In the days following the NJ Transit announcement of service stopping on the Atlantic City Rail Line this fall, there is still a lack of information.
Concerns are climbing that commuters and travelers will be left waiting on the platform.
NJ Transit announced Aug. 3 that it will stop the rail service between Philadelphia and AC starting Sept. 4 due to safety concerns and staffing shortages.
With two new casinos and sportsbooks popping up in AC almost weekly, this spells significant disruption of operations in the seaside resort city after the summer ends.
The rail line, the only one that directly connects Philadelphia and the Jersey Shore, includes seven local stops that allow those working in or visiting casinos to avoid traffic on local roads or tolls on the Atlantic City Expressway.
During the five-month shutdown, NJ Transit has offered to increase bus service from Lindenwold, allowing those coming from Philadelphia and Camden County to travel on PATCO and connect on the bus. The No. 554 bus route makes stops along the White Horse Pike (US-30) and will serve the towns where the train stopped.
But is that enough?
Local politicians aren’t happy
Among some politicians representing South Jersey in the New Jersey Legislature, these solutions aren’t sufficient.
Sen. Chris Brown (R-2nd District) represents Atlantic County and serves on the NJ Senate’s State Government, Wagering, Tourism, and Historic Preservation committee.
In a letter to John Del Colle, senior director of legislative relations at NJ Transit, Brown wrote:
“I believe completely shutting down and re-deploying equipment and personnel from the Atlantic City Rail Line to other parts of the State is unfair to the local, working families I represent.”
Brown’s committee helped expedite legislation that allowed sportsbooks to open this summer after the state won the US Supreme Court case that ended PASPA.
‘More time to discuss it’
Atlantic City has seen many casinos open sportsbooks during the summer or apply to open them by September. Closing the AC train line that thousands take to the casinos right before the start of college and pro football season not only hurts the handle of these books, it limits the insights and data regulators can take to alter and improve the laws that govern this experience.
Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-1st District), who represents Cape May County and other parts of South Jersey, lamented the way NJ Transit announced this shutdown. It caught most in the state by surprise.
Van Drew, who is running for a congressional seat that includes AC and has a chance to flip the South Jersey seat, compared the process to open meetings the state’s Department of Transportation holds before road closures to inform the public and receive feedback.
“I wish we had more time to discuss it, unveil it,” Van Drew said after the announcement. Van Drew chairs the Community and Urban Affairs committee.
Contingencies and consternations
The Atlantic City Rail Line averaged 2,150 weekly riders in 2017, according to data from NJ Transit. That number is down from 3,600 in 2009 and represents a steady decline in ridership over the years that mirrored the casino struggles in the beach resort town.
NJ Transit has offered discounts on No. 554 bus fares and plans to run it hourly. For those who have monthly passes and paper tickets, those tickets will be cross-honored on PATCO service at certain stations.
Those who use Pennsauken will get shuttled to Walter Rand in Camden, while those who frequent the Cherry Hill station will be shuttled to Woodcrest station.
These concessions all help customers who are inconvenienced by the shutdown get to the Lindenwold PATCO station to meet the bus. However, this still means taking a bus that takes almost double the time to reach AC in off-peak hours than the train running at similar times.
The train schedule says a Friday afternoon ride is about an hour from Lindenwold to AC. The same run on the No. 554 bus is scheduled for one hour and 50 minutes.
Brown expressed concerns in his letter:
“Those traveling from Atlantic County have to take the non-express No. 554 Bus, extending commutes up to two hours, without access to a restroom. Further, many commuters tell me they will not benefit from the 25% ticket discount since they are being forced to make more transfers,” he wrote.
The NJ Transit train is very convenient for those who are disabled or struggle with mobility issues. The bathrooms are accessible and the cars are single-level, unlike some lines that serve New York City.
Switching to buses makes the journey uncomfortable and longer, which will probably mean less travel to the casinos during the fall. Those who need help getting around will probably not find their ways to seats in the sportsbooks.
NJ Transit and PATCO challenges
NJ Transit partnering with PATCO creates a transition for customers who use the Camden County stations but this creates its own set of potential challenges.
The train that runs from Lindenwold to Center City in a half hour is a great way to get around South Jersey and Philadelphia. I use it myself, and it’s often reliable. However, when there are problems, it can create chaos.
Fall is a tricky time as wet leaves and downed branches can slow or stop service. The weekend schedule sees far fewer trains than the weekdays. Last fall, service was every 20 minutes on Saturday and 30 minutes on Sundays. This summer has seen frequent shifts in schedules during the day and night throughout the week.
With the return of football at Lincoln Financial Field, PATCO will shift schedules to accommodate thousands going to South Philadelphia. During rush hour, the flow of traffic serves the commuters heading into and out of Philadelphia, while those trying to reach Lindenwold will be on the other side of that unbalanced scale.
Casino workers may benefit from traveling during off-peak hours, but the disruption of routines will probably require some adjustments and potential loss of sleep.
“No doubt this will be a tremendous imposition,” said Van Drew.
And what about the shuttle buses?
For casino workers, one of the great advantages of taking the train is the shuttle buses that travel between the casinos and the station. Unlike most of the jitneys that putter around the city, these shuttles are free.
It’s a long walk from the AC Bus Terminal to the Boardwalk (not recommended). Accessing Golden Nugget and the Marina District casinos require a ride through a tunnel.
A source at NJ Transit said the service would continue from the bus station, although nothing has been formally announced. The local jitneys charge $2.25 per ride. Ride-sharing exists, but it’s very difficult to find accommodating service if you’re wheelchair-bound.
A tale of two Jerseys
The battles over the only heavy rail line that serves South Jersey magnifies some of the issues between two segments of South Jersey.
The Philadelphia suburbs often complain about the money, power, and attention wielded by those who live outside New York City.
In New Jersey, there are more than twice as many legislative districts that serve the North Jersey suburbs than South Jersey. NJ Transit operates nine lines that serve Central and North Jersey, terminating in Hoboken or New York Penn Station.
Only one of those, the Raritan Valley Line, will be affected by the safety-induced shutdowns. While there are substantially more commuters taking those lines every day, NYC is also served by the four PATH train lines and ferry services, along with the myriad bus lines that bring people to Port Authority in Midtown Manhattan.
In contrast, only one bus route connects Atlantic City to inland towns and Camden County. There’s one express bus that serves Philadelphia and Camden but that travels the AC Expressway and doesn’t visit any stops along the train line.
“We need to have transit options and we’re woefully short now,” said Van Drew.
Remember what happened at The Meadowlands
This conflict between the gaming mecca in the south and power base up north speaks to a recent sticking point, brought up last month with the opening of FanDuel Sportsbook at the Meadowlands.
Atlantic City has seen sharp decreases of revenue during the past decade from losing customers to other states opening competing casinos. The industry has shrunk with some NJ casinos closing and thousands losing their jobs.
While AC was down, some wanted to see a casino open at the Meadowlands. A 2016 referendum saw state voters defeat the idea by a landslide.
However, at the opening press conference in July, Meadowlands CEO Jeff Gural noted he’s still willing to invest $500 million to open a casino on the premises where he operates a racetrack and now the FanDuel Sportsbook.
NJ Transit bus service takes customers right to the entrance of the Meadowlands track.
Solutions and adjustments for the AC Rail Line
In his letter, Brown suggested the 554 bus run express service to the idle stations, especially during rush hour.
Extra service will probably help with the overflow of riders displaced from the train. It still means a longer commute versus the train with the traffic and frequent lights on the White Horse Pike.
In the fall, you have another potential hazard in the wooded areas outside Atlantic City: deer at night.
I tweeted to PATCO about this potential shift in scheduling. Here’s the conversation:
Not at the moment.
— PATCO (@RidePATCO) August 10, 2018
NJ Transit declined further comment, assuring further announcements will be made about the Atlantic City Rail Line shutdown.
This shutdown could prove a seismic shift in early customer activity.
Casinos who rushed in their applications to open sportsbooks planned on big crowds once football kicked off. William Hill will expand its sportsbook at Ocean Resort Casino next month, adding plenty of room for bigger crowds.
Atlantic City relies on the live experience to earn and retain business. The investments in time, energy, and capital could be scuttled by this shutdown and will certainly cost potential revenue.
But what does all this mean for you?
What does this mean to the average bettor?
Well, we have seen the start of online and mobile betting thanks to DraftKings Sportsbook. Casinos will complement their in-house sportsbooks with apps and sites sooner rather than later. And of course, NJ gambling sites are an integral part to the gambling industry in the state.
But it’s hard to get people to visit a business, let alone a city, if they can’t get there easily.
The lure of the live sportsbook experience and the amenities Atlantic City casinos can provide are useless if no one’s there to enjoy it. Winning is more enjoyable when it’s shared; losing stings slightly less (unless you’re betting against Philly teams).
It compromises the DGE’s efforts to understand player behavior and thwart any illegal activity. If a player has no better alternative, what’s to keep him from continuing to bet through Bovada or an illegal bookie?