November 15, 2016

Declining Atlantic City Train Draws Loyal Commuter Crowd

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More people than you might guess get up every weekday at the crack of dawn and drive, walk or take a bus to the Atlantic City rail terminal to wait for the 6:40 am train to Philadelphia. At the station, they greet fellow commuters and ask them about their weekend plans or chat about what they watched last night. On the train, they welcome kindred commuters who board at Absecon or Egg Harbor City and share their day-in, day-out slog to work and back.

Ridership on the Atlantic City-Philadelphia train line – one of the nation’s oldest – has been steadily declining in line with casino closures in Atlantic City that mean fewer visitors are coming to the faded resort town. But passenger numbers on the rail line are not down as much as bus-passenger numbers, according to South Jersey Transportation Authority data, and that may reflect the small but loyal commuter train crowd. Train passenger numbers have fallen 5.1 percent through August this year, compared to a decline of 10.4 percent in bus passengers, according to SJTA’s numbers.

The biggest problem for the commuters is the lack of train frequency, particularly in the morning. If Marcus Lorenz misses the 6.40 am train, he has to go back to his car and drive through the traffic to his job in Philadelphia. The next train doesn’t leave Atlantic City until 8:53 am, which would get him into work too late. “So I don’t miss it,” said Lorenz, an IT consultant who boards at Egg Harbor City every day and has taken the train for 10 years. The benefits of train travel – it’s cheap, he can answer emails and there’s no traffic – outweigh the drawbacks, Lorenz said.

Other commuters agreed the low cost and lower stress versus driving is the motivation they need to get up early. But they all grumbled about the lack of frequency of morning trains. Since the line’s schedule was drawn up to meet the needs of casino tourists, it has a bias toward Atlantic City, not Philadelphia. There are just four weekday morning trains to Philadelphia, compared to seven weekday trains to Atlantic City in the afternoons.

The commuters and others have argued that adding more trains would boost passenger numbers. In fact, a $735,000 report commissioned by NJ Transit and published in 2013  agreed and proposed adding trains to provide service at least once an hour. This Philadelphia Inquirer article earlier this year, prompted by the South Jerseyist, wondered whether the line could be revived by redirecting its focus as a possible commuter train. But NJ transit has countered that it would be hard to justify expanding the already heavily-subsidized line.

It is hard to argue with the numbers. Average weekday boardings – that is, the number of times a person gets on to the train – on the Atlantic City-Philadelphia line for the fiscal year ended June 2016 were 2,300, down from 2,800 in 2013. No one knows precisely how many commuters use the train, but sales of weekly and monthly boarding passes – one reflection of commuter numbers – equate to about one quarter of the train’s ridership, a spokesman for NJ Transit said. A customer survey in 2013 revealed that about 44 percent of riders on one particular workday said they were using the train for work, the spokesman added.

The train is not just used by commuters to Philadelphia. We met some who change in Pennsauken to take the River line to Trenton. Lois Sulton El has boarded at Absecon to get to Trenton every day since she got a new job there in September. She said she mostly enjoys the train ride. Her biggest problems have been when a delay on the River line has meant she misses her train back to Absecon in the evening. “I feel like they should communicate,” she said, summing up her frustration.

An earlier version of this story said the customer survey of train passengers was taken in 2014, not 2013.

3 thoughts on “Declining Atlantic City Train Draws Loyal Commuter Crowd

  1. My wife and I just took the train from Cherry Hill to Atlantic City the other day. We rode our bikes to the station, took them on board, and rode around Absecon Island, finishing up with dinner and minigolf on the boardwalk. You can have non-casino fun in Atlantic City, and the city and region needs to start emphasizing that. I’ve also taken this train to Hammonton for dinner, because Hammonton has a neat downtown you’d never know is there if you only drive on the White or Black Horse Pikes.

    I really wish NJ Transit would act on that $735,000 list of recommendations. If they did, they could have up to 10,000 people a day using that line. With the TTF now being funded again, we might see some improvements in the future. Frequency is key, and that’s probably the largest draw for ridership. If it were hourly, or even half-hourly, it would see a huge uptick in use. It’s crazy that NJ Transit keeps thinking of it as a train to shuttle people to casinos and not as a train line that’s part of Greater Philadelphia’s transit mix.

    I wrote a blog post earlier this year about this train. It has so much potential to be so much more useful.

  2. I think the message about emphasizing non-casino activities has sunk through to the city, at least, the problem is that the city is only in control of planning in the non ‘tourism district’ which doesn’t leave it a whole lot of space to work with. And CRDA, whose board is dominated by casino interests, talks about non-casino entertainment but hasn’t come up with much beyond Miss America.

    Glad you had fun in Hammonton. The other place we really want to go to that has a really nice-looking downtown now is Egg Harbor City. It’s probably no coincidence that that’s also on the same train line. It would make a lot of sense for Philly hipsters and the older millennials to move down that line to where housing is cheaper and they’re closer to the beach…

  3. They spent $735,000 to do a study to see if adding more trains/schedules was justifiable. The study concluded it was. Afterwards they say they still can’t justify doing it. Why spend $735,000 to study the feasibility of something you already know you’re not going to do? That’s just throwing away $735,000.