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Could This Be the Last Ride? [Kicking Back with Jersey Joe]

ACES – The Atlantic City Express Service is a luxury train that whisks travelers direct from New York City to Atlantic City, NJ casinos with only a single stop in between.  While more upscale than a traditional train, the line is in serious danger of shutting down for good.  I recently took a ride to find out what could possibly be spelling the end for what should be a good idea.

As I discussed in a previous blogumn, Atlantic City has long been a destination for vacationers to get out of the cities and head to the shore.  Its casinos and beaches are an ideal year round retreat and offer a variety of activities.

Atlantic City has rolled in tourists by rail since the first train line opened in the 1800’s.  Most train service went direct to Philadelphia or New York. But starting in 1929, a new upscale line known as The Blue Comet took to the tracks to bring in the NYC city goers.

The Blue Comet would take passengers from the now abandoned Communipaw Terminal in Jersey City (just a short ferry ride across the Hudson River from Manhattan) to Atlantic City in three hours.  These special trains were created to compete with rides being offered by the Pennsylvania Railroad that would take riders on a less direct route.  Blue Comet riders would enjoy assigned seating on special blue seats, an upscale dining car with special blue linen, and an upper level observation car with wicker chairs.

The line was immediately successful and initially had a 97% on time rate.  As the great depression hit, ridership immediately fell.  The line was cut to one round trip train per day.  Some residents who lived in the rustic Pine Barrows of New Jersey, who did not have radio or electricity, relied on the train’s stop at Lakehurst where the crew would drop off newspapers.  As a thanks, locals would leave baked goods or fruit baskets along side of the tracks.

In August 1939, heavy rains washed out several hundred feet of track.  The train derailed and 32 passengers were injured, mostly from flying out of the wicker chairs in the observation lounge.  Eventually the depression and fights over track rights would see this train making its last ride in 1941.

One of the locomotives is still preserved in Maryland, while an observation car awaits restoration to be used as a tourist train in Cape May, NJ.  Another observation car is currently a restaurant in Clinton, NJ.

One final special nostalgia ride on the line happened in 1975 and was filmed as a special Christmas episode of Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow Show on NBC.

In the 1980’s, Amtrak would again offer a special train known as The Atlantic City Express.  These trains would depart AC for New York, Philadelphia, or Washington DC.  Eventually, ridership would drop as more travelers preferred to drive via The Atlantic City Expressway or The Garden State Parkway, and Amtrak pulled out of the city completely in 1995.  New Jersey transit began to operate a train from AC to 30th Street Station in Philly and the service continues to this day.

A few years ago, as the price of automobile fuel began to skyrocket, and with an increase in passengers on the NJ Transit service, talk once again focused on creating a new luxury train line to AC. In 2006, Caesar’s Entertainment, Harrah’s Entertainment, and Marina District Development (who owns the Borgata), formed ACES, LLC (a joint partnership between the three casinos).  They entered into an agreement with the Casino Redevelopment Authority, and New Jersey Transit to begin the new service.

Special cars were constructed that would operate exclusively for this line.  The 8 two level cars featured standard seating on the lower level and first class seating on the upper level.  First class features wider seats that recline and offers waiter service.  The are special lounges on certain cars that could be rented for parties en route.  Each train can hold up to 300 passengers.

ACES also features several food and beverage kiosks and has a liquor license for adult beverage service.

The first train took to the rails on February 6, 2009 departing New York’s Penn Station. New Jersey governor John Corzine, several state senators, and Atlantic City mayor Lorenzo T. Langford were aboard for its maiden voyage.

The train only makes one additional stop at Newark’s Penn Station to allow North Jersey customers to board.  From Newark, it heads to Philadelphia, where it briefly stops to change from electric to diesel locomotives, but does not pull into a station and does not discharge any passengers.

While NJ Transit operates the train, Amtrak is in charge of ticketing, since NJ Transit does not have the ability to do so.  Tickets must be purchased in advance and are by reservation only.

After starting out charging higher fares the service switched to flex pricing.  Fares are advertised to start at $29 – $59 for coach, with a $20 up charge for first class.  The lounges can be rented for $200 – $300 above coach fare.

The ride takes between two and a half and three hours and only operates on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Sadly, the train operated at a loss during their first year losing $6 million.  As a result of low winter ridership, the entire service was suspended in January 2011 and resumed weekend service again in May.

The departure schedule is as follows:

From New York:

Departs Friday at 2:28pm & 7:45pm

Departs Saturday at 9:16am & 3:01pm

Departs Sunday at 9:16am

From Atlantic City:

Departs Saturday at 12:29am, 9:44am, & 3:21pm

Departs Sunday at 10:42am & 2:08pm

While the service has been contracted for three years (which will expire in February 2012) this Labor Day weekend could be the end.  The local news is reporting the line is continuing to lose money and may not operate after the peak tourist season ends.  No official word has been announced, but if the train is losing money – does it make sense to keep running the cars when hardly any passengers will be on it?

I recently took a trip to Atlantic City to visit friends and decided I would give this luxury train a spin, while I still could.

I purchased my tickets on their website  From the ticket page, I was immediately sent to the Amtrak website where the lowest fare being offered was $59.  (Definitely not the $29 that they have splashed all over theirs.)  I decided to go for the $20 first class up-charge, bringing my total to $79 for the Sunday 10:42am train.

I had never been to the Atlantic City train station, but it is located right at the end of the Atlantic City Expressway, next to the Sheraton Hotel and The Walk shopping outlets.  It’s a bit of a hike from the Boardwalk, and while not an impossible walk, it’s simpler to take a cab, jitney, or have someone drop you off.  The station has one concession stand that sells food and newspapers.

The ACES train was waiting on track 3, but the staff made everyone wait in a line to board.  After a few short minutes, they announced boarding and an Amtrak employee tore passengers paper printout tickets before we walked down the platform.

First class upper level seating on the ACES train.

Since I was first class, the lady tearing tickets informed me that I could walk to any car and go ‘up’.  The seats on the lower coach level are blue, while up in first class, they are red leather.  I took one of the single seats on the right side of the aisle and placed my bag on the shelf above.

As I sat down, I noticed a crew member in his white ACES polo shirt (who would be our waiter) carrying a Styrofoam cooler to one of the serving kiosks in the train. I wouldn’t have to visit a serving kiosk, since a dedicated waiter was part of my first class experience.

The food and beverage menu on ACES.

My seat featured a tray table just like on an airplane and did recline quite a bit.  It wasn’t even two minutes after we departed the station that our waiter was walking around taking orders.  The menu consisted of reheated or cold deli sandwiches, breakfast pastries, cookies, chips, yogurt, and salads.

I went with the buffalo chicken wrap, a blueberry muffin, and a Coke.  Not the healthiest choices, but I was pretty hungry.  He wrote my order down and took the orders of about six others who were sitting around me.

I looked out the window to see we were following the Atlantic City Expressway on the right and US-30, the Black Horse Pike, on the left.

I was barely out of view of the Atlantic City skyline, when my food arrived, about 10 – 15 minutes after I had ordered.  My wrap came in a cardboard sleeve sealed in a plastic bag and was served on a clear plastic disposable plate.  My muffin was also in a sealed plastic bag.

ACES food service, similiar to airline food.

The wrap tasted pretty good, but was not the greatest thing I’ve ever eaten.  It was definitely microwaved chunks of breaded buffalo chicken, a few pieces of lettuce, and some ranch sauce.  The muffin was rather large, heated a bit, and very good.

After a half an hour or so, he was back around asking if anyone needed anything more and to remove your garbage.  I was full, so I paid my bill.  He had a little palm pilot device that scans your credit or debit card.  You then type in your tip and sign.  My total was a staggering $17.25 with tip.  The can of Coke itself was $3, the muffin was $3, and the wrap was $7.25.  They do not take cash.

In general, the food wasn’t bad and definitely a step down from airline food, but it works when you’re hungry.  I probably wouldn’t order so much again in the future, but I would get something as a snack.

We were traveling in a heavy downpour, so the train did slow down at certain points.  Once outside of Egg Harbor City, we stopped for about 10 minutes, while we waited for an Atlantic City bound NJ Transit train to clear our tracks.

Harrah's and the Borgata Hotel/Casinos along with the rest of the Atlantic City skyline disappear from view as the ACES train departs.

After almost an hour, we crossed the border into Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  We pulled off to a side track at Frankford Junction where I could see several NJ Transit employees waiting in a white pickup.  Once the train stopped, we lost all power for about a minute while the diesel locomotive was taken out of service.  You could see a few workers board the front of the train and power us up on the front electric locomotive.  After about 15 minutes, we reversed direction, and took the tracks toward New York.  The different state regulations governing the rules of the track requires one type of locomotive on one track and the electric locomotive on the other.

The train remained on the PA side of the Delaware River for quite some time.  The tracks at this point generally follow I-95 to Trenton.  Once in Trenton, we crossed the river to NJ and then were shortly at Newark Penn Station, where I departed to connect with the PATH.  A few riders transferred there with me.  It couldn’t have been easier, the train stopped and I stepped out on the same platform as the PATH.  It took me a whole 20 seconds to exit ACES, go trough the turnstile, and board the World Trade Center bound PATH.  ACES then departed for their final stop, New York Penn Station – a few minutes away.

My whole trip took 2 hours and 35 minutes.  That’s about 45 – 60 minutes more than if I had drove down the Parkway.  Considering the cost of gas, the train was a more expensive option in both time and in the wallet.  But, it was a nice alternative to driving.  The Garden State Parkway was recently upgraded to six lanes along most of the route, but traffic can still back up on a busy summer weekend.

For the price and the extra time, it’s kind of not worth taking the ride.  You can drive there faster, but one little accident and the Parkway can jam up.  Also, the price of gas is high, but it doesn’t cost as much as the train ticket.  Even the base coach fare was about $10 more than I would pay for a tank of gas. This would be a good idea if you’re in a group and really didn’t want to drive.

There are a few improvements that could save this train.  While I understand they are seriously losing money, $59 one way is too high.  They originally started out with higher fares, but lowered to $29 due to low ridership, now the cost seems to be going up again.  That would have been $118 for a round trip – much more than gas.

The biggest obstacle to the train is the departure times.  The Friday trains from New York leave at fairly convenient times, but the Sunday return trains from Atlantic City need to leave later.  Most people that are out having a good time in AC, don’t want to leave for a 10:42 a.m. train – that’s before hotel checkout times!  ACES definitely needs to add a late evening train, instead of pulling away for good before 3pm.

The rails themselves are a deck stacked against the ACES train.  ACES is often forced to a stop while it waits for other, higher priority trains to clear the tracks.  The train also has to compete for valuable tunnel time into New York Penn Station.  Especially during Friday rush hour when constant trains flow under the Hudson River through the tunnels.

Adding one Monday or Thursday round trip train would also help.

Lastly, there is no advertising for this service in New York.  When it first launched, a small party to announce the service was held outside of Penn Station, but there are no billboards, radio commercials, subway ads, taxi toppers, or magazine ads.  Most New Yorkers don’t even know it exists.  That’s a major mistake!

They could also add another stop in Philadelphia to boost ridership.  The station is there, the train nearly reaches it now, why not give it a try?

The trains themselves are very well designed and very comfortable.  They are the top of the line in New Jersey Transit and much better than the dirty, smelly Greyhound buses.  If this service comes to an end, I hope they will be integrated into some other special service, perhaps by adding more cars on the mismanaged Meadowlands Express line, that takes riders from Hoboken, NJ to the Meadowlands Stadium, where the New York Giants and Jets play.

THE 411

Name: ACES Train (Atlantic City Express Service)

What: Luxury train direct from New York City to Atlantic City (with one stop in Newark).

Cost: Advertised fares start at $29, but the cheapest we found was $59.  (First class is an additional $20.)

JERSEY JOE RECOMMENDS:  All signs point to this train being a losing bet.  The developers continue to lose money on it.  I hope they can figure a way to turn it around by adding an additional stop in Philadelphia, better departure times, or at least lowering the ticket cost just a bit.

This service can be successful, but there needs to be immediate changes.  If not, the ride is going to come to a permanent end.  Here’s hoping for the best!  While it’s slower and more costly than driving a car, it’s a great and very relaxing alternative.  I’m glad I made the trip and would definitely do so, again!

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