Built Environment, Development, Transit

The case for better connectivity to University City through NJ Transit’s Atlantic City Line

I’ve had this article sitting in my drafts folder for the past five months. Given the lack of interest in the subject on the part of NJ Transit, whenever I sit down to write it, I feel a little bit like I’m screaming into the void. But this morning I finally gathered the motivation to get it done after seeing Jake Blumgart’s tweet linking to an article from the Atlantic City Press that essentially equates the city’s declining fortunes with the fact that fewer people are taking the train line. If you think of the line as simply as a train that gets people to and from the struggling shore town, then it makes sense. With fewer attractions and jobs, there are fewer people to pull from as a potential customer base for the service. But that would be thinking too one-dimensionally. To understand the potential this line has for serving South Jersey, you have to rather turn your attention to what’s at the other end of the line: the white-hot job market being built in University City, Philadelphia, which hosts the line’s northernmost stop at 30th Street Station.

Last November, the University City District released a report detailing the immense growth the neighborhood is seeing. Among the good news was “new commercial and residential developments in the works, including the 3.0 University Place office building and the apartments planned at 3601 Market St.” and a “milestone of 75,000 jobs in the University City area alone, a figure aided in no small part by the presence of Drexel University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of the Sciences.” It goes on to mention the nearly 30 real estate projects underway in the neighborhood and $1 billion University City Science Center expansion. Its office vacancy rate of 2% is the lowest in the entire region. And this report came out even before Drexel released its ambitious plans to partially cap the rail yards adjacent to its school and build an entirely new mixed use development over the next several decades.  Suffice to to say, University City is going to be hot for the foreseeable future.

What does this mean for us? Well, if you live in South Jersey and work in West Philadelphia, you have two options. You can drive to work along either I-676 or I-76, two extremely congested highways. Or you can take PATCO to the Market-Frankford Line, which honestly isn’t a bad option. But the PATCO line only threads through a few towns; at the point where someone is driving 15 minutes to get to a station, they might justify just driving in entirely to themselves, increasing traffic, congestion, and general commute torture. Or they might decide to move out of New Jersey altogether, which is bad for the state. This is where an improved Atlantic City Line might come into play. I foresee several options for improving the line to where it would provide decent, reliable service to and from that super hot job market in West Philadelphia.

Better serve the end of the line that’s booming

If Atlantic City is failing, Philadelphia is very much not. So why not increase service along the end of the corridor that could use it? What this means is increasing the number of trains running between Philadelphia and Hammonton. It would be reasonable to say that Hammonton, located halfway between the city and the shore and with a 59 minute ride time from 30th Street Station, is perhaps the eastern edge of the reasonable daily commuting distance. (Anecdotally speaking, I personally know people who commute from there to Philadelphia every day.) As such, inserting shorter-running trains into the schedule during the current unacceptably-long 2 hour schedule gaps would increase the utility of the line for people going to and from Philadelphia, by far the larger job and culture center of the line’s two termini. Nearly everyone with an interest in transit advocacy understands that frequency is freedom, and that if people can rely on a regular schedule with reasonable, sensible headways, a line will prosper. Inserting trains into the current gaps starts moving you in that direction.

Remove the obstacles to speedier service

As it stands, the line doesn’t exactly run quickly. The time between Cherry Hill and Philadelphia, not a far distance, is currently about 32 minutes. Quicker only than taking a local bus, that time is far too long for rail service. Whether improving that involves track rehabilitation or scheduling improvements, that number has to come down for the line to be considered more convenient than driving. Beyond track improvements, the fact that the line is fully diesel-powered line also hurts its ability to move quickly. As such, it’s a much slower running line than its electrified cousins to the north. Frequent and fast are the two factors that guarantee ridership, so attacking the line’s inefficiencies on those two fronts would be the most important things to do to improve its utility.

Create a larger potential passenger base

With no stops between Lindenwold (where it provides a transfer to the PATCO High Speed Line) and Cherry Hill, the line runs through a part of the most densely-populated part of South Jersey without stopping. One of the suggestions for creating a larger pool of potential riders is to add a station at the Woodcrest park and ride station, where the line parallels the PATCO tracks, a move that would also act to create another useful transfer point. Putting a new station in the middle of the highly populated southern Cherry Hill/western Voorhees/Route 30 corridor area would add a lot of people to the line’s customer base. On the Pennsylvania side, I believe it to be possible to extend the line down to the Airport, which opens up an entire other realm of usefulness. The only way to get to the airport for the vast majority of South Jerseyans right now is to drive there and park your car. But if you park there for long enough, it becomes more expensive than taking public transportation, even if you make the connection at Market East/Jefferson Station to SEPTA’s Airport Line. Bringing the Atlantic City Line to the airport would give South Jersey a one-seat ride to the airport, which would be a huge improvement in service to a regional transportation asset for our part of the state. If you’ve ever been on NJ Transit’s Northeast Corridor Line, you’ve seen people taking the train to and from Newark International Airport. It would be an immediate boost to ridership if the Atlantic City Line went to Philadelphia International.

Let people know the line exists

What may be the least expensive option might also be the most useful one in the short term. As it stands today, there are essentially no advertisements for the train line. When I wrote an article a few years back about taking the train down the shore, I had so many comments from people who had no idea the train even existed. Even if you imagine the train to be oriented toward Atlantic City and not Philadelphia, advertising the line’s existence would be a great way offer people an alternative to the insane parking fees (think $50 and in some cases during concerts, $100) that some casinos have been charging lately. From a marketing perspective, it’s hard to believe NJ Transit wouldn’t want to capitalize on that price gouging to attract new customers.

These are just a few ideas that’ve been rattling around my brain for a few years now. It depresses me that NJ Transit lets this line decline without seriously considering doing anything to make it more useful for our region. Actually, it’s also kind of confusing. They spent money to build the Pennsauken Transportation Center to provide a transfer between the Riverline and the Atlantic City Line, but what good is a transfer to a train that only comes every 2+ hours? If you really want to improve the line, you need to make it fast, frequent, and reliable. And it wouldn’t be just for the exercise. It would mean improved prosperity for South Jersey to have quicker, simpler access to a hot Philadelphia neighborhood that’s only going to grow jobs in the coming decades.

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11 thoughts on “The case for better connectivity to University City through NJ Transit’s Atlantic City Line

  1. Good post. There may be logistical challenges to running more trains through Center City. For example, until late last year, the SEPTA West Trenton line used to go to Philadelphia airport, but it got cut back to Center City. Apparently the through trains often gummed things up on the tracks around Center City.
    http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2015/12/changes_coming_soon_to_trenton-philly_airport_rail.html

    The bigger problem is more likely that NJ Transit has no funds for expansion, and is struggling just to maintain existing services (they already cut one of our local bus routes last year, the #655). I wouldn’t all that surprised if the entire Atlantic City line went in the next round of cutbacks. Its farebox recovery rate is – by some distance – the worst of all existing NJ Transit heavy rail lines. Maybe SEPTA could take it over? Surely they would do a better job?

  2. What you’re describing here – the gap between what transit can do relative to land use patterns – was best described by Joel Garreau in his book “Edge City” back in 1992. http://www.garreau.com/main.cfm?action=book&id=1

    What we’ve built for the last seventy years has been an enormous amount of low density auto-oriented sprawl. What transit needs to be cost effective and reliable is a series of compact walkable places. Apples and oranges.

    The solution is to beef up the Main Streets near train stations in Philly, Camden, Collingswood, Haddonfield, and so on. This will put many more residents, jobs, and social/cultural venues within a few walkable blocks of the train. The Lumberyard project in Collingswood is a good example of this type of infill. With increased passenger volume the trains can justify more frequent service. The people who choose to live near transit will be able to live car free or car lite and hop from node to node along the train line.

    But here’s the problem. Existing train stations farther out in newer suburbs are physically isolated in car dependent locations. Take the Ashland station in Voorhees. It’s surrounded by surface parking lots, a few aging strip malls, and a whole lot of cul-de-sac tract home subdivisions. Voorhees is in the process of turning its dead mall into a town center, but you need to drive there to the train station. Density is fought tooth and nail by existing residents out in the suburbs so eliminating parking lots and building a transit oriented town next to the train station in Voorhees is politically unlikely. And the Ashland site is too small and isolated to be a viable town on its own.

    What we’ll see moving forward will be rising prices for good quality existing older neighborhoods near the train as people pay extra for that option. At the same time there will be a lot of Voorhees style makeshift half assed compromises in the sprawl that will never do much for transit.

  3. Gina says:

    Last year I tried to take the AC line from Cherry Hill to AC, where my friend was going to meet me at the station. I had done this before, but this time, I waited a half-hour beyond the scheduled arrival before giving up, getting back in my car and driving. The woman I was chatting with while we waited looked at me in disbelief when I said I was going to drive instead, like “why the hell would you take this train if you didn’t have to?” Definitely a shame that it doesn’t run more frequently and reliably, both for the people who rely on it and those who might like to use it as an alternative to driving!

    • Thank for the story, I don’t think that’s all that uncommon. I’ve even heard of conductors on late trains complaining to passengers that NJ Transit doesn’t send enough engines down to South Jersey, making the AC Line run late. But what you said about the woman being taken aback that you wouldn’t just drive if you could gives a very real, depressing insight into how most people regard public transportation here. Viewing it as some kind of welfare for poor people who “have” to take it handicaps to a large degree our ability to imagine how it could be better and work for more people. Kudos to you for being someone who makes the choice to take transit if it makes sense for you.

  4. SS says:

    Great post. I wish that our transit execs had this kind of imagination. I feel like the shore could also be a commuting origination point as well, particularly for well off workers with second homes. Imagine a train that takes an hour from AC to 30th Street and runs hourly or more throughout the day. Someone could then own a high-rise condo in AC and a high-rise condo in Center City or University City. Telecommuting would also make commuting from the shore a little more palatable. It would not just be for second home owners though, but also could work for pleasantville or absecon residents. In addition to frequency, the speed between Lindenwold and 30th Street seems like the biggest hindrance to this. I don’t understand why the train runs so slow through that stretch.

  5. The biggest problem is that NJ Transit management treats the ACL like a unwanted stepchild. Too many politicians have a vested interest in keeping the line open, but doesn’t want to spend the money to improve it. Double tracking from Lindenwold to AC is the easiest to expand service, along with more improvements to the Delair Bridge (despite the fact the bridge itself is owned by Conrail/CSAO). Bringing down the $12 Million ALP45’s isn’t going to help as the mode change must be done standing still (and definitely not at the low clearances of 30th Street).

    What alot of people tend to forget is that there used to be a Philadelphia International Airport to Atlantic City train ran by Amtrak in the late 80’s/early 90’s prior to the 1995 takeover of the line by NJT, using diesel powered Push/Pulls . The ridership was abysmal as it only made stops at the Airport, 30th and AC. Again, with that not enough publicity was used and eventually faded into oblivion.

    We can come up with ideas to improve the line, but there is a few things that needs to be done just to bring the costs down to make improvements justifiable:

    Publicize the Line
    Almost nobody knows its there and its schedule straight up sucks….. both as a commuter line to Philadelphia, and as a getaway line to AC and the Shore points. Improve the rush hour schedule and bring back the late night/overnight runs

    Build a small maintenance shop along the line
    Currently, the schedule requires the use of five trainsets, and no facilities along the line other than a fueling pad in Atlantic City, consists must be cycled through to North Jersey for inspections weekly (NJT does have a major repair shop and yard in Morrisville PA, however they only can handle electric equipment) and that’s a two hour run back and forth. Additionally, mechanics must come down from either their Meadowlands or the Raritan shops in North Jersey in case of breakdowns or other running issues.

    Use What’s There!!!
    With the existing infrastructure that’s there, hourly service even with all the single track mains is possible. Improve the signalling to modern standards (Rule 562 – Cab Signalling without Wayside signals (SEPTA uses that on its Reading Main Line, along with Amtrak in and out of NYC)) and you can increase the line speeds from 79 to 95.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, these are all really great ideas. I didn’t realize that maintenance of the line alone was such a headache, with no shop in South Jersey that can handle the train sets. It seems like they really don’t want to exert any effort in making this line work better for us down here…

  6. Philly-Drew says:

    Fantastic article and great responses. I grew up in South Jersey along the route 42 corridor. In 1999 I moved to Philadelphia to be a direct part of a fantastic business and cultural hub, that is much more affordable than NYC. Had I been able to take the train more comfortably, I may not have moved. Looking back it was a good choice for me because the center City area has been booming ever since, and is still going.

    I always felt that NJT didn’t care much about trains in south Jersey, and only kept them running because NJT felt they had to for some reason. Why not have a train line that goes from AC airport all the way to University City as mentioned above? Why not build a quick rail line from Turnersville straight down route 42? (At least the new exchange at route 42 and 295 looks like it could handle a rail line down the middle). I’ve ways scratched my head wondering why it still doesn’t happen. The south Jersey trains are the biggest pain in the butt to use! On the Philly side of the river we have regional rails going out in many directions, including down to Delaware. Regarding a point mentioned above, many of the PA suburban neighborhoods that boast a local train station have increased property values. Look at Chestnut Hill, all of the Main Line, etc.

    My spouse and I spend weekends in Margate, and both work on the Philadelphia side of the river. We would certainly consider taking the train to AC on the weekends, especially if we don’t leave for the beach at the same time. One of the biggest reasons why we stay on Absecon Island is to be close to AC for entertainment purposes. It’s a quick Uber ride from Margate to a lot of nighttime fun in AC. Let Philadelphia residents jump on a quick train ride to AC, and you’ve got yourself a winner!

    Great, great post. Hopefully I made sense. Thanks for sharing.

    • Hey Drew, thanks for sharing your experience. I’m perplexed about the attitude toward South Jersey on NJ Transit’s part, too. They seem to not be interested in improving train (or bus) service, but still maintain what subpar service they have. It’s confusing, especially considering they spent money to build the Pennsauken transfer; does a transfer to a once-every-two-hour train really get as much use as justifies its construction? “Frequency is freedom” is a common phase regarding public transportation, and it’s very much the key to improved use. Some of my suggestions and those of others were in a $735,000 study that NJ Transit commissioned and then shelved. The company that did it predicated that daily ridership would increase to over 10,000 passengers if those were put in place. That’s a lot of extra people and revenue to do nothing about.

      That’s cool you stay in Margate, combining the train and Uber sounds like a great way to get down the shore, especially on summer Fridays with really miserable traffic all the way down there.

  7. Pingback: Declining Atlantic City Train Line Draws Loyal Commuter Crowd | Route 40

  8. Joe says:

    I live in Hammonton. I work at Atlantic City International Airport and my wife works in Philly.

    Using public transit her commute is around 1.5 hours. She finds it most convenient to drive to Lindenwold and take the PATCO. If parking was available at work, the driving commute would be around 45 minutes, which would probably justify all the added expenses.

    A quicker and more frequent NJT service from Hammonton to Philly would be a compelling reason to leave the car at home.

    The AC Line passes along the north boundary of the AC Int’l Airport. It’s completely feasible to add an ACY stop to the line. That would be useful for travelers and local folks looking to get out of town (Spirit is based at ACY and has a bunch of cheap seasonal flights from there) as well as the hundreds of people working at the airport.

    One partial solution to the single track problem would be to construct a handful of short bypass sections to allow opposing trains to pass each other.

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