As many visitors to the New Jersey shore make their way east, they pass several red-and-yellow signs promoting Cape May Seashore Lines, a tourist attraction for people seeking old-fashioned fun at the shore.
But patience is wearing thin as mayors, business owners and tourists wonder when and if the railway's trains will be running this year, despite an investment of more than $1.3 million in public money.
Tony Macrie, president and general manager of Cape May Seashore Lines, said a bad winter is to blame for missing a number of early events, including an Easter celebration in the Richland section of Buena Vista Township and the start of the summer tourism season on Memorial Day weekend.
"We just came off of the harshest winter we have ever gotten," Macrie said, noting that all of the maintenance on the cars and tracks has to be done outdoors. "We really lost a lot of time."
Macrie's trains, and the railroad tracks they run on, are funded through his own money as well as transportation grants, which were awarded to Macrie in return for freight cars to use the tracks - if necessary.
In 2003, his rail line received $851,355 from the New Jersey Department of Transportation State Rail Plan to rehabilitate a section of track between Tuckahoe and Woodbine as a way to open up the tracks to freight cars.
An additional $500,000 in public money went toward establishing a line to a local propane supplier and constructing a public team track, or secondary track.
Macrie said he has been in touch with freight lines about using the tracks - though that has not yet happened, meaning the line has not generated any income, except for when it makes one of its infrequent runs.
Additionally, the state regularly pays to maintain some aspects of the rail line, such crossing lights and bars as part of a state plan throughout New Jersey's railroad system.
As far as the cost of operating the trains since 1986, Macrie doesn't have a specific figure - he said it's been a "labor of love" and that a lot of the project has been done through volunteering - but he guessed that he's spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the project over that time, and possibly more.
There are two different rail lines. One runs from Richland to Tuckahoe in Upper Township. The other runs through a region of Cape May County that extends through Middle Township, down through Lower Township and into Cape May.
The trains only ran a couple of times last year, including the annual Santa Express, which runs annually in November and December.
If Macrie sticks to his schedule, he said the trains are "likely to be ready in the middle of July."
As of Friday, the rail line's website has not been updated with ticket information for 2010.
Macrie's trains were in the news last year, when he moved a couple of deteriorating trains that were sitting idle in the Rio Grande section of Middle Township.
The trains were moved, and once they were, Middle Township sent Macrie a letter saying that the township "supports efforts to secure funding for the rehabilitation of the tracks, signals, switches, right-of-way and other improvements to the rail line."
Many people are anxious to see the trains running again, especially since many are left wondering when the trains will pass through.
"It's one of the most popular questions (we get)," said Chuck Chiarello, mayor of Buena Vista Township. "People really like the trains."
Over the past few years, the Richland section of the township was revitalized in an effort to draw tourists to the area. New shops and restaurants opened in the downtown along Route 40, and all of them are centered around the train station where the seashore line stops.
A billboard that appears on Route 40 has changed multiple times in the last couple of years, but each time it has prominently featured pictures of the trains running through town.
Chiarello hoped to have an Easter event featuring the Easter bunny much like the Santa Express does around Christmastime. That was canceled due to the trains not being ready, and Chiarello expects that they will not be ready in time for another town-wide event happening on June 20, 2010.
"There's still a great deal of interest," Chiarello said. "But it's been very, very frustrating."
Towns and villages with stations frequently get asked questions about the trains, even though they have nothing to do with whether or not they run.
At the Historic Cold Spring Village on Route 9 in Lower Township, the operators of the recreated 18th and 19th century town had to leave a message on their answering service saying that they could not provide updates or information on the trains.
The message was prompted by many people asking - sometimes, not in the nicest manner - and the village not having any updates for them, since the trains have not passed through in a number of years, according to Anne Salvatore, executive director at Cold Spring Village.
While they want to avoid questions about the trains, Salvatore said that visitors to the village would get excited every time the trains came through.
"We would love it if they came back," Salvatore said. However, Salvatore also said she would be very surprised if that happened.
Situated by the train station in Richland is a building maintained by the Patcong Valley Model Railroad club. The club moved its large model railroad setup from Egg Harbor Township to Richland in order to be closer to the railroad.
"We have 6,000 to 10,000 people coming out to our display every year," said John Dunn, president of the club.
Dunn said attendance to the club's display has not been affected by the trains not running as frequently as promised, but he said that he frequently runs into people who visit the station and are disappointed by the absence of the train.
Dunn, who has been friends with Macrie for decades, said that Macrie's effort to keep older trains running and get new generations of families interested in the railroad history of New Jersey is something that Dunn and many other railroad enthusiasts admire.
"It would be very disappointing to see anything happen to the train," Dunn said.
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