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.