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New Jersey reviving rail passenger service

By Jennifer Moroz
Philadelphia Inquirer

The last passenger trains to sweep through the towns hugging the Delaware River between Camden and Trenton made their final run 41 years ago.

Today, they make a monumental comeback.

When NJ Transit opens its new light-rail service to the public this morning, riders will step aboard one of the state's largest - and arguably most controversial - investments in South Jersey.

More than a decade in planning and more than a year behind schedule, the $1.1 billion River Line is opening to low ridership expectations and some serious doubts.

But those were largely hidden yesterday as state and local officials celebrated the line's launch with an inaugural ride from Trenton to Camden.

Yesterday was a day of bobbing balloons and optimism for a project that proponents say will return the depressed river towns to the bustling centers they were when the Pennsylvania Railroad Co. was running passenger trains through them.

Even officials with the McGreevey administration, which has criticized the Whitman-era project as a poor investment of coveted transit dollars, were touting the potential.

"This is a wonderful day," Transportation Commissioner Jack Lettiere told the crowd gathered at the line's South Clinton Avenue station yesterday. "You hear in the background the rumble of the engine that will propel us to Camden through 13 towns. Like that engine, the River Line will be an engine for economic development."

Gov. McGreevey called the project "a sensible investment in our future."

"Clearly, there were problems, there were challenges," McGreevey said. "We took a difficult situation and made it better."

Minutes later, the governor smashed a bottle of champagne against one of the sleek white, blue and gold European rail cars as the crowd broke into cheers.

The cheer traveled down the line. As the train stopped to pick up mayors and local officials from towns along the route, residents joined in to celebrate the arrival of the first new mass transit service for South Jerseyans since the PATCO High-Speed Line started operation in 1969.

In Burlington City, the sounds of a jazz quartet floated over hundreds of welcomers, many waving small American flags.

Florence Morrison, 80, leaned over a guardrail to catch a glimpse of the incoming train. Sixty-eight years ago, she and her family moved to Burlington City from Pittsburgh, and they took the train the whole way.

"It was the thrill of my life," she said, recalling it. "I'm so happy to see it coming back. I think we need it."

Near the station in Beverly, Burlington County, Carol Moore, owner of the Whitebriar Inn, set up a stand outside her new Station Stop Cafe, and handed out freebies to train watchers. She dressed in garb from the 1800s, when the Camden & Amboy Railroad laid the original tracks on which the River Line was built. But she was looking to the future.

"You'll be able to sit out here on the front porch and wait for your train," she said of her plans for the cafe. "We're very lucky."

At the New Jersey State Aquarium in Camden, the train rolled in under a huge American flag that hung over the track.

another crowd waited, and another band played as the dignitaries and special invited guests poured off the train and into a large white tent for a closing ceremony.

"This is great," Camden Mayor Gwendolyn Faison said. "Didn't we tell you that Camden was on the move?... The train is here."

It took a long time to arrive. The last passenger train to travel the route fell victim in 1963 to the rising popularity of the automobile and falling ridership.

Officials started talking about new rail service in South Jersey more than 10 years ago. Original plans, though, had lines running through Gloucester County and the middle of Burlington County - areas deemed to generate the most ridership.

Those plans were met with some community resistance. And in 1996, after years of planning, State Sen. William C. Haines, an influential Republican from Burlington County, led - and won - a push to reroute the rail through the dying river towns.

At that time, studies predicted the line would cost $314 million and, once built, would carry 11,200 fares a day.

Transit officials now say they expect the line to draw 5,700 fares a day in its first year - about one-sixth of the PATCO High-Speed Line's fares. And the total project cost, including debt payment over the next 13 years, has soared to $1.1 billion.

In its first year, the line is expected to cost $20 million to operate, but generate just $2 million in revenue.

Transit officials say they have been left to make the best of the situation. To entice riders, they are offering an introductory discount fare of $1.10 for any one-way trip along the line. And they have added limited late-night service to a line that originally had all last trains leaving at 9 p.m.

Linda Richardson, for one, is sold. Richardson, 58, joined the crowd in Burlington City yesterday to watch the maiden voyage of the train she plans to take as part of her commute to work in North Philadelphia.

"It will be the first time I don't have to drive," said Richardson, a fund-raising consultant.

Carmen Crayne, who works as a reservation sales supervisor for Amtrak at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, also plans to use the line to get to work.

Yesterday, she snapped pictures with a disposable camera as she waited for the train with her two granddaughters, 7 and 9, whom she hoped to teach to become "rail people," too.

The wait was worth it for friend Robin Benscoter, who turned philosophical as the inaugural train pulled out of the Burlington City station and headed south on its journey to Camden.

"Hey, we are watching a bit of history, Carm," she said. "I wouldn't have missed this for the world."