NEWARK — About 30 South Jersey residents who want service restored on the Atlantic City Rail Line took a long bus ride Wednesday afternoon to make their demands clear at a NJ Transit board meeting.
“We need the rail line back as soon as possible. Atlantic City is hurting, people are hurting, the convention business is hurting,” said Atlantic County Freeholder John Risley. “We need results, not excuses. I’d like to leave here with definite timelines and a plan of action as to what’s going to happen.”
The bus was sponsored by state Sen. Chris Brown, who could not make the trip but gave everyone a pep talk as they met at the Garden State Parkway’s Galloway Township rest stop. The trip was organized by SNJ Today weather forecaster Nick Pittman.
At the board meeting, Donna Balara, of Ventnor, said she invested in a small business in Atlantic City and her husband works in Philadelphia.
“We need this rail line. My husband drives to Lindenwold, takes the High Speed Line and then walks to his office. It takes him two hours,” Balera said. “That adds four hours to his day. It’s not healthy for our family.”
The line’s service has been suspended since September, and promises to restore it by early 2019 have not been kept. Those using the line, which ends in Philadelphia but makes stops in Absecon, Egg Harbor City and Hammonton in Atlantic County, now must take a much-longer bus route.
NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett seemed to be looking down at his cellphone most of the time, as one person after another spoke. After all speakers finished, he said the agency remains “fully committed to beginning to restore service in the second quarter 2019.”
And he insisted NJ Transit would wait for approval of its new schedule from the Federal Railroad Administration before restoring service, even though the FRA has said its approval is not needed.
Corbett also acknowledged there are locomotive engineer shortages and equipment shortages that are holding up renewal of service.
“We are providing 99 percent reliable service. But we fully appreciate if you are part of the remaining 1 percent, it has 100 percent impact on you,” Corbett said.
Atlantic County Freeholders Amy Gatto and Risley attended the meeting to emphasize the route closure is harming South Jersey’s economy. During Tuesday’s freeholder meeting, the board passed a resolution asking the NJ Transit board to provide definite dates for reopening the service.
“We have been told information and given so-called explanations that have told us nothing and have not held up,” said Gatto.
The public was first told the line would reopen in January, then March, now sometime in the second quarter, Gatto said.
“For the state, who has oversight over the success of Atlantic City, that is senseless,” said Gatto. “It’s really working against everything we are all working towards, for the success of the city and the county.”
Absecon’s Jim Cottrell made the trip on behalf of his daughter, who commutes by train to Thomas Jefferson University as a student.
The bus that has substituted for the train takes much longer and is less convenient, he said.
Joan Costello, of Galloway Township, said she runs excursions for seniors from the Four Seasons community at Smithville, where she lives, and has always relied on the train.
The group has been unable to see important shows at the Philadelphia Art Museum without it, she said.
“But I really feel bad for the people who rely on it for work,” said Costello.
“I’m speaking out of sheer frustration and utter shock you believe there are people out there who will eat up your information and take it as gospel,” said Pittman, of Mays Landing. “We need you to recognize that South Jersey does exist.”
For Libby Schuck, of Seaville in Upper Township, the issue is much more personal. Her husband is a locomotive engineer and has been living apart from her in North Jersey, where he was reassigned while the Atlantic City line is shut down.
He does not even know how long they will need a second home, she said.
“Not only do we have to live separately, but we have to pay double to live,” Schuck said.
Atlantic County Surrogate James Curcio, of Hammonton, said the line’s closing has been damaging to the entire region, but especially to the convention business in Atlantic City.
“There is a beautiful train station built next to the convention center,” said Curcio. “It is a sickening sight to see it lay idle. There was a car show last weekend, a boat show coming up soon. I’ve been there when trains empty out a tremendous amount of people coming in. Are they driving now or not coming at all?”