Off to the Aces

The ACES train is a snazzy ride from New York City to Atlantic City. But can it prop up flailing city?

On February 6, the first ACES train rolled out of New York’s Penn’s Station, as it does now every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. It makes one stop in Newark and then shoots past Philadelphia to Atlantic City.

The train was conceived while Atlantic City was on an upswing. In the first part of this decade, the city was bustling with pick-up trucks, cranes, and hard hats. You won’t find that environment in Atlantic City now. Six of the city’s eleven casinos are either in or close to bankruptcy. MGM Grand pulled its $5.5 billion complex off the board, and Revel, which was on track to open a new casino complex in 2010, has stunted progress, saying they’ll finish the building’s exterior then let it ride—empty—until the economy improves.

Into this comes ACES. The best way to describe the ride is cool. ACES uses tricked-out NJ Transit trains with plush leather seating (even in coach), plenty of bar cars, and lounges you can rent if you want to get your party started en route. The last train north leaves Atlantic City at 2:32 a.m.—so you can drink and play without needing to stay overnight.

The train is meant as an option for New Yorkers and North Jersey residents who wouldn’t touch a bus with a 10-foot pole or don’t want to fight summer traffic to Atlantic City.

“My last bus ride to AC was a five-hour ride with the air conditioning going out on the bus and having to switch buses in the parking lot of a Shop Rite,” says Tim Sullivan, 30. He lives in Manhattan and goes to Atlantic City about once a month. He booked a trip on ACES the first weekend it was open. “I was just looking for an alternate experience, something where you could get up, stretch your legs, get a cocktail, mingle with friends a little more freely.

“Ninety percent of my friends are like me,” he adds. “They don’t own vehicles and they refused to take the bus because of the reputation that precedes it.”

The train is not supposed to be a moneymaker—it’s being subsidized by the Borgata, Harrah’s, and Caesars, with the goal of getting more wallets to Atlantic City.  The goal is to draw customers to drop cash for a room, dinner, and drinks on their own accord instead of expecting comped room and board for playing the nickel slots. At $50-$75 for a one-way ticket, ACES isn’t exactly for bargain hunters.

ACES has not released ridership numbers. The public relations spin on why those figures aren’t available suggests it’s not high, but the Atlantic City Expressway isn’t exactly clogged this time of year. The real test will come this summer. If the Tim Sullivans keep touting ACES—and bringing their friends to town through the warm summer months—the service might be a much-needed bright spot for AC.
 
If you do ride the train, I have to tips: First, read the “safety manual” in the seat back pocket. It’s not a manual, but a parody of one. And get the brownie—it’s worth the sugar rush.

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