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Atlantic City casino operators got a potential boost Monday, when state authorities authorized direct rail service between New York City and the gaming district.

The 2.5-hour Atlantic City Express Service could be up and running by late 2007, according to the plan approved by New Jersey Transit Monday. The service would start as a three-year trial.

A total of 18 express trains will run between New York Penn Station and the Atlantic City Rail Terminal, with one or more stops in New Jersey, from Friday to Sunday.

Currently, getting from New York City to Atlantic City requires either a car, a bus ride, or a very roundabout train trip with numerous connections, including one in Philadelphia. The transit authority expects the new service will provide roundtrip transportation for about 1,100 people each weekend. Fares have yet to be set.

The agreement comes at a time when the casino operators continue to invest in their properties in Atlantic City in an effort to compete for tourist dollars with Las Vegas and other gaming destinations.

Jefferies & Co. gaming analyst Lawrence Klatzkin says the rail service "sounds very good, but it won't be a really big thing" for casino operators like

Harrah's Entertainment

( HET),

Trump Entertainment Resorts

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( TRMP), and the Borgata resort, which is operated under a joint venture between

MGM Mirage

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Boyd Gaming

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The trains and other capital equipment will be funded by a partnership of Atlantic City hotels and casino operators and the city's redevelopment authority.

For the first five months of this year, Atlantic City casinos won $2.1 billion, up 5.9% from a year ago, according to the New Jersey Casino Control Commission.