Last month one of the region's sharper transportation activists wrote this piece about the potential going untapped on NJ Transit's Atlantic City Line. Joseph Russell, of Collingswood, proposes the train route could be beefed up to offer a commuting link between South Jersey and University City, one of the fastest growing neighborhoods in Philadelphia. He considers a stop, Hammonton, which he says is about 59 minutes from 30th Street Station, as the farthest point on the line within reasonable commuting range of the city.
"Everyone in South Jersey is all up in Philly's stuff," Russell said in a recent interview. "When it comes to the transportation picture there is a disconnect from NJ Transit to want to make frequent convenient trips."
Russell's article was prompted by stories about Atlantic City's shaky future. A majority of the route's riders are heading toward Atlantic City now, but he wondered whether the line could reorient its center of gravity from east to west and away from the city with fading fortunes.
During our conversation Russell talked about the assets that make the line make an interesting commuting option. It travels through the heart of Camden County which, according to 2014 census numbers, is already home to nearly 11,000 Philadelphia workers. NJ Transit has exclusive rights to its tracks, meaning it doesn't have to coordinate its schedules with freight lines or Amtrak, something that causes delays in SEPTA service. So it's reliable.
There are also obstacles. One is that the AC Line runs trains about once every two hours. That's not going to cut it for a practical commuter rail. He also wrote that the trains are too slow for a commuter line. He cites the time of 32 minutes spent traveling from Cherry Hill to Philadelphia.
"Nearly everyone with an interest in transit advocacy understands that frequency is freedom," Russell wrote in his blog post.
He cites the age of the track and the fact the trains run on diesel as factors that contribute to its pokey pace.
He also notes the line zips (not too quickly) right by some of the most heavily populated places in South Jersey. There's no stops between Lindenwold and Cherry Hill.
It's ambitious, but he proposes stops at places including the Route 30 corridor and, most interestingly, Philadelphia International Airport, which would create a direct, no-stop rail route between South Jersey and the airport.
Creating new stops and new track is a costly proposition. It's not entirely the same kind of project, but a proposal to extend the Broad Street Line to the Naval Yard, a mere 1.5 miles, would cost $300 to $400 million and has been in development hell for years. An extension to the airport would be considerably longer.
Russell, though, makes a point when he describes the NJ Transit Atlantic City Line an underused resource. An average of 2,550 boarded the train each weekday in fiscal year 2015, according to NJ Transit. The agency doesn't have precise data on who is using the line, but said 25 percent of the line's trips were paid for with monthly or weekly passes, implying there is a commuting population on that train. A 2013 customer survey found about 44 percent of riders said they were using the train for work.
When asked about the possibility of beefing up the line, NJ Transit said it, "is not considering an expansion of service."
The agency also refuted another complaint of Russell's, that the line is too low profile, by saying it is marketed and advertised through posters, internet and mobile ads and social media.
Compared to the rail links between North Jersey and New York City our region's connectors are pretty thin arteries. That doesn't have to be the case, Russell said.
"We're 2.3 million people," he said of South Jersey. "We are larger than some states. But because we're attached to an even larger northern region we get short shrift."