The biggest story of WrestleMania 35 might have been just how damn long the show was, a whopping seven and a half hours, including the “kickoff” show. The card ran until just before 12:30 a.m., which impacted everyone watching both live and at home, but it caused a very specific set of problems for those relying on public transit to get home from MetLife Stadium. With the Meadowlands Sports Complex sitting in the middle of, more or less, a swamp, and MetLife Stadium being the biggest venue in the New York market, there is special New Jersey Transit (NJT for short) train service for events with 50,000 or more people expected to attend. At WrestleMania, though, there was a major hiccup: Most of the scheduled trains had already passed and it was late enough that the remaining ones ran at a reduced frequency. With a sold-out stadium and at least 10,000 people wanting to take the train, this resulted in fans being stranded in the rain as late as 3:00 a.m. and chants of “NO TRAIN, WE RIOT!”
NJT publicly blamed WWE for providing an incorrect end time for the event, which WWE denied. I filed an Open Public Record Act request to the state of New Jersey for all documents relating to the train service for WrestleMania 35, and the documents finally showed up this week.
Before we get to what’s in those records, some additional background: The morning after WrestleMania, New Jersey Transit told NJ.com that the main culprit for the transportation issues was that the show ran two hours later than what they were told was the planned end time, 10:30 p.m. “The primary factor contributing to the post-event delays was the WWE’s decision to extend the event to 12:30 a.m., which had significant operational impacts on the evening,” spokesman Jim Smith explained at the time in a statement. “NJ Transit was not informed of this decision until late last night.”
Citing “federal requirements limiting train crew hours,” Smith said that there was no real way for NJT to adjust on the fly. (New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, meanwhile, chided NJT for not communicating any of this to the crowd outside the stadium.) The previous WrestleMania at MetLife Stadium, 2013’s WrestleMania 29, ended closer to 11:00 p.m. (WWE pay-per-view shows, especially WrestleMania, have gotten longer since then.) WWE, though, denied that there had been such a change...sort of.
In a characteristically brief statement, a WWE spokesperson told NJ.com that “Just like other sports and entertainment events, we do not advertise an end time.” Even at the time, without additional information, this was difficult to take at face value. There were reports that the show could run close to eight hours total as early as almost a year in advance, the WWE Network schedule had the show ending at 12:30 a.m. about a week out, and the opening scene of the “Becky Lynch: The Man” episode of their WWE 24 documentary series shows Lynch positing that her main-event match would go on close to 1:00 a.m.
In general, WWE meticulously timing out their TV shows and major events is not exactly a secret. Leaked format sheets have always listed segment times and veteran WWE producer Bruce Prichard has often spoken on his podcast of having to adjust shows on the fly when certain segments were “light” or “heavy” on time. WWE wrestler Natalya told me in a 2015 interview that her classic match with Charlotte Flair at the inaugural NXT TakeOver event the previous year was notable because she was told to take as much time as she needed. (That was a streaming-only special, though, while WrestleMania is still available on traditional pay-per-view, requiring specific windows for both the rental of satellite time and the PPV channels’ programming blocks.)
So, what do the records produced by New Jersey Transit show us?
At a minimum, the response—which the record specialist on the case told Deadspin included everything with the word “WrestleMania” other than security protocols—confirms that NJT staff was working under the impression that the show ended at 10:30 p.m. The NJT “operating plan” for WrestleMania, for example, notes that service from the stadium would increase from once every 30 minutes to once every nine-to-20 minutes starting with a 10:40 p.m. train. At 10:40 p.m., a non-wrestling segment with John Cena returning in his old rapper persona to taunt Elias had just ended and there were still four matches left to go. Two of those, Triple H vs. Batista and the women’s title main event, would be expected to go long and both did pass the 20-minute mark bell to bell on top of having long ring entrances.
NJT’s expectations were more explicit in emails from the day of the event. At 10:38 p.m., the NJT Police Office of Emergency Management sent out its first “spot report,” saying that “WrestleMania end time has officially been pushed back to 1230am.”
The next update didn’t come until the second spot report at 1:38 a.m., over an hour after the end of the show, which described the mess:
The next report came just 18 minutes later:
At 2:40 a.m., there was a call for one more train because fans were still waiting. The final train left the Meadowlands at 3:00 a.m.
An “Event Log” from the bus side of NJT operations, detailing how the night went for them, added some additional clarity about what exactly went down. It starts at 10:30 p.m., with a note stating that “WWE Event will run late. Crowds will be let out of MetLife ... after final match at 12:30 am.” Relevant staff were notified of the issue in the next 15 minutes, and the next update came after the show ended.
The first two trains left at capacity (1,040 passengers each according to the log) at 12:37 a.m. and 12:45 a.m., only for a request to be put out for buses at 12:52 a.m. because “3,000 to 4,000 people can be seen in the queue, and Rail cannot have another train to MetLife for 1 hour.” Just 12 minutes later, that estimate was amended to “7,000 to 8,000 people,” and two minutes after that, at 1:06 a.m., Deputy General Manager George Piper denied the bus request, “stating a handful of buses arriving in an hour and a half will only bring confusion to the situation.” The queue estimate was amended again at 1:13 a.m., to “11,000 to 12,000 people,” resulting in another request for buses, but that was quickly denied, as well.
None of the documents explain how New Jersey Transit got the idea that the show would end at 10:30 p.m. when the rest of the world knew that it would end at around 12:30 a.m. As of this writing, an email to MetLife Stadium’s media relations contact asking for details on who relayed the incorrect time has not been answered. WWE, asked for comment on the information in NJ Transit’s records and the information contradicting their April statement, said that their statement has not changed.
Clearly there was a communication breakdown here, but it’s difficult to figure out where or why exactly it took place. In spite of its weird, dodging statement after the fact, WWE was not exactly being shy about the show being set to end at about 12:30 a.m. If it hadn’t put out a suspiciously disingenuous statement, there wouldn’t really be any reason to suspect that the earlier time was communicated from that side. That said, there doesn’t appear to be any reason that explains why anyone would have supplied New Jersey Transit with an end time earlier than that of the previous WrestleMania at that venue. If the mistake was to assume was to end at about 11:00 p.m., like in 2013, it would have make a lot more sense than what actually happened.
Gov. Murphy said at an April press conference that he was going to talk to NJT executive director Kevin Corbett to get to the bottom of the train and scheduling issues, but there was no public follow-up. A spokesman for the governor’s office told Deadspin that the meeting did take place, mainly focusing on getting contingency plans in place for future MetLife Stadium events, like having standby crews in place. The spokesman cited the BTS concerts from mid-May as showing the improvements that have been made: NJT had warned ticket holders of potential two-hour wait times—even with a show expected to end on time, but the trains got the K-pop fans out of the stadium at their designed capacity, with 11,000 people transported in the first 90 minutes. We’ve still yet to see a test of NJT’s claimed improvements for events that run late.
Regardless, there’s no excuse for what happened in April. This was a meticulously timed entertainment event, no different than a concert, and one where the general public could find the planned end time at least a week in advance. That should be simple to coordinate a train schedule for, and that it wasn’t means that one side—NJ Transit, WWE, MetLife Stadium—or, quite possibly, multiple sides, screwed up big-time.
The full documents produced by NJ Transit are below.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. He writes the Babyface v. Heel subscription blog/newsletter and co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com/everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.