NYC to Atlantic City train folds: a good idea that failed on execution

    Bad news for Atlantic City: the ACES has gone bust.

    The train debuted in February of 2009 as a direct connection between New York and Atlantic City with only one stop in between. But almost from the start, it flailed.

    Prices at $50 up to $75 for a one-way ticket, which I thought was high. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one, and prices dropped consistently after, down to $29 for the cheapest seat. By 2011, ACES went from a year round service to spring and summer service only. When the train shut down for fall 2011 and winter 2012, a lot of us feared it would never start again. And now we know for sure it won’t.

    ACES never made money (it lost $5.9 million in its first year), and apparently, three years of losses was enough. According to the Associated Press, on Friday the three casinos that subsidized the train – Caesar’s, Harrah’s and the Borgata – pulled the plug.

    Here’s the thing, though: ACES was a great idea for an Atlantic City that no longer holds the East Coast monopoly on gambling. They needed to draw in more of the cash paying customers, the kind who will spend, spend, spend money for expensive hotel rooms, drinks, clubs and restaurants, rather than expecting a free stay and a ticket to the buffet in exchange for playing the slots.

    Despite the continuing decline of gambling revenues, Atlantic City already does this well. But ACES would have expanded that specific customer base of New Yorkers who don’t own a car and wouldn’t get on a bus, or complained loudly about doing so (think of that Sex and the City episode where the girls go to Atlantic City and whine about being forced to take the bus vs. a charter plane – then again, this is also the episode that put a tram car on the Atlantic City boardwalk. That’s Wildwood, Darren Star).

    If these customers were already paying $500 a night for a room in Atlantic City, they would probably spend a little extra for a comfortable ride to the resort town, especially when they could have a drink or two on board.

    Great concept. The problem was in the execution.

    ACES didn’t have its own tracks. The train shared those of Amtrak and NJ Transit. When you rode ACES, you went to Philadelphia first on Amtrak’s rails before turning southeast to Atlantic City via NJ Transit’s line.

    This meant that ACES was at the mercy of their schedules – and their delays, their hiccups. No matter who caused the problem, ACES was sent to the back of the line, many times stopping to let other trains pass. You also had to wait in Philadelphia to change engines because, from NYC to Philadelphia, the train used an electric engine, and from Philadelphia to AC, diesel – again because of the different rails they were using.

    This caused problems.

    In June of 2009, I was stuck on an ACES train that stopped six times on the Philadelphia to Atlantic City portion – and was stopped so long that I considered hopping off and walking home since we were stuck at a spot near my house.

    The people ACES needed to attract were paying for the convenience, but long delays and erratic schedules made riding it a frustrating endeavor. For many, taking that bus along with a “40” wrapped in a paper bag didn’t look so bad after all.

    Of course, gambling revenues taking a swan dive didn’t help either, but I don’t think it played as big a role as some experts are suggesting. I never rode the ACES train again after my six-stop incident. Granted, I wasn’t their target audience, but I travel from NYC to the shore, and I am that cash paying, non-gaming Atlantic City visitor. I can’t have been the only person who said “never again.”

    Could ACES work in another form?

    I think so. NJ Transit already runs the North Jersey Coast Line, which starts in NYC and ends in Bay Head, a town about 60 miles north of Atlantic City. The first problem here would be time. The North Jersey Coast Line makes a lot of stops, but if an express train was added at the end of Bay Head to Atlantic City, even if the entire ride took four hours, that option would still be faster and less stressful than sitting in traffic on the Garden State Parkway on a Saturday in the summer. And then we could really start talking about rebuilding a rail line that runs parallel with the Garden State Parkway, much like the West Jersey and Seashore Railroad once did (before the GSP existed, of course).

    The second problem would be money. This train would need to be part of NJ Transit, and they’re not exactly cash rich right now. If Gov. Christie axed construction of the Hudson River commuter tunnel to the battle cry of saving money AFTER half a billion dollars was already spent, I don’t expect him to step up to the plate on this issue – yes, despite his very vocal support of a thriving Atlantic City.

    From our area, a train is already an option. NJ Transit’s Atlantic City Rail Line, also known as “the Gambler’s Express,” starts at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station and makes stops at Cherry Hill, Lindenwold (where riders of the PATCO high speed line can pick up the train), Atco, Hammonton, Egg Harbor City, Absecon and, finally, Atlantic City. New Yorkers could do the ACES route by taking Amtrak to 30th Street Station, and then picking up the Atlantic City Rail Line from there.

    But let’s get back to the recently departed ACES.

    Talk about horrible timing. The announcement came less than one month before Revel Resorts, a $2.4 billion casino that is banking on the kinds of visitors ACES was built to attract, opens for its six week preview run (the full operation goes live on Memorial Day weekend). Last week, we also learned that Atlantic City casinos saw a 5.9% decline in gambling revenues from the same time a year before. And Hard Rock, which was slated to start construction in July on the first boutique casino to ever be built in Atlantic City, asked for a six month delay.

    I don’t gamble, but I know gaming makes up a major chunk of Atlantic City’s economy, so this is all very troubling news about a town that’s been shaking since Pennsylvania and New York got into the casino business.

    However, there are some good things coming out of Atlantic City, too. The Atlantic City Tourism District recently started publishing a monthly metric on how Atlantic City is doing: the Tourism Barometer, and it does not factor in gaming revenues and therefore should present an accurate picture of how everything else tourism related is doing. The February report found convention business is going gangbusters, with a 66% increase from February 2011 to February 2012. Plus, 6.2% more cars passed through the Pleasantville Toll Plaza into Atlantic City in that same time frame.

    So while it’s not all cloudy skies in Atlantic City, the loss of ACES is a big blow. Maybe we’ll see it another day. But I wouldn’t bet on riding its replacement anytime soon.

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