by Ron Bernthal
For the past half-century direct rail service between New York City and Atlantic City has only been part of old-timers` memories or faded newspaper headlines. The “Nellie Bly,” Pennsylvania Railroad`s fastest train, named after a late 19th-century newspaperwoman, made its last NY-Atlantic City run in 1901, after a fiery crash in New Jersey. The speedy Atlantic City Flier, the next generation of romantic-sounding Atlantic City express trains, also ended its career in a New Jersey ravine in 1922. Direct service to Atlantic City was discontinued sometime in the early 1960`s (connecting service was, and continues to be, available via Philadelphia`s 30th Street Station), but a consortium of three Atlantic City casinos has provided funds to re-establish direct, one-stop service, between New York`s Penn Station and the modern Atlantic City Rail Terminal.
The new train service, which started in early February, is called ACES (Atlantic City Express Service), and is operated by New Jersey Transit, with Amtrak handling reservations. The shiny red, blue and silver, four-car, double-decker train offers first class and coach seating, food service, comfortable leather seats, and the opportunity to travel the congested NY-Atlantic City corridor in a relaxed state of mind, without fear of parkway traffic jams.
Presently there are 9 roundtrips on weekends only, but seasonal demand in spring and summer should expand the schedule to include midweek service as well. I boarded an ACES train at Newark`s Penn Station, the only stop after New York. My lower-level coach seat was quite comfortable, reclined to a nice angle, and there was plenty of leg room. Everything on the redesigned train was clean and new-looking, including the large bathrooms, the sliding electronic doors connecting the cars, the wide windows, and the snack bar, which offered five different beers, four types of wine, 15 varieties of mixed drinks, deli-style sandwiches and healthy salads, and all sorts of beverages, ranging from Organa herbal tea to cappuccino.
The upper-level first class seats are slightly larger than coach, and offer hostess service for food and drinks, which you still have to pay for. There are no separate bathroom facilities or food choices for coach or first class passengers. My ride was smooth, and my fellow passengers, all adults on their first train ride to Atlantic City, seemed to enjoy the novelty of not driving through traffic to the Jersey shore. They mingled with each other at the snack bar, drinks in hand, and talked about hitting the slots and gaming tables before dinner.
We arrived in Atlantic City on-time at 5:16 p.m., two hours, 46 minutes after leaving New York. The three casinos that sponsor the service – Ceasars Atlantic City, Harrahs Resort, and the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa – provide complimentary shuttles from the train station to each property, but passengers are free, of course, to go to other hotels. The New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Authority is also a sponsor of this new service.
The only drawback is that the train does not run along the Jersey coast, but follows the tracks southwest towards Philadelphia, where it stops briefly outside Philly, changes direction, and then continues southeast, crossing back into New Jersey over the Delaware River, and continuing to Atlantic City. The schedule includes the extra time it takes for jockeying around Philadelphia, but in the absence of a more direct coastal rail route, it is still the best way to reach the glitter of the casinos and the fresh smell of the ocean on a rush-hour Friday afternoon.
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