Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Atlantic City Rail Service Comes Up ACES

The Atlantic City Express Service (ACES), a consortium of three Atlantic City hotel and casino operators, announced today that it would commence operating a weekend-only passenger rail service between New York and Atlantic City February 6. The privately sponsored trains would restore direct service to a market that Amtrak exited in 1995.

The line will offer nine departures a week, with trains making one stop en route, at Newark. Running time will be slightly more than 2:40, comparable with the old Amtrak service, which utilized the same track.

To operate the service, ACES has outfitted eight bi-level rail cars with leather seating, a private lounge and food and beverage kiosks. The cars are similar to the new bi-levels being put into service by NJ Transit. Both first class and coach seating will be offered. One-way tickets, which go on sale January 15, will be $50 in coach and $75 in first class.

A complimentary shuttle service will transfer passengers from the Atlantic City Rail Station to Caesars Atlantic City, Harrah's Resort Atlantic City or the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa, which are partnering to sponsor the service. NJ Transit will operate the trains and Amtrak will provide ticketing and a reservations system under management contracts.

This train's success will depend upon its ability to deliver a superior level of service and convey a solid value proposition. Buses, both chartered and scheduled dominate the New York - Atlantic City market. They have the advantage of price and convenience; they depart from just about every neighborhood in the Big Apple. That gives them an advantage on trip time, as well, since their customers don't have to first take a subway to Penn Station.

Amtrak's Atlantic City Express proved to be a disaster. It utilized ordinary Amfleet equipment, did not offer a first-class options and its transfer operation from the rail station to the casinos was anything but seamless. It offered only one departure daily from New York, although it also originated trains in Springfield, MA, Harrisburg, PA, and Richmond, VA. Since it operated daily, it had to contend with low mid-week patronage.

ACES can differentiate itself by providing a smoother, quieter, more luxurious ride, with amenities like its lounge and on-board food and beverage service. It remains to be seen whether that's enough to win over enough riders willing to pay the premium fare. But it is a niche player in a large market, and it has to put only 2,700 fannies per week in its seats to sell out.

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