Wildwood trams gear up for summer

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Trudi Gilfillian

article from the AC Press

WILDWOOD — The famous Boardwalk tram cars have appeared in movies and television, but their best-known starring role is in moving an estimated 600,000 people up and down the Wildwoods Boardwalk each summer.

Maintenance crews were busy this week at the trams’ Poplar Avenue garage charging batteries, painting, greasing and making other last-minute fixes in preparation for Friday’s 2012 debut, a sure sign that summer is almost here.

“It’s like dealing with a classic car,” said Patrick Rosenello, executive director of the Boardwalk Special Improvement District, which operates the iconic trams.

The district has a fleet of eight tram engines and a matching set of eight trains, each with either four or five cars.

Five of those engines date to the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the event for which they were built. A decade later, businessman Gilbert Ramagosa bought the tram-car trains, and they started operations on the Wildwoods Boardwalk on June 11, 1949.

Additional trains were built in 1963 and another in 2007.

Over the years, they have become as much a part of the Wildwoods as the beach and Boardwalk.

“People have a real personal connection with these tram cars,” Rosenello said. “It’s the combination of the uniqueness and authenticity of the trams and the uniqueness and authenticity of the Boardwalk. There’s nowhere else you can ride them and have this experience.”

Rick DiVenti, of North Wildwood, knows all about that experience. He is the maintenance manager for the trams and has worked on them for about 35 years.

“It’s the best job I ever had. I wouldn’t be here this long if I didn’t enjoy it,” DiVenti said as he displayed the inner workings of the trams.

Each engine is powered by a 2,510-pound battery, the same batteries used in an electric forklift. The electric control panels have been retrofitted, the last time in 1987, and the electric motors and axles were last upgraded in 1966.

“It is its own entity. These are all analog electronics. A lot of people today don’t know what analog is,” DiVenti said.

What people do know is the look and sound of the trams.

The popular “Watch the tram car, please” warning still plays, and while the trams carry advertisements, their bright blue and yellow colors stand out.

The trams’ future was in question when the improvement district took over the operation nine years ago, but they are self-supporting now.

In 2011, the trams produced $894,000 in revenue, which was used for upkeep, debt payments and staffing. North Wildwood and Wildwood also split a $120,000 fee the tram operator pays to use the tramway that runs through the two towns.

In the winter, they sit idle waiting for another season to come, though their batteries must be charged.

At the peak of the season, the trams employee 75 people, including maintenance staff, office workers, drivers and conductors.

The trams start running at 11 a.m. in season and finish their day about a half-hour after the piers close, usually ending their day by 2 a.m., Rosenello said.

Midway during the trams’ shifts, the batteries are switched to give each time to recharge for the next day.

When the trams debuted in 1949, the fare was 10 cents, but today the fare is up to $2.50 one-way.

A variety of sales promotions, however, with businesses such as Splash Zone and Morey’s Piers, provides for discounted presales that have become an important part of the trams’ finances.

“Seventy-five percent of sales are conducted before a passenger gets on the tram. It helps with safety, efficiency and the financial picture,” Rosenello said.

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