late 1960s, the US government sponsored a study to determine
if there was a market for trains that could carry both passengers
and their autos as had been done successfully in Europe.
of the study was "yes". But the government also determined
it could be run at a profit and so should be left to private industry.
almost all of the major railroads turning their passenger equipment
over to Amtrak in the early 1970s, there would be no takers from
among the usual suspects.
Enter a young
attorney named Eugene K. Garfield. While working as an assistant
to the Transportation Secretary, Garfield became familiar with
the government's study.
The 33 year
old used his personal savings to set up the Auto-Train Corporation
in 1970. With financial backing from a NY investment bank, Garfield
contracted with the SCL and the RF&P railroads to operate
a train consisting of Auto-Train Corporation equipment from an
Auto-Train terminal in Lorton, VA in the Washington, DC area to
Sanford, FL just a few miles from the new Walt Disney World.
of railroads eager to rid themselves of surplus passenger equipment,
the Auto-Train Corporation was able to purchase some of the finest
equipment ever built -- and at bargain prices.
this new breed of train, the corporation needed to identify suitable
auto carriers. The solution was found in Canadian National bi-level
auto carriers. These would carry passengers' cars in enclosed
safety and would be put at the front of the consist.
And what a
consist it was! Every coach was a dome car. The best domes of
the Santa Fe, Union Pacific and Western Pacific were brought together
with sleepers and diners from the ACL, SAL, L&N, N&W and
others. Rounding out each consist was a steam generator car and,
in later years, a caboose.
To pull this
unique train would take new, high-horsepower diesels. Auto-Train
initially purchased five new GE U36B diesels (eventually acquiring
12), and the corporation was ready to run.
train left Lorton on December 6, 1971 for the 856 mile trip to
Sanford. Thanks to a large advertisement in the New York Times
the train was an instant success. Thousands of passengers booked
passage on the new service and the young and enthusiastic onboard
staff garnered the train rave reviews.
would arrive at the terminal and proceed to drop off their vehicles
for loading onto the auto carriers. Next, the passengers would
board the deluxe passenger cars of the train. With all the passengers
and vehicles loaded, the passenger cars would be coupled onto
the auto carriers and the train would head out. The trip in either
direction was nonstop, save for servicing stops and crew changes.
the automobiles would be offloaded and, at least in the case of
arrival at Sanford, the passengers would be on their way to fun
in the sun. Going home would reverse the process.
was so successful that soon a second route was added -- from Louisville,
KY to Sanford.
The new service
wasn't nearly as well received and put a drag on corporate finances.
The next six years would be a struggle. Even as the Louisville
service was reworked and wound down, a trio of accidents took
their toll. Insurance premiums went up and passenger revenues
April 30, 1981, the last auto-trains departed Lorton and Sanford,
passing in the night. When they arrived at their destinations
May 1, the Auto-Train Corporation was done.
was gone, but the concept had been proven.
was reborn two years later as Amtrak started its own Auto Train
service using the same Lorton and Sanford facilities. The concept
pioneered by Eugene Garfield and the staff of the Auto-Train Corporation
is, today, one of Amtrak's highest revenue routes!