After spending the night at Bally's Atlantic City, Sue Newman and her boyfriend, Joe Hawkins, decided to walk to the rail station to catch the 8:53 a.m. train to Philadelphia en route to their home in Levittown, Pa. Unfamiliar with Atlantic City's streets, they got lost during what should have been a short walk and missed the early train. The next train didn't leave until 11:18 a.m., forcing them to wait more than two hours.
"It would be nice if they had a train running more than every two hours," Newman said.
NJ Transit, the state bus and train operator, hopes to eliminate such complaints with its plan to generate more ridership on New Jersey's most sparsely used rail line. Key to boosting ridership on the Atlantic City line — now used by about 2,800 passengers per day — is a new $40 million transfer station in Pennsauken, Camden County, that will let commuters switch to the River Line that runs between Camden and Trenton.
The new connection gives riders the option of traveling by rail between Atlantic City and Trenton with relative ease. NJ Transit predicts the Pennsauken station will generate an extra 530 passengers each weekday for the Atlantic City line within two years.
A new marketing campaign was launched in conjunction with the grand opening of the Pennsauken station in October that included radio commercials, print ads, billboards and fliers distributed on trains and buses, NJ Transit spokesman John Durso said. Ads promise riders that NJ Transit is "Taking you in new directions!" They tout the Pennsauken station's free parking, service connection and low-cost travel options.
Mary Ellen Smith, of Margate, pointed to the large scheduling board at the Atlantic City station last week and lamented the long wait between trains. If passengers missed the 11:18 a.m. departure to Philadelphia, they would have to wait until the next train at 12:29 p.m. Even worse, the next departure after 12:29 p.m. wasn't until 2:46 p.m.
"That's unacceptable," Smith said. "Who wants to have to wait that long?"
But with the Atlantic City and River lines now linked at Pennsauken, Smith said, she and her family would be tempted to ride the NJ Transit trains to Trenton and connect to Amtrak for trips to New York. But first, NJ Transit should increase the number of trains, she stressed.
LTK Engineering Services, a consultant for NJ Transit, has recommended the number of trains be increased to about one per hour to boost ridership. Currently, only 12 trains per day run in each direction on the Atlantic City line. Ridership would nearly double if NJ Transit increased service to 20 round trips daily, LTK concluded.
Les Wolff, a director with the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers, a rail-advocacy group, said more trains should be added to off-peak travel times to lure more passengers. Off-peak train service should be complemented by discount fares to make the service more attractive to commuters, Wolff added.
"There are a lot of people now standing in crowded trains who might prefer off-peak hours," he said.
The Atlantic City rail line connects Atlantic City with Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, making stops in Absecon, Egg Harbor City, Hammonton, Atco, Lindenwold, Cherry Hill and now Pennsauken along the way. Launched in 1989, NJ Transit's commuter line served as a companion to the Amtrak service on the "Gamblers' Express" corridor that was supposed to bring trainloads of casino customers and employees to Atlantic City. The Amtrak service was discontinued in 1995 amid poor ridership and millions in losses.
NJ Transit has struggled with disappointing ridership and high annual operating deficits. Fare revenue on the Atlantic City line pays for just 22 percent of the $22.9 million annual operating and maintenance costs, compared with the 45 percent average for NJ Transit rail service statewide, Durso said.
The River Line, which began in 2004, is a 34-mile route running along the Delaware River waterfront communities between Camden and Trenton. It averages 9,000 passengers per day, far more than the 5,900 daily boardings that were projected after its first year of operation, Durso said.