A record-setting 36,000 people used the Long Island Rail Road to travel to and from the Belmont Stakes races on Saturday -- about 16,000 more than the railroad expected -- and overcrowding and long delays marred their trips, LIRR officials said Sunday.
"We've never had that kind of ridership before at the Belmont . . . Thirty-six thousand people arrived at Belmont between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., and they all wanted to leave within the same 60 minutes," said LIRR spokeswoman Marjorie Anders.
Racing fans Saturday experienced waits of up to two hours for trains leaving Belmont Park, Anders said. "There was tremendous crowding and there were long waits," she said.
LIRR officials said delays were compounded by the record number of people who took the train there, as well as the riders' decision to leave immediately. Officials had hoped many in the crowd would stay for the last race and concert.
"We will take you right to the grandstands . . . After the event, we will take you home," LIRR President Patrick Nowakowski said at a news conference last week. "The only problem there is everybody can't leave at once."
Thousands of people were "trying to get on the same set of trains at once," said LIRR customer service vice president Joe Calderone. "And it took some time."
Anders said, in 2008 -- the last time the Belmont Stakes had a Triple Crown contender running in it -- slightly more than 20,000 used the railway to get to the track. In a news release last week, the railroad said it expected to transport "more than 20,000" people.
Anders said the railroad had predicted the long waits because there is only one track going in and out of the park. The Belmont track also has no station platforms, and space to only run eight-car trains instead of the standard 10 to 12 cars.
"Clearly some people waited, and we told them in advance it could happen," Calderone said. "It's the actual infrastructure of the track."
Antoine Gara, 28, and a friend tried to leave around 7:30 p.m. but couldn't get out of the park. "It was disaster," said Gara, 28, in a phone interview. He lives on the Lower East Side.
The two turned around and watched two periods of the Rangers game at the park. Around 9:30 p.m., they tried to leave again.
"Everything was still a mess. There was no one helping out, telling people what to do," Gara said.
Anders said the LIRR was prepared for the high ridership and ran 14 extra trains.
In all the LIRR ran 26 trains eastbound into Belmont -- eight more than scheduled and 26 westbound trains -- six more than scheduled, according to Anders. .
One unexpected incident did increase delays late in the evening.
With thousands of customers still waiting to board trains, the State Fire Marshal made the call to shut down a portion of a pedestrian bridge that goes over the park and the LIRR tracks after some pieces of concrete started falling off the bottom of the bridge. Calderone said the affected portion of the bridge is owned and maintained by NYRA.
Hundreds of customers already in the bridge first had to be loaded onto trains. Many more were routed by police along street level to access the bridge by escalator at a different point. The incident led to police taking over the LIRR's customer queuing and loading operation.
"The later part of the night was not our normal operation," Calderone said. "At the time they made that decision the bridge was fully loaded with customers."
Despite the hiccup, Calderone said the LIRR's operation still fell largely within expectations. In 2008, the LIRR carried about 21,000 customers into the park, and was done loading them onto westbound trains by around 9:30. On Saturday, the railroad carried about 15,000 more customers, and was done by around 10:15, Calderone said.
The LIRR, in a news release on June 4, had warned people of possible delays.
"There is no need to rush to the exits," the news release said, advising people to stay at the track and enjoy more racing and entertainment.
On average, 10,000 people use the LIRR to travel to the Belmont Stakes races when there is no Triple Crown contender.
The Belmont crowd was 102,199, according to the New York Racing Association, the third highest in history.
Some fans who drove also complained on social media of gridlock leaving the Belmont parking lot. A little more than an hour before the race, Nassau County police said on-site parking was closed because the lots were full.
Belmont Park regular Nicasia Jackson, of Queens Village, said it took her more than an hour to get out of the parking lot.
She said there wasn't anyone directing fans to shuttle buses or directing traffic out of the lot.
"People just got out [of their cars]. They started drinking beer. They started turning up their music," she said. "You couldn't move."