A.C. “Tony” Macrie thought 30 years ago that he could run a viable private railroad company in Atlantic and Cape May counties, and he still thinks he can.
Every success has preceded a setback for the founder and president of Cape May Seashore Lines. His trains have transported tens of thousands of passengers, but his operation has not met its grand expectations.
“Every time we hit a bump in the road, it was just frustrating, but no one’s ever said, especially not me, that we’re giving up on it,” the 59-year-old Hammonton resident said.
His short-line railroad offers limited seasonal rides on antique diesel trains, attracting mainly tourists, families and enthusiasts.
The schedules have been irregular. At times trains ran daily, other times only on holidays and for special events such as weddings and private parties.
At various points in the history of the company, it was hailed as the solution for reviving track-side communities such as Richland in Buena Vista Township, Tuckahoe in Upper Township and Woodbine.
It was supposed to solve the traffic and parking problems in Cape May. It was even envisioned as one day giving Cape May County residents rail access again to Atlantic City and Philadelphia, a service that ceased in 1981.
None of that has happened. Most of it not even close.
But those were mainly goals projected by others. Macrie said he just wanted to keep train travel alive in the region, and steadily, stubbornly, he has done that.
He created his company in 1990, restarted limited rail service in Middle Township in 1996, continued to Cape May in 1999 and expanded again to Richland in 2005.
The Richland-to-Tuckahoe service is all that’s currently running. It’s called the “The Santa Express,” a recreational trip with Santa Claus on board to greet children for a two-hour round trip that attracts hundreds each weekend in December.
Macrie said he wants to expand the service again next year. It seems like he says that every year, but it also sounds like he means it every year.
“We were a little overzealous,” he said, recalling when the whole project started, “but not unrealistic.”
Macrie first proposed creating Cape May Seashore Lines in 1984, but it was another 12 years before his first train carried passengers.
He had to go through immense amounts of paperwork, registering with the Federal Railroad Administration, signing an agreement with NJ Transit to operate on its tracks and securing grants and investors to buy trains and rehabilitate the lines. He also spent untold amounts of his own money.
“If I didn’t step up and go to the state of New Jersey and put a real solid plan together, this railroad would have been extinct,” he said. “You would have been hiking the right-of-ways today.”
Still, every time he moved his plan forward, it also went backward somehow.
A tugboat hit and damaged the Cape May Canal bridge in 1992, requiring expensive repairs and delaying service to Cape Island.
He started running trains in Middle Township in 1996, then residents complained about the noise from train whistles.
After the canal bridge was fixed and trains started running to Cape May in 1999, boaters complained about the swing bridge closing.
There were minor collisions with cars. Storms eroded the soil under tracks. There is a constant fight against weeds and trees growing in the rail beds.
Most recently, metal thieves stole tens of thousands of dollars worth of steel materials from 1.3 miles of track, cutting off train access through Dennis Township.
“We’ve managed to overcome these obstacles,” Macrie said. “We’re still here.”
Not everyone believes Macrie is simply the victim of bad luck. Some believe he has been a bad manager.
The most vocal critic, by far, has been Mike Voll, a former Middle Township mayor and current Lower Township manager.
A couple of years ago, the company and Middle Township were engaged in an extended dispute in which the government thought vandalized trains stored in Rio Grande were a blight on the community. The Township Committee demanded they be removed, Macrie sued the committee for harassment, the case was later settled and the cars were moved.
In March, Voll called for an investigation into the rail line. He primarily wanted to know how it has spent millions in public funding to repair and maintain its tracks.
NJ Transit owns all of the right-of-ways for the railroad. Macrie signed a 30-year lease in 1999 to operate on the tracks. The lease requires that he submit annual financial records to the agency each year.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, undertook the investigation. He found the company spent $5.6 million in federal and state funding for its intended purposes of restoring rails and improving safety.
The only thing he found Macrie guilty of was being overly optimistic about the time and money it would take to make the trains run.
“The real issue is communication with businesses and officials,” Van Drew said.
Voll said there remain issues with work needed to improve crossings. He has long complained it’s a traffic hazard for vehicles to stop at crossings when trains rarely travel through.
He said he is waiting on the state Department of Transportation to exempt crossings so school busses, trucks and other motorists do not have to stop. The exemptions could be temporary, but he doubts trains will ever roll through Lower Township again.
“It’s been sad, because it could be a great thing if it had been done right,” Voll said.
For his part, Van Drew said he remains unsure of the venture’s future.
“The jury is out,” he said. “It has the potential to be successful. It has been successful at times, and there have been some failures. It really has had some tough breaks.”
Macrie is essentially his company’s only employee, but he has had plenty of volunteers and supporters through the years.
Merchants in Tuckahoe, business owners in Richland, the people at Historic Cold Spring Village in Lower Township and railroad historians praise him.
Woodbine Mayor Pikolycky is a longtime backer. His small borough once thrived because of the railroad, and he sees potential for a revival.
In fact, the line’s only new track is a spur off the main route to two industrial facilities in Woodbine. There was initial interest from those companies about freight delivery, but nothing more has developed.
Macrie said the business possibility is still there. So did Pikolycky.
“It’s always been my thought that that particular infrastructure is going to make its way back,” the mayor said. “The infrastructure’s there. It’s a shame to abandon it.”
The company makes about half of its money from passenger trips and half from storing cars for other railroads that are not using them, Macrie said.
He has also started another company, New Jersey Seashore Lines, that is planning to start a new freight service between Woodland Township, Burlington County, and Lakehurst, Ocean County
As for his passenger excursions, Macrie needs to repair the tracks in Dennis and fix signals in Lower to move trains to Cape May again. He is soliciting estimates on the repair work.
This past summer, he was able to get “speeders” — small track maintenance cars — to Cape May because they weigh much less than a train car.
They were popular, but Macrie stressed his main goal is getting a locomotive back there next summer.
Trains once also ran to every other shore point in Cape May County, but all of those tracks have long been abandoned.
The disuse of another track section is on the horizon as the B.L. England power plant in Beesleys Point switches to natural gas from coal and oil. A pipeline will take the place of the freight cars that carry fuel there, possibly by 2016.
Macrie said he’s determined not to let the rest of the county’s tracks fade into history. Like most years, he thinks he can operate more trains next year.
“That’s why we’re in business, to operate trains,” he said. “We’re here for the long run.”
Contact Lee Procida:
Follow @ACPressLee on Twitter