Every Memorial Day marks the beginning of a tradition in the Delaware Valley where thousands of families migrate “down the shore” for summer vacations along the Garden State’s sandy beaches. Today it largely involves a flux of vehicular traffic on the congested 42 Freeway and Atlantic City Expressway, making an already miserable drive even less tolerable. While sitting in traffic many don’t realize there was actually a time where people from all over the northeast and across the country could catch regular train service to most of the Atlantic and Cape May County resort towns. With through sleeper service from destinations all over the country and train names like The Sea Hawk, The Boardwalk Flyer and the Atlantic City Angler one can only wonder what happened to the great transportation system and America’s beloved playground, Atlantic City.
Eager to tap the seasonal boom in passenger traffic railroads were chartered to reach the Atlantic as early as the 1850’s. By late in the last quarter of the 19th century Southern New Jersey would become the battleground of bitter rivals, the Reading Company and the Pennsylvania Railroad. The PRR operated a network of lines that were consolidated under the West Jersey & Seashore Railroad in 1896. Operations included Philadelphia to Camden ferries, the Camden & Atlantic Railroad; a direct line to Atlantic City via Haddonfield and the West Jersey Railroad, which ran via Woodbury to Newfield, Millville and ultimately Cape May. The West Jersey Railroad was one of the PRR’s first major electrification projects utilizing DC third rail transmission as far south as Millville and to Atlantic City via the connecting Newfield Branch in 1906. A part of the branch between Clayton and Franklinville served as a test area in 1907 for motive power development for the NY terminal electrification and opening of Penn Station NY. The Reading’s major route was originally built as the Philadelphia & Atlantic City Railway in 1877 by former officers of the Camden & Atlantic. The line was built as a narrow gage operation to save money, running some 54 miles in length and was completed in just 90 days! The following year the operation fell into bankruptcy and several years later the Central Railroad of NJ and the Reading went in together to purchase the operation. Immediately after taking control the Reading converted the line to standard gage and double tracked the entire route for increased traffic. By 1885 the Reading acquired full control of the railroad and later expanded operations mirroring the WJ&S all the way to Cape May by purchasing other lines including the Ocean City Railroad, Cape May, Delaware Bay & Sewell’s Point Railroad and the Seacoast Railroad.
Camden was the epicenter of operations for both railroads, maintaining extensive freight and passenger terminals, ferry service and car float service to move freight cars to neighboring terminals in Philadelphia. The PRR increased accessibility to the WJ&S in 1896 when it opened the Delaware River Railroad & Bridge Company. Operating as a wholly owned PRR subsidiary, the company consisted of a 9.2 mile, double track line connecting to the PRR mainline at Frankford Junction. The line crossed the Delaware River on the Delair Bridge, an impressive span consisting of over 2500’ of approach trestle and a river channel crossed by three fixed Pennsylvania truss spans and one through truss swing span to allow marine traffic passage on the river. Once in New Jersey the line connected with the Camden & Amboy allowing movements to both Camden and to and from Trenton, The Bridge branch then continued east then south to connect with the Camden & Atlantic at Vernon interlocking in Haddonfield, creating a direct link to seashore resorts while bypassing the congested Camden terminal.
For a time both railroads enjoyed prosperous service hauling countless express and local trains to the Jersey Shore, but by the 1920’s it became evident that the rise of the automobile and the completion of the Ben Franklin Bridge (originally named the Delaware River Bridge) in 1926 meant major competition and declining revenues for both railroads. During the Great Depression hearings with the NJ Public Utilities Commission aimed toward a merger of operations in order to mitigate the mounting financial losses. Effective June 25th 1933 the competitors ended their rivalry to become the Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines. Immediately following the merger the PRSL was busy building new facilities and inter-line connections to ration duplicate trackage and bring together the physical plant of the former competitors. Despite the Great Depression the railroad commenced construction on a new Union Terminal in Atlantic City that provided a large spacious station to handle all Atlantic City service, which was previously spread over three different stations. In Camden the Reading’s “new” Kaign’s Point Terminal was closed after just ten years of operation shifting everything to the newly expanded PRR Federal Street terminal where many trains still made Philadelphia connections via the PRR’s aging ferry fleet. By the mid-30s vacationers and commuters alike were offered a new service that would ultimately spell the demise of the ferries. A rapid transit rail link between Philadelphia and Camden utilizing a dedicated right of way over the Ben Franklin Bridge provided connection with Philadelphia Rapid Transit’s Frankford Elevated and Broad Street Lines.
During World War II the railroad thrived as many did, though tourist travel declined the US Army turned Atlantic City into a major recruitment and training center for troops, often practicing maneuvers and amphibious beach landings much to the visiting tourist’s dismay. Many industries served by the railroad were converted into military defense plants and ports were overrun with outgoing equipment and supplies adding to the bottom line. Taking advantage of the need for scrap metal, the PRSL management targeted several unprofitable lines for salvage during the war years, which also helped the company to improve finances. After the war, like their parent roads the PRSL began a long slow decline as people took to the newly developed highways. Initiatives were taken to build new passenger traffic running dedicated trains to both the Garden State Race Track and new Atlantic City Race Track in 1947. Additional specials were marketed toward the many conventions held in Atlantic City, which provided income year round, helping the cash flow shortage when traditional seasonal traffic dropped off. Public outcry of the deteriorating appearance and services provided by the railroad initiated a PUC investigation. As a result the railroad agreed to modernize and air condition the 60-car P70 passenger fleet began while the Bridge and Building department focused on cleaning up and painting stations and structures, additionally the purchase of new diesel locomotives allowed for the abandonment of the increasingly expensive Millville electrified service. A bitter coal strike around the same time forced the PRSL to begin looking to eliminate or at least marginalize steam operations, which happened to coincide with the release of Budd’s venerable RDC cars, a self propelled stainless steel car available in different configuraions that would greatly improve operations especially on lighter traffic lines. After testing the cars both the PRSL and local politicians were thrilled with their potential, making the last minute move to purchase 12 units in substitution of rebuilding the last 20 car lot of P-70s. The RDC’s arrived in 1950/51 at a cost $1.7 million and immediately were assigned to Cape May service where cars could drop off at Tuckahoe and Wildwood Junction as their own trains to the outlying destinations eliminating the need for additional locomotives and servicing facilities that were previously necessary.
Despite improvements the railroad continued to decline citing an 88% increase in operating expenses while utilizing a federally governed fare scale that had not changed since 1920. In May of 1952 the railroad opened the new Broadway Station in Camden providing convenient connections with the rapid transit line to Philadelphia. As a result the railroad could finally close the Federal Street terminal and ferry service for good in March of 1952. The 1960’s were much the same; Atlantic City was no longer a haven for vacationers and air travel had become much cheaper and faster. People were no longer flocking to the Jersey Shore as a flight to Florida, the Caribbean or even the West Coast was now readily available. The newly formed Delaware River Port Authority opened a second Delaware River bridge (Walt Whitman) and the looming construction of the Atlantic City Expressway spelled almost certain death for passenger travel by rail in Southern New Jersey. Compounded by the PRR and Reading’s financial distress the PRSL finally began taking state subsidies to keep passenger service running. In contrast to the passenger situation freight service was booming, the PRSL spanned large tracts of undeveloped land along the Delaware River in Gloucester and Salem County that were ripe for development. Situated along the Penns Grove line major facilities for Shell, Monsanto and DuPont were built and served exclusively by the PRSL. Additionally Atlantic City Electric would build a coal-fired power plant in Beesley’s Point at the mouth of the Tuckahoe River that would be accessed by a spur leaving the Ocean City Branch in Palermo. In contrast to the increase in freight traffic, 1963 saw passenger losses at a staggering $1.9 million. The following year saw the beginning of the end as a project that would greatly change commuter rail service in Southern New Jersey commenced. The result of a 10 year study and the middle of three proposed routes, ground was broken on a new rapid transit line that would operate between Lindenwold, New Jersey and Center City Philadelphia via the Delaware River Rapid Transit Line. The line would utilize a heavily rebuilt grade separated line along the former C&A right of way from Broadway station in Camden to the terminal in Lindenwold where a new shop complex and transit center would be constructed.
Part of this project called for all existing PRSL trackage in downtown Camden to be eliminated necessitating the expansion of Pavonia Yard and the construction of a new connection just east of Delair to the Bridge Branch providing trains a southern connection to the former C&A. Once in Haddonfield PRSL trains would continue operating on a separate track parallel to the new PATCO service on a grade separated right of way to Lindenwold, resuming its original alignment to Atlantic City. In 1965 the final phase of the AC Expressway was complete severing access to the 1933 Union Statio necessitating the construction of a new station in an isolated area far from the resorts and beaches. In 1969 the new PATCO system commenced operations and in October of the same year, the PRSL terminated all passenger service west of Lindenwold. The remaining Cape May and Atlantic City trains would now require connections via PATCO to reach Philadelphia at the Lindenwold transportation center. Remaining freight lines including the Vineland, Penns Grove and Beesley’s Point branches would still be accessed via an adjusted mainline that was once the connecting track between Center and Mill interlockings in south Camden also sharing a short elevated fill with the PATCO line.
On the heals of a healthy upturn in freight traffic the financial crisis of the Penn Central was devastating for the PRSL, cutting off all cash flow with the bankruptcy of the larger parent of the PRSL. Not long after the Reading would follow suit as the repercussions of the PC bankruptcy resonated through the Northeast. In years to come Nixon would sign the Regional Rail Reorganization Act of 1973 and after the USRA developed a system plan in 1976 the PRSL would cease to exist being rolled into the Consolidated Rail Corporation commonly known as Conrail. Following the creation of Conrail and a cash infusion into the region, freight service continued to benefit. Marginally performing lines were spun off and continue to operate today including the Winchester & Western Railroad the Southern Railroad of New Jersey (formerly the Shore Fast Line) and the county owned Salem Branch. After 1976 passenger service was placed under the control of the NJ Department of Transportation (NJDOT) with Conrail acting as the contract operator. Despite the arrangement the overwhelming responsibility the State was just sidled with of taking over all commuter operations in both North and South Jersey, much-needed funds never came to the former PRSL operation. Citing bad track, a failed movable bridge and poor ridership Cape May and Ocean City service ended in October of 1981 with Atlantic City service following suit in 1982 ending a legacy of a 128 years of continual passenger service in Southern New Jersey.
During the 1980’s gambling appeared to be bringing life back to Atlantic City and hopes to resume rail service were expressed by local politicians. In a significant turn of events an agreement was made with the State for Amtrak to rebuild the entire line from Frankford Junction to a new terminal that would eventually tie into the proposed convention center. On May 23rd, 1989 Amtrak’s inaugural departure left 30th Street station under the moniker of the Gambler’s Express, just a few months later, New Jersey Transit would commence Lindenwold to Atlantic City commuter operations. Amtrak would eventually run through service from the Philadelphia International Airport, Richmond, Washington, Springfield and New York but high fares and poor marketing would ultimately spell the demise of the short lived service which was withdrawn on April 1, 1995. This left NJT as the sole operator of commuter service between 30th Street Station and Atlantic City. Today NJT continues to offer service on the AC line but it remains unseen as to what the future holds for this operation. Potential seems high if politicians fought to increase train frequency and connect the line with the increasingly popular Atlantic City airport. Other proposals call for a return of service to Cape May County, but as of now much of this seems unlikely. Another revival in Southern New Jersey passenger rail service commenced in 2004, when light rail service commenced on the former Camden & Amboy between Camden and Trenton. The new operation; a design, build and operate program with Bombardier affords commuters access to NYC while improving connectivity with both the PATCO line in Camden and AC Line in Pennsauken.
Today freight operations are still based out of Pavonia Yard however Conrail as a railroad, survives only as terminal operation. The Shared Assets arrangement was part of the 1999 split up of Conrail, which much to the contrast of when it began operations in 1976, the company had become an attractive, highly profitable operation. As a concession to federal regulators to maintain a fair market to shippers, Norfolk Southern and CSX maintain Conrail operations in three key terminals; South Jersey, North Jersey and Detroit. Like the PRSL the two parents share a similar arrangement of terminal access and financial responsibility making South Jersey rail operations a unique and diverse operation. Through out the souther part of New Jersey, faint visual clues remain of what once was, wether it be wider than utilized right of ways, surviving stations or abandoned paths, but the heart of PRSL operations to Atlantic City and its later advances in freight continue to be a viable part of the area's economy and transportation infrastructure.
I'd like to acknowledge the generosity of William (Bill) Gindhart for providing the imagery for this article. Bill was a neighbor and friend of Robert L. Long is a long time railroad enthusiast and photographer. His imagery is commonly associated with the waning days of the PRSL service, putting a face to the declining years of a once great railroad empire in Southern New Jersey.