The Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines was a jointly-owned operation of the Pennsylvania and Reading railroads. The PRSL served the popular tourism and beach destinations west and south of Philadelphia along the New Jersey coast reaching such seaside towns as Atlantic City, Ocean City, and Cape May. For many years the two railroads had, via their predecessor lines, competed fiercely for the lucrative passenger traffic of vacationers flocking to these popular beach destinations. During the line's peak years it was double-tracked in some locations, electrified in others, operated hundreds of trains daily, and at times maintained speeds above 100 mph!
Today, all of these perks are gone. However, segments of the old PRSL network remain in operation under New Jersey Transit, Conrail Shared Assets, Cape May Seashore Lines, SMS Rail Lines, PATCO Speedline, Southern Railroad of New Jersey, and Winchester & Western.
While the Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines eventually became a joint operation of the Reading and Pennsylvania it did not start out that way. According to A.C. Kalmbach's article, "Penn-Reading Seashore," from the August, 1941 issue of Trains Magazine the system was originally formed on June 25, 1933 through the merger of the Pennsylvania's West Jersey & Seashore Railroad and the Philadelphia & Reading's (Reading) Atlantic City Railroad. The marriage came about through a requirement by the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. The mandate was handed down on March 4, 1931 stipulating they must mutually join for the public interest. The so-called Consolidation Agreement provided the PRR with two-thirds ownership and Reading one-third. All of the energized territory was the result of PRR's work on its line between Camden-Atlantic City and Woodbury-Millville while the Reading's operation was steam powered only. During the early 1940s PRSL's locomotive fleet consisted of ten 4-4-2 Atlantics (PRR Class E-6), twelve 2-8-0 Consolidations (PRR Class H), and five 0-6-0 switchers (PRR Class B). On occasion the road utilized a fleet of Pennsy' s hearty 4-6-2's (K-4s) and even a Reading 4-6-2 (Class G).
The use of almost-entirely PRR-owned or handed-down equipment was a result of the previously-mentioned agreement. The Pennsy's motive power department was responsible for maintaining and supplying PRSL's locomotive fleet. Into the diesel era things were much more interesting as the road operated almost entirely rare Baldwin models like the S-12, AS-16, and DRS-4-4-1500. Finally, electrified service (all third-rail) extended from Camden to Bridgeton and as far as Millville via Newfield. The PRR had originally electrified its entire line from Camden to Atlantic City in 1906. However, as Mr. Kalmbach points out this was later cutback to Newfield. Before diesels took over a small fleet of gas-electric "Doodlebug" rail cars replaced electrics along the eastern end to Atlantic City. For the most part, the entire 715-mile (total rail miles including all yards, spurs, and sidings) Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Line network was powered with traditional locomotives.
The region exploded into a popular tourist destination following the Civil War. The first to offer service was the Camden & Atlantic in the 1850s, a precursor to the PRR's West Jersey & Seashore Railroad while the predecessors of Philadelphia & Reading's eventual Atlantic City Railroad began offering competition in the 1870s. The ACRR property had been entirely double-tracked by 1889 as demand soared for those flocking to the beaches and escape the summer's heat. By the 1940s the PRSL was operating 176 daily passenger trains during the summer season, 111 of which departed from either Philadelphia's Market Street Wharf or Broad Street Station bound for the New Jersey coastline. These trains handled more than 50,000 travelers each day (according to the article "Three Months Feast, Nine Months Famine," by Al Rung from the June, 1948 issue of Trains demand peaked at 100,000 daily riders during World War II). In addition, the PRR and Central Railroad of New Jersey dispatched trains from the New York to Southern New Jersey; the former from its main line at Trenton and the latter via its flagship Blue Comet connecting Jersey City with Atlantic City via PRSL's Winslow Junction.
Today, the United States does not place the important emphasis on passenger rail travel it once did. The public has largely ignored trains in favor of cars and airliners. There are few places where one can still enjoy trains traveling near or above 100 mph today. This was not the case prior to 1950 when railroads spent a great amount of effort and money providing the public with efficient, high-speed service. A case in point was the PRSL; trains traveling the 58 miles from the nearly arrow-straight line linking Camden with Atlantic City regularly did so in just 52 minutes with a top speed of 80 mph. In the years prior to the Seashore Lines speeds were even higher; 4-4-2 "Camelback" designs (or "Mother Hubbards" as they were sometimes known) of the Atlantic City Railroad zipped along at speeds eclipsing 100 mph. During one particular run on July 20, 1904, led by #1027 the locomotive set a speed record of 115 mph between Brigantine Junction and Egg Harbor City carrying a five-car consist.
While passenger services dominated PRSL operations there was also some freight serving a variety of customers. During World War II some 18 regular trains plied the network on a daily basis. Since the PRSL relied so heavily on travelers it was susceptible to highways and interstates and was particularly hurt after a series of new roadways were built follwoing World War II; these included the Garden State Parkway constructed between 1946 and 1957 along the entire length of New Jersey's eastern shore, the Atlantic City Expressway opened in its entirety during 1965 competing directly with the PRSL between Turnersville and Atlantic City, and finally the New Jersey Turnpike finished in 1952 cut across the state from the northeast to southwest. There were many others under construction at around the same time which harmed the railroad's bottom line.
The state's growing hostility to rail service was on full display with its own Jersey Central, which paid exorbitant property taxes while dealing with the loss of freight and passenger traffic from subsidized highways. As roads slowly eroded PRSL's passenger traffic it cut back operations and abandoned some lines. However, its freight base was strong enough to maintain the system throughout the 1960s. With the bankruptcy of the Penn Central in June, 1970 and the Reading falling a year later on November 23, 1971, Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines had effectively no ownership as it was not itself in receivership. With the creation of Conrail in the spring of 1976 the new entity took over the PRSL property and continued operating commuter service on the line for a few years until state agencies took over the responsibilities during the early 1980s. Today, while some segments have been abandoned, as mentioned above, numerous entities operate many sections of the former PRSL network.