ATLANTIC CITY — Commuters catching a train Tuesday morning out of Atlantic City were approached by a smiling woman who politely extended her hand and introduced herself as Ronnie Hakim.
This meet-and-greet between rail passengers and NJ Transit’s new executive director was cordial enough, but there were serious undertones, too.
Hakim, who took charge March 1 as head of the bus and rail agency, insists she wants to hear directly from riders as she develops ways for NJ Transit to offer better service and be more responsive to its customers.
At the same time, she acknowledged the challenges ahead in trying to satisfy customers’ demands within NJ Transit’s financial constraints and its aging infrastructure.
“I have to be a realist,” she said.
Hakim heard both complaints and compliments from passengers at the Atlantic City rail station before she boarded an 8:53 a.m. outbound train. Some praised NJ Transit’s staff as friendly and helpful. Others said the rail station is clean, but tends to be a hangout for the homeless. Most told Hakim that they want more trains added to the commuter line that runs between Atlantic City and Philadelphia.
“My gripe is not enough trains coming to Atlantic City. We need more trains heading in both directions,” Atlantic City commuter William Check said.
Check, a regular rider, said he wants trains to run every hour on the Atlantic City line. Currently, riders sometimes have to wait more than two hours between trains.
“I was doing this in 1999 and there are the same problems now that existed in 1999,” Check said. “Basically, there are not enough trains to and from Atlantic City.”
LTK Engineering Services, a consultant for NJ Transit, has recommended the number of trains be increased to about one per hour to boost ridership. Only 12 trains per day run in each direction on the Atlantic City line now. Ridership would nearly double if NJ Transit increased service to 20 round trips daily, LTK concluded.
Hakim said she would consider the possibility of adding more trains, but made no commitments. She mentioned the possibility of closely coordinating NJ Transit’s bus and rail routes in Atlantic City to fill in any gaps.
“One of the things we have to look at is demand,” she said of having enough ridership to justify more trains.
Chris Wilson, a maintenance worker at Tropicana Casino and Resort, also urged NJ Transit to add more trains to make the Atlantic City line more convenient. He recently began commuting by rail to his Atlantic City job.
Wilson catches the train in Egg Harbor City, close to his home in the Laureldale section of Hamilton Township. He suggested that NJ Transit should set aside more room on the trains for passengers’ bicycles. He explained that a seizure condition prevents him from driving, so he would like to ride his bike on the final leg to work and his home once he gets off the train.
“I’m looking to incorporate my bike on the train,” Wilson said. “But I’m a little apprehensive about bringing my bike on the trains because there may not be enough room.”
Carl Muller, of Philadelphia, met Hakim while waiting to catch a train back to his home. He had visited Atlantic City for a casino trip, along with his mother, Teresa Muller, of Philadelphia, and his sister, Maureen Ross, of Pine Hill, Camden County.
Carl Muller said he wants NJ Transit to be more vigilant about chasing the homeless people out of the train station. He questioned whether train passengers can ever feel completely safe as long as the homeless continue to sleep there.
“If you come off the train late at night or early in the morning, that’s when you see the homeless,” he said.
However, Teresa Muller characterized the train station as clean and safe.
Passengers’ complaints about the homeless, the need for more trains and even creating more space for bikes suggest that Hakim has a lot to do in her quest to improve NJ Transit’s operations.
She has been holding a series of meet-and-greets throughout NJ Transit’s bus and rail network to introduce herself to commuters. She met with bus and rail passengers during Tuesday’s visit to Atlantic City. Later in the day, she traveled by train to Camden for one of NJ Transit’s “We Are Listening” customer forums.
Hakim stressed that NJ Transit has a system for prioritizing complaints and suggestions from customers and following up on them, so that passengers won’t feel ignored. One top goal for her is to take advantage of smartphone technology to create better communications with passengers, particularly if a problem develops with one of their trains or buses.
“Their big concern is on-time performance,” she said.
Hakim is shifting from roads to rails and buses. Before she was named NJ Transit’s chief executive, she had headed the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, the agency that runs the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway. She will earn $261,000 annually at NJ Transit, the same as her predecessor.
Rail advocates say they are impressed with Hakim’s early efforts to confront problems and reform an agency still struggling to recover from a series of blunders under its former leadership. Prior to Hakim’s arrival, NJ Transit was harshly criticized by state lawmakers for parking its trains in areas flooded during Hurricane Sandy and for underestimating the huge crowds that used its trains to travel to the Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium.
“Ms. Hakim is making all the right moves and I think it will boost the morale of New Jersey Transit staff and customers,” said Les Wolff, a director with the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers, an advocacy group. “Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Ms. Hakim is off to a good start.”
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