South Jersey residents are calling for NJ Transit to not only reopen the Atlantic City Rail Line, but expand its service to help the region’s struggling economy and provide a more eco-friendly transit option.
“The train schedule needs to be improved. In order to get ridership you have to have a transportation system you can count on,” said Joan Costello, of Smithville in Galloway Township. Costello leads a senior citizen group to Philadelphia for cultural events that only uses public transportation and prefers the train to the slower bus that can get stuck in traffic.
The agency has only to look to its own research for a roadmap on how to do that.
In 2009, NJ Transit funded a $735,000 study by LTK Engineering Services of New York City to look at ways to increase ridership on the line.
The report took five years to complete. It said daily ridership could double to about 6,000 if NJ Transit simply increased trips to about one per hour, or 20 per day, rather than the 12 per day at the time. It could almost triple ridership, the report said, if it also made infrastructure improvements such as adding a $25 million to $30 million train station with connections to Atlantic City International Airport in Egg Harbor Township.
“Atlantic City is worth the investment,” said Ventnor resident and Atlantic City business owner Donna Balara, whose husband commutes to Philadelphia. “There is a lot of economic advantage to bringing people to Atlantic City and having people commute back to Philadelphia for jobs — and living in Atlantic County.”
Costello and Balara were among about 30 South Jerseyans who traveled to Newark by bus for a NJ Transit board meeting last week, to ask that the Atlantic City Rail Line quickly resume. The line has been closed since September and NJ Transit officials have most recently said the line will reopen in the second quarter of the year.
Many also asked for improved service to increase ridership.
The LTK report estimated it would cost $216 million for the locomotives, passenger cars and track and station upgrades to run 20 round trips per day. In addition, the rail line’s annual operating cost would increase from $22.9 million to $29.4 million for expanded service, according to Press accounts at the time.
But the study came out in 2014, just as Atlantic City was suffering its worst economic setbacks, with four casinos closing and the loss of thousands of jobs. There was no money to invest in the line, which was losing ridership, NJ Transit said at the time.
Now some leaders and commuters are asking that the report’s recommendations be reconsidered.
“The trains have been cut back to bare bones. ... It really is a ghost of what it could be,” said Atlantic County Utilities Authority Executive Director Rick Dovey.
More frequent, dependable train service could be a game changer, allowing people to live in Atlantic County and commute to Philadelphia for better paying jobs, he said, while benefiting the economy here.
And it would help reduce traffic jams and wear and tear on roads and bridges.
“It would give folks the opportunity to conveniently and economically not drive a single-occupancy vehicle, which you are pretty much forced to do if you live in Atlantic County,” Dovey said.
Freeholder Frank Formica, who is running for the state Assembly, said it’s ridiculous that NJ Transit skimps on the Atlantic City Rail Line, when there is a $2.6 billion a year casino industry here that feeds millions of tax dollars to the state.
Nick Pittman, of Mays Landing, who organized the bus trip to the NJ Transit board meeting and is also a weather forecaster, said it doesn’t seem NJ Transit wants to keep the Atlantic City Rail Line, because it loses more money than other lines.
“But with the right schedule in place and the proper management of the line, it can be a profitable line,” Pittman said. “It is vital to not only students and patients of hospitals, but to the business structure of Atlantic City, to bring people into the area.”
Atlantic City was founded as a vacation spot for railroad passengers from Philadelphia and New York in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Atlantic City line had been dark for decades when U.S. Rep. James Florio got funding to resume it in the 1980s.
But it went from a double track to a single track line, said Dovey, which restricted the number of trains it could run.
Railroads aren’t just for vacationers, anymore, but are also for commuters and people seeking easy access to Philadelphia. And if Atlantic County wants to attract more people to live here — especially well-educated people — a rail line is important.
“Today people are trying to relocate into places that have rail access and mass transit access,” said Dovey. “Hammonton, Egg Harbor City, Absecon as hubs are more attractive for people in two income families — one of whom may work in Atlantic City and the other in Philadelphia.”
But if there aren’t enough trains to match up with the PATCO High Speed Line in Lindenwold and other trains for connections, it won’t work, he said.
“We would love to see expanded service,” said Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson.
But he also said there is likely to be some loss of ridership when the line resumes, because the closure trained people to find other ways to commute. So NJ Transit will need to take steps to get the original commuters back.
Levinson is also suspicious there was more going on with the Atlantic City Rail Line shutdown than anyone has so far admitted.
“There’s a reason this occurred,” Levinson said. “I don’t know why, but ... they have repeated the same lines over and over and over. The same preposterous assertions they continue to make.”
He was referring to the reasons NJ Transit has given for why the line was shut down rather than just cut back while safety equipment called Positive Train Control was installed, why the service didn’t start up again by the first deadline of January, and why the deadline kept changing from March to possibly June.
NJ Transit has said the delay was due to needing Federal Railroad Administration approval on a new schedule, but the FRA said no such approval is required to resume Atlantic City service.
NJ Transit has also said there is a shortage of engineers and equipment, but has not explained why the Atlantic City line has to absorb such a long shutdown, rather than making cutbacks elsewhere for a time.