Somewhere between South Jersey’s suburban towns and its popular seaside resorts lay a network of train tracks draped through the forests of the state’s seven southernmost counties. From 1933 until 1976, they bustled with passengers escaping to beach towns up and down the state’s coastline from crowded and sweltering neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Camden. The growth of private car travel and the opening of the Atlantic City Expressway in the mid-1960s reduced rail offerings to the shore down to just the Atlantic City Line, which still operates today. But at least a few times a year, you can take a ride on some of the historic tracks that ignited the Philadelphia region’s love affair with New Jersey’s southern beaches.
Every fall and winter, a private company running excursion trains on a stretch of tracks between Buena Vista Township’s Richland Village and Tuckahoe in Upper Township takes people back in time on trains from the heyday of train travel in South Jersey. Cape May Seashore Lines, which leases some of the former Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines’ tracks between Winslow Junction near Hammonton and Cape May from current owner NJ Transit, runs a train made up of cars from the Pennsylvania-Reading and New York Central railroads. In the fall, you can catch a train to see the beautiful Cumberland County foliage and in winter, Santa comes to town for a few weeks. It’s not a very frequent offering, and unfortunately, another stretch of track closer to the shore has been out of commission since a track theft in 2012. But it is fun to travel down tracks that once carried the bulk of people traveling to the state’s southern shores.
I recently took a ride on the line just after Christmas, when the train, still decked out in lights and playing holiday music, turns into the Winter Limited, making a one-hour round trip between Richland and Tuckahoe. It’s a slow jaunt at 25MPH down rickety old tracks, but it’s interesting to experience a bit of history you can only otherwise see from the adjacent roadway. Most of us are used to driving down today, but it’s easy to see the appeal of kicking back and relaxing on your way down the shore. It’s the way generations before us got to the beach, and it might do us good to eventually bring back some of these lines with all the traffic area roads see every summer. Summer vacations would probably be even better without the tension of traffic congestion associated with driving down the shore and where to park your car once you get there.
And one day, passenger trains might once again roll along these tracks. Restoring service between Hammonton and Cape May is listed on NJ Transit’s long-term list of capital projects, though it’s probably a few decades away at best. Until then, you’ll have to catch a ride on the Cape May Seashore Lines.