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Atlantic City casinos gamble on new NYC train

Welcome to the Atlantic City Express Service, dubbed "ACES," the first direct train service between New York and New Jersey's gambling mecca.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The first clues that this could be a different kind of railroad experience are in a passenger guide that includes drawings depicting the proper way to display a poker face and admonishes, "Trafficking bad vibes into AC is strictly prohibited."

Welcome to the Atlantic City Express Service, dubbed "ACES," the first direct train service between New York and New Jersey's gambling mecca. The multimillion-dollar project will carry its first passengers Feb. 6 and will operate on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Conceived in 2005 when Atlantic City's casinos could still count on steadily increasing revenues, ACES enters a landscape in which increasing competition from neighboring states and the overall economic downturn has sent casino revenues plummeting.

Atlantic City's casinos won $4.55 billion from gamblers last year, down 7.6 percent from 2007. Gambling revenue for casinos nationwide dropped 3.6 percent in the first 11 months of 2008, compared with the same period in 2007, according to the American Gaming Association.

Casino executives say the gloomy numbers make it even more important to invest now.

"By the nature of our business, we've got to continuously reinvent ourselves, whether it's a good economy or a bad economy," said Joe Domenico, senior vice president and general manager for Bally's Atlantic City. "You have to think about where the revenues of tomorrow are coming from."

The new train service is targeting young New Yorkers with disposable income who haven't chosen to spend it in Atlantic City, either because they don't own cars, consider the trip too long for public transit or aren't interested in the many bus trips that run from New York. Previously, a train trip from New York to Atlantic City required changing trains at least once.

Each train features four double-decker cars like those used on some commuter lines, but with a twist (or a splash, depending on your taste): A bar at one end of each car that serves beer, wine and liquor, in addition to sandwiches and snacks.

The upper levels of the cars, for first-class customers, feature waitress service. Both levels boast leather seats that are wider and have more leg room than conventional train cars, plus additional space for luggage.

From New York, the ACES trains will stop once, in Newark, and proceed to just north of Philadelphia, then head east and continue nonstop to Atlantic City. The trip is expected to take about 2 1/2 hours.

Introductory fares are $50 one-way for regular seats and $75 for first-class. Casino officials said that they expect as many as two-thirds of the tickets to be sold or comped as part of packages, but that seats will be available for customers making spur-of-the-moment travel plans.

Each train contains 300 seats; casino executives said they were hoping for 65 percent occupancy once the service is up and running.

"We're not looking so much for a return on the train itself, we're looking for the total return," said Auggie Cipollini, senior vice president and chief administrative officer of the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. "It's about getting new customers in; if they're going to stay for the day they're going to eat, and if they're going to stay overnight you have the room revenue. When you look at the total picture, that's where we think this is a good investment for us."

ACES is a joint venture involving the Borgata, Caesars Atlantic City and Harrah's Atlantic City. The casinos purchased eight train cars for about $15 million, and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority is paying $4.5 million over three years to lease four locomotives. Consulting and marketing costs push the total to about $25 million.

The expenditure recognizes that the time is long past when Atlantic City's casinos could stand pat and wait for customers to flock to them.

"Twenty years ago we didn't need to do anything to attract customers," said Michael J. Walsh, vice president of development for Caesars Atlantic City. "We'd just open the doors and they'd come. Now, with the competition, we have to protect the franchise."