Waltz Through Time

An Express Derailed

By Jim Waltzer
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 6, 2005

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It was conceived as a limousine on rails, ushering gamblers from points north, south and west to the casinos of Atlantic City. When it began in May 1989, Amtrak's Atlantic City Express figured to serve both the resort and the railroad. When it expired on April 1, 1995, it was dead weight for a transportation company trying to lighten its load.

Awash in red ink, Amtrak was cutting one quarter of its routes nationwide in an effort to match service to demand and gain a balanced budget. "[The A.C. Express] is one of the routes we have to discontinue because of low ridership," said a company spokesman.

The line had lost an average $4.6 million per year since its inception, and its 1994 average daily ridership of 586 was about half of the total three years earlier. Clearly, the route had rolled snake-eyes. Company officials felt that the casino industry had not marketed the service strongly enough, but conceded that Amtrak may have misread the market -- burgeoning bus service proffering casino discounts had siphoned potential customers.

Another factor may have been that the Atlantic City Express was never a true express. All trains stopped in Philadelphia, where they left the main track for the "spur" to the shore. When the storied Blue Comet brought New Yorkers to Atlantic City prior to World War II, the train made a number of stops on the way, but its route roughly paralleled the coastline. Those tracks were no longer operative, however, and the latter-day Atlantic City Express could reach the seashore only by switching in Philly. Indeed, many riders eventually regarded the daily service out of New York as merely an extra (and sometimes cheaper, given special price reductions) train to Philadelphia.

As federal subsidies were frozen and corporate restructuring took hold in 1995, Amtrak invited those states affected by route cutbacks to make up the shortfall. Several responded with money, including Pennsylvania on behalf of its Harrisburg line. Ultimately, though, there was no jackpot for the so-called Gamblers' Express, which was as dead as a slot-machine pay line with all different fruits.

New Jersey Transit (NJT) moved quickly to ensure that the Big Apple would not be severed from the Shore. The day after the demise of the Express, NJT increased its number of Philadelphia-Atlantic City trains to ease connections with Amtrak's continuing New York-Philadelphia route. And buses bound for Atlantic City continued to depart hourly from New York's Port Authority Terminal.

But the romance of rail express -- no matter how fitful the route -- was gone. The gamble had not paid off.

Gleaming under a cloudless sky, Amtrak train no. 653 -- the last Amtrak train from New York to Atlantic City --creaked out of Penn Station on Saturday, April Fools' Day, 1995. The four linked cars gathered speed through the tunnel underneath the Hudson River and bulleted through the marshlands of Secaucus. They downshifted and crawled into Newark, as the imperial Chrysler Building silvered on the receding Manhattan skyline. They threaded their way to Iselin's Metropark station and onward to Trenton and Philadelphia's grand 30th Street Station, where two-thirds of the passengers detrained and climbed the stairs to Philly surface streets; no gamblers, they. A handful of new riders came aboard for the trip to Atlantic City, which retraced the artery that brought the first wave of city visitors to a new seashore mecca a century-and-a-half ago.

Funny thing. With the allure of, say, a Borgata and today's overall casino boom, the Atlantic City Express might have met a different fate.

Jim Waltzer's Tales of New Jersey, co-authored by Tom Wilk, is published by Rutgers University Press.

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