The long-underutilized and more recently suspended rail service between Philadelphia and Atlantic City might seem an unusual cause for a self-described “weather weenie.”
But “NorEasterNick” Pittman, the high-octane South Jersey media personality and high-profile advocate of getting the Atlantic City Rail Line (ACRL) back on track, likes unusual causes, unusual weather, and unusual stories — including his own.
“When I was 7, I’d watch the Weather Channel instead of cartoons,” he told me. “I didn’t want fairy tales. I wanted meteorology books. And by the time I was 18, I was doing weather forecasts on the air."
A 27-year-old Brigantine native and Mays Landing resident, Pittman began his professional career in 2010 as a Hammonton High School senior, doing weather part time for the former NBC-TV affiliate WMGM in Atlantic County. Since 2016, his homegrown forecasts and ebullient personality have been showcased on SNJ Today.
Pittman had to turn down a scholarship to study climate science at Penn State because his grandmother, who raised him, was suffering from Alzheimer’s. “Now I’m studying online to get my degree from Mississippi State,” he said.
Besides meteorology, Pittman’s other lifelong passion is NJ Transit. And like his weather work, his evolution from rail fan to rail advocate draws upon a wealth of knowledge and a deeply felt commitment.
“I have to make a stand. I have to show New Jersey Transit they can’t walk all over us here in South Jersey,” said Pittman, who often posts about the issue on his personal Facebook page.
“We always get the short end of the stick.”
Like more than 5,800 people — nearly three times the line’s 2,000-a-day ridership — who have so far signed the Change.org petition Pittman started last August, the personable weatherman wants service restored. The trains stopped rolling Sept. 5, a move the statewide transit agency said was necessary to meet the mandatory federal deadline for installing new safety technology.
Although that end-of-2018 deadline has been met, NJTransit is declining to say when trains will resume. “We are currently evaluating the schedule and working to restore service as soon as we possibly can,” NJTransit spokesperson Nancy Snyder said Monday, adding that the agency also recently replaced sections of track, totaling seven miles, at locations of the line in Cherry Hill, Lindenwold, and Hammonton. That work cost $5.7 million.
“The claim that service is not coming back is not true," Snyder said. “I can’t give you a specific date. But we are working to restore regular service on the line.”
That day can’t come soon enough for Daniel Ackroyd, 29, a service manager who lives in Ventnor and misses being able to take the train to his job in Philly. His wife, Nicole, a dog groomer, also commuted on the line but has since gotten a job closer to home.
“There is no reason why they can’t bring the train back,” said Ackroyd, who credited social media, and Pittman’s advocacy, with helping him and other members of the riding public stay informed.
“We want our rail line back now,” Pittman told me when I met him and his partner, Brendon Panter — “I’m not crazy into trains, but I like riding trains” — at the ACRL’s forlorn stop in Cherry Hill last Saturday. Panter, 21, is a Rowan University student and an SNJ Today photographer.
The Cherry Hill train station is tucked behind the loading docks of the ShopRite supermarket at the far end of the Garden State Pavilions shopping center off Route 70 at Cornell Avenue. The obscure location is one of many obstacles that hinder the growth of ridership on the line, in Pittman’s (and my) estimation.
Declining ridership “is a self-inflicted wound,” said Pittman, who in a Facebook post enumerated operational changes — such as cutting the number of trains that make the round trip into Philadelphia, and better marketing.
“Nick has a tremendous conviction about South Jersey and the Atlantic City area,” said Ken Pustizzi Sr., SNJ Today’s CEO. “I’m glad he’s stepping up and taking a personal position so that [NJ Transit] doesn’t ignore the importance of transportation in South Jersey.”
Pustizzi also said he admires Pittman’s drive, and I do as well. Pittman grew up in very difficult circumstances, has worked diligently, and has successfully navigated the sometimes tricky waters of coming out.
He and Panter are engaged to be married next summer on the beach in Atlantic City.
I wish them sunny skies and a sea breeze.