New Jersey Transit regularly handles sell-out football crowds heading to MetLife Stadium for Jets and Giants games, and even more for concerts. So how did Super Bowl Sunday turn into such a disaster, with tens of thousands of fans stuck for hours in a hot, crowded train station? Let's figure out what went down, and who's to blame.
Why didn't people drive to the game?
Many would have loved to, but weren't allowed. Citing the need for a security perimeter around the stadium, the NFL capped the number of parking passes sold at 13,000. For a game with an announced attendance of 82,529, that's not a lot. Fans also weren't allowed to walk, bike, or take a taxi to the stadium—even cars just dropping people off needed a parking pass to get anywhere near MetLife.
The majority of the remaining crowd took shuttle buses from around the New York area, but that still left a reported 28,000 people taking the train to what was hyped as "the first mass-transit Super Bowl."
Is 28,000 a lot of people?
It's a record, breaking the old one of 22,000 people who took the train to the Meadowlands for a U2 concert in 2009. So NJ Transit had never before dealt with this many people on this route, and certainly not with security this high.
Shouldn't NJ Transit have been prepared for that many people?
It's the Super Bowl, and you'd hope the folks running the trains would have seen the crowd coming—especially since round-trip tickets from New York were $10.50, compared to $51 for a shuttle bus. But NJ Transit was caught off-guard, in part to poor communication from the NFL. The league told NJ Transit to expect between 12,000 and 15,000 riders—they got double.
This was a major screw-up on the NFL's part. It was overseeing the shuttle bus program, and knew how many fans had bought tickets. It could have warned NJ Transit that more riders than expected were coming by train. When asked why it didn't, the NFL's VP of business operations gave a non-answer:
"When I do the math with the number of permits and passes that were sold to vehicles that could accommodate multiple people, really rough numbers–1,100 buses. Those buses are of different sizes. If they hold between 40 and 50 people fully occupied, do the math. So 50,000 plus in a bus expected, and 15,000 just for round numbers at the upper end on New Jersey Transit. You get to 65 (thousand). It's 82 (thousand, the capacity of MetLife Stadium). It doesn't seem like it's out of whack."
Why did the fourth busiest commuter rail system in the country collapse under a few thousand extra riders?
This requires an explanation of the station in question. There was no crush at Penn Station, the New York terminus that handled the majority of the 28,000 riders before they got to New Jersey. Secaucus Junction is just that: a junction. Check the map: it's a transfer station in, essentially, the middle of nowhere. Riders from every line get off there to wait for another train to the Meadowlands, also in the middle of nowhere.
The spur to MetLife opened five years ago, and is only used on game and event days. It's a two-track line (three at the Meadowlands station), limiting the number of trains that can be in use at any time. Even if NJ Transit had known how many riders it would have to move, the infrastructure isn't there to move them quickly enough to avoid backups at Secaucus. It's a bottleneck.
How did NJ Transit make things worse?
By not having trains in service until it was too late. Secaucus was already filled up by the time the very first train left for MetLife Stadium. This second bottleneck, according to the NFL, was because people had left New York sooner than expected. This is galling. Fans built in extra travel time, anticipating crowds, only to find themselves stuck in place. Everyone knew this was going to be a mess except the people running the trains.
Any more bottlenecks?
TSA agents and private security put riders through full airport-style security checks before they even got on the trains. This led to huge lines and cramped concourses and stairwells at Secaucus, where some fans reportedly passed out in the heat. There is no such security on normal game days, and while the league will say the Super Bowl is a particularly inviting target, fans still had to go through a second, identical security check once they got to the stadium.
How was getting home?
Even worse! Despite knowing how bad the situation had been getting to the game, NJ Transit was unable to do much to accommodate the massive crowd all trying to leave MetLife Stadium at the same time. Announcements on the scoreboard and over the PA system urged fans to stay in their seats rather than head to the overcrowded train station. Twenty buses were finally brought in around midnight, thinning the crowd by about 1,000, but NJ Transit said it still had to deal with 33,000 fans trying to get home.
It wasn't until 1 a.m., more than three hours after the end of the game, that the last fans were able to leave the Meadowlands.
So whose fault was this mess?
Everyone's! The short answer is this: NJ Transit is equipped to get fans to MetLife Stadium, but not under the unique and onerous conditions imposed by the NFL and national and local officials for the Super Bowl. NJ Transit overstated its capabilities, officials misled the league when bidding on the Super Bowl, and everyone misled the fans. This basic unpreparedness was compounded by a series of game-day errors by all parties, so there's more than enough blame to go around.