This time it’s real.
The Atlantic City Rail Line is running again.
“It’s been a long time,” said the Rev. Janet Hewes Gasbarro, 71, of Absecon, who was nominated for the NJ Transit board in March. “I hope commuters come back.”
Gasbarro planned to ride the line to Philadelphia with her husband Sunday for a Mother’s Day breakfast.
Sunday marked the first day that’s been possible since the line closed in September for the installation of federally mandated safety equipment, as delays and obfuscation from NJ Transit bred anger and confusion in the public.
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It’s been a long eight months.
Frustrated commuters forced to take the bus with a 25 percent discount or carpool screamed at executives in public meetings. Elected officials looking to give their constituents answers wrote blistering letters to the agency’s brass. And the reopening of the line was pushed back multiple times from the original early 2019 timetable.
“I think it’s great it’s gonna start running on Sunday,” said Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic. “But, quite frankly, we shouldn’t have had to scream and yell to make this happen.”
With the reopening Sunday, many who use the line for work and other reasons were eager to get back on a reliable schedule. Still, some elected officials and riders have expressed concerns about a possible dip in ridership stemming from the extended closure.
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The line’s schedule was adjusted to include earlier train times to accommodate commuters, but the possibility remains that some former riders have found new jobs or an easier commute in driving.
“The people that I spoke to, there’s very few of them that are coming back,” said Carol Stephens, 60, of Galloway Township, who rode the line for 28 years to her paralegal job in Camden. “It’s a shame.”
Assemblymen Mazzeo and John Armato, also D-Atlantic, said an advertising push could help make up for lost time.
“We have never seen an advertisement for the train that goes from Philadelphia to Atlantic City,” Armato said. “They have to market this a lot better.”
Annual ridership on the line dropped from 1.38 million in 2011 to less than 1 million in 2017, according to NJ Transit. It was down another 4.1% in 2018 before the service was suspended.
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NJ Transit needs to make it clear the line is a “worthwhile” commuting option, Mazzeo said, “so the ridership we lost (during the shutdown) will come back to the train again.”
Stephens isn’t going anywhere, at least. The new schedule — which moves two new run times to the morning and axes late-night runs — works for her. Carpooling was expensive, and the bus ride felt interminable.
“I prefer the train because I don’t want to put the miles on my car, and it’s also cheaper,” she said.
The release of the new schedule accompanied Gov. Phil Murphy’s announcement that the line would open May 12, instead of the previously announced May 24. It was a blip of good press for the agency after a long winter battling criticism alleging it mishandled the implementation of safety mechanisms that were first mandated years ago.
“As part of an effort to provide more reliable and frequent service for Atlantic City area commuters, the Atlantic City Rail Line will resume with an improved schedule to better match service with customer demand, while maintaining the same number of trains in each direction from the prior schedule,” said NJ Transit spokeswoman Nancy Snyder.
Criticism focused on the fact that only the Atlantic City line and the Princeton Dinky were shut down, even though all trains needed to have positive train control technology installed.
Some critics thought the shutdown was a cover for a permanent closure that would eventually be announced due to shrinking ridership.
It seemed the anger was fizzling out with the reopening day approaching. Then, on May 7, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that sidelined conductors racked up more than $164,000 in overtime pay while the trains sat dormant. NJ Transit said the workers were needed to assist passengers at stations who were unfamiliar with the bus.
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Stevens said she often saw conductors stationed at Lindenwold sitting in their cars. When she requested help, she said, they were of no use. The news concerned officials, too.
“It didn’t seem like a great use of their workforce,” Armato said.
Others are simply relieved.
Robert McNulty, 68, of Egg Harbor Township, is a veteran who took the train periodically to the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Philadelphia for medical treatment. He had to arrange rides over the winter but plans to take the train to the city May 17.
“It’s long overdue, it’s long overdue,” McNulty said. “It’s a lot easier to go by train to Philadelphia, especially if you have any kind of ailments. You don’t feel like driving yourself.”