NJ: Atlantic City-to-New York by Rail More Trek Than Trip on NJ Transit

Jan. 28--ATLANTIC CITY -- For more than a century, trains ran between Atlantic City and New York, with fanciful nicknames such as the Nellie Bly, the Blue Comet, the Gamblers' Express and ACES. Those trains have faded into history, but a new transfer station in Pennsauken, Camden County, has allowed NJ Transit to re-establish the Atlantic City-New York rail route. Making a one-way trip, however, takes nearly four or five hours, depending on the connections.

"You don't need a watch to time this trip. You need a calendar," joked Charles "Skip" Bellino, a retired Galloway Township police chief who serves as a board member for the Atlantic County Historical Society.

Bellino, his wife, Sarah, and three other local rail and history buffs recently jumped on board the trains to test the convenience of the new Atlantic City-New York service. They also wanted to retrace the route of the Nellie Bly trains, named for the intrepid reporter who became famous for her 1889-90 record-breaking trip around the world. Until 1961, the Pennsylvania Railroad operated express rail service between New York and Atlantic City that bore the Nellie Bly moniker.

The NJ Transit rail route between Atlantic City and New York is anything but express. As the Bellinos and their travel companions would find out, it requires a series of transfers using three separate, NJ Transit-operated rail lines. It also requires a lot of patience.

"The advantage is, you can read 'War and Peace' on the way up and 'The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire' on the way down," Skip Bellino quipped.

Accompanied by a reporter for The Press of Atlantic City, the Bellinos and the others began their trip with an 8:53 a.m. departure from Atlantic City. Their journey ended with a 12:48 p.m. arrival in New York. The trains and the connections were all on time, but it still took nearly four hours before finally pulling into New York's Penn Station.

When asked about the slowness of the trip, NJ Transit spokesman William Smith said train schedules are based on the commuting patterns and demands of riders.

"Those services are constantly re-evaluated for any changes to enhance the experience for our riders," Smith wrote in an email.

Tony Marino, a transportation analyst and retired Atlantic City Expressway executive, urged NJ Transit to adjust the schedules to attract more riders to the Atlantic City-New York rail route.

"If they want people to do this, they have to optimize the schedules to make it as little wait time as possible," Marino said.

Marino estimated a car ride from Atlantic City to New York, in normal traffic conditions, would take about two hours and 20 minutes.

Marino, his wife, Rosalia Valenti Marino, and former Atlantic City Housing Authority Executive Director Dennis Ricci also made the trip with the Bellinos. Overall, the group found the train ride enjoyable, but they stressed that NJ Transit must make the travel time faster for the route to be more appealing.

"If I had a good book to read, it would be great," Rosalia Valenti Marino said. "You also want to be comfortable and have conversation. You can't do that on a bus."

The Atlantic City commuter rail line allows passengers to travel to 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, but NJ Transit recently added a $40 million transfer center in Pennsauken. The Pennsauken station gives Atlantic City riders the option of connecting to the River Line, NJ Transit's 34-mile rail route along the Delaware River between Camden and Trenton. In Trenton, riders make another connection, to NJ Transit's Northeast Corridor service, to travel to New York.

NJ Transit is hopeful that the new Pennsauken station, which opened in October, will boost ridership for both the Atlantic City and River Line trains. Smith said it is simply too early to conclude whether the Pennsauken station has increased ridership or whether passengers are using it to transfer between both rail lines.

Despite the project's $40 million price tag, the Pennsauken transfer center is not a fully enclosed train station. In addition, tickets must be purchased there from an outdoor kiosk.

NJ Transit described the Pennsauken station as a three-sided structure that provides shelter from the wind. It also includes overhead heating lamps to give riders some warmth.

Ricci characterized the Pennsauken center as a disappointment. He, like his traveling companions, expected a full-fledged station because of its sizable construction cost.

"It's more like a bus stop," Ricci said.

Smith said the buildings at the Pennsauken station cost $13.5 million, while an additional $17 million helped rehabilitate the rail tracks. The remainder went for costs related to the River Line, boosting the total to $40 million.

Another disappointment for Ricci was Pennsauken's ticket kiosk. He said there should be more signs explaining how to buy tickets, especially for riders who are using the kiosk for the first time.

NJ Transit is exploring ways for passengers to buy a single ticket for trips between Atlantic City and New York. Smith said ticket sales are complicated by two entirely different rail systems and their unique fare structures. Currently, riders are able to buy a single ticket for the Atlantic City and Northeast Corridor portions of the Atlantic City-New York trip. But they must purchase a separate ticket for the River Line.

Tony Marino called the lack of single-ticket purchases a big drawback. However, the cost of train travel still makes the rail route an attractive option, particularly for senior citizens, he noted.

The Marinos, the Bellinos and Ricci are all in their 60s and 70s. Buying their train tickets at a senior-citizen discount, they paid just $21.40 round trip. Tony Marino said NJ Transit and Greyhound bus service between Atlantic City and New York is considerably more expensive than the trains. Even more expensive, he added, are gas and tolls for people making the same trip by car.

"This is the cheapest way for senior citizens to get from Atlantic City to New York," Marino said of the NJ Transit trains.

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Copyright 2014 - The Press of Atlantic City, Pleasantville, N.J.