WrestleMania 35 packed more than 80,000 frenzied fans into MetLife Stadium for a show that ran two hours longer than NJ Transit says it expected, ending in a crowded post-midnight fiasco that left angry customers waiting hours in the rain for trains.
Twitter exploded. “[…] Pisspoor performance from @PhilMurphyNJ,” one tweet read.
On Monday, Gov. Phil Murphy said, “They weren’t told what was going on. And it’s completely, utterly dog-ate-my-homework unacceptable. Period,” adding, “We’re fixing this. We’re going to learn from this and I’ll be damned if it happens again.”
It has happened before — after the 2014 Super Bowl, when NJ Transit couldn’t cope with the departing crowd, much to then Gov. Chris Christie’s chagrin. And it’s likely to happen again, predicts transit expert Martin Robins.
“You don’t want governor after governor coming forward saying, ‘Oh, this is a disgrace. How can this happen? Why can’t we do better?’ So many things are built into failure at this particular operation that problems are going to arise. It’s kind of amazing that it does as well as it does for an ordinary event like a football game,” he said.
Robins said NJ Transit’s Meadowlands operation runs precariously, with no margin for error.
He described it as “An operation that lacks robustness. Things can go wrong very easily. And it takes an extraordinary amount of planning and cooperation for things to work out in case there are missteps that might occur,” Robins said.
And missteps abounded last weekend. Because WrestleMania ran long, some NJ Transit crews couldn’t work past their federal 12-hour safety cutoff. Because of crew shortages, re-staffing posed a problem. NJ Transit fumbled.
“They have buses. What they don’t have are drivers and engineers. Engineers go dead after 12 hours, they can’t work anymore. There must have been some kind of a failure of communication somewhere,” said David Peter Alan, chair of the Lackawanna Commuter Coalition.
“We look at logistics and plan these things out with them, but obviously certain events run — football games are easier because of the timing of the schedule — but some events, concerts, if they want to run longer, you know if Bruce Springsteen wants to play for two hours longer, then we have to figure out a way that we can accommodate that,” said NJ Transit executive director Kevin Corbett.
But inadequate infrastructure also cripples NJ Transit’s Meadowlands spur, which features just a single track. Trains arrive head-first, and then shift into reverse to head back toward Secaucus Junction. The system can handle 8,000 to 10,000 riders per hour.
With the debut of the American Dream mall expected to draw big crowds this summer, and the World Cup scheduled for 2026, NJ Transit is facing an overload that Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) suggests can only be fixed by building a second return track.
“If you were able to complete that loop, that also provides another commuter lot, potentially,” he said. “This is clearly something that we, as a state, should be looking at as investment in an infrastructure for moving people to and from our sports complex.”
But that would be expensive, maybe $400 million. NJ Transit says it doesn’t have the capital budget for that, especially if the trains only run for major events.
“You have to limit what you spend to what benefit it will provide. If you don’t have enough trains, then you add buses. But you got to work with whoever the sponsor is to know you’ve got the right times in,” said former Long Island Rail Road Director of Planning Joe Clift.
Wednesday night, Transportation Commissioner and NJ Transit Board chair Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti apologized and promised better communication.
“We are working with MetLife, our partners at MetLife Stadium, to refine our strategy in order to try to address these unforeseen circumstances or unexpected circumstances. But again, from the dais, from the board, we do want to make certain that we extend those apologies to those customers,” said Gutierrez-Scaccetti.
NJ Transit has got more engineers in training, but staff shortages continue to plague the agency even as it plans its next big event — the summer commuting season.