so we can inform the riding public, and so we can help to avoid similar negative results in the future.  If the negative results were directly attributable to errors on NJT’s part, then NJT management should be held accountable.  If the problems were caused by other agencies or other factors beyond NJT’s control, then those decision-makers should be held accountable, as well.

We will keep you informed as we learn more.

Chair, Lackawanna Coalition