Operating for almost ten years, Auto-Train had developed a popular following, particularly among older travelers. No one else offered a similar service until, after a gap of almost two years, service was revived by Amtrak (the National Railroad Passenger Corporation), a federally chartered corporation that operates most intercity passenger trains in the United States.
Today, Amtrak's Auto Train carries about 200,000 passengers and generates around $50 million in revenue annually. In 2014, it is Amtrak's best-paying train, being the top of a handful of Amtrak trains that make a profit.
After a period of 22 months without service, the service was revived by the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, better known as Amtrak, the corporation that operates most intercity passenger trains in the United States. Amtrak acquired the terminals in Lorton and Sanford and some of the Auto-Train equipment. On October 30, 1983, it introduced its new version of the service (under the slightly modified name "Auto Train") on a triweekly basis. Daily service was introduced a year later.
Amtrak continued to use the bi-level and the tri-level autoracks that Auto-Train had used. For passenger equipment, it initially used a mixture of former Auto-Train railcars and mid-century long-distance railcars from Amtrak's general fleet, all rebuilt to Amtrak's "Heritage Fleet" standards. In the mid-1990s, Amtrak replaced all these passenger railcars, which were of the conventional single-level type, with its newer, bi-level Superliner I and II equipment. In 2006, the aging bi-level, tri-level, and "van" autoracks were phased out and replaced with 80 new autoracks. Unlike the old racks, the new racks have uniform heights, and are most similar to the "vans" of the previous fleet. As of 2009, an Auto Train consist is normally made up of two General Electric P42 diesel-electric locomotives (and sometimes a third engine) and forty or more railcars (passenger and autorack), for a total length of a 3⁄4-mile or more. A typical train has: 1 transition sleeper (for the crew), 6 sleepers (including a deluxe sleeper), 1 diner and 1 lounge for sleeper passengers, 4 coach cars, and 2 diners and 1 lounge for coach passengers, and 20-30 autoracks which run on the rear. There is no caboose.
Amtrak's Auto Train is often said to have the longest passenger train in the world, although (as mentioned above) it may be best regarded as a mixed train, rather than as a pure passenger train. Currently, two Auto Train consists are in simultaneous operation each day. At 4:00 pm, there are departures from both the Lorton and Sanford terminals. Florence, South Carolina, is the only scheduled stop on the 855-mile run: at this stop, the train is refueled and serviced and the engine crew and conductors are changed, but no passengers are entrained or detrained. Each train is scheduled to arrive at the other end the next morning at 9:30 am, for an endpoint-to-endpoint average speed of about 49 miles per hour.
In fiscal year 2006, Amtrak's Auto Train carried about 207,444 passengers, including 87,802 sleeper passengers. The train is notable, especially within the Amtrak system, for the high quality of its equipment and of its customer service. The train grossed $49,351,664 in ticket revenue in Fiscal Year 2006, making it Amtrak's highest grossing single train. With total expenses of $62.1 million, it is Amtrak's best-paying long distance train in terms of income in comparison with operating expenses. This popularity has Amtrak exploring other possible routes for this service, with a Chicago-Phoenix route being considered, among others.
Auto Train operates on the same route it and its predecessor have always used, the route now being owned by CSX Transportation. The trains are known by their route numbers (53 Southbound, 52 Northbound) internal to Amtrak. When communicating on the CSX road channels, they are known by their CSX designations: P-053xx and P-052xx, where xx is the 2-digit date at which the train departed its origin station. So a Southbound train that departed on the 23rd of the month would be known as CSX P-05323 on the road channels. This allows for unique identification in the event that 2 trains on the same route are operating simultaneously.
In the January 2011 issue of Trains magazine, this route was listed as one of five routes to be looked at by Amtrak in FY 2012 and examined like previous routes (Sunset, Eagle, Zephyr, Capitol, and Cardinal) were examined in FY 2010.
The Auto Train was the last Amtrak service to permit smoking on board. Amtrak discontinued the practice on June 1, 2013, and began permitting passengers to alight at the Florence service stop to smoke.
The train operates every day. At 11:30 am, the station gates are opened to allow the passengers for the next trip into the vehicle staging area. Here, the vehicles are assigned their number, which is affixed to the driver's door magnetically. The vehicle is typically video surveyed to document any preexisting dents and other damage, in the event a damage claim is later filed. The passengers leave their vehicles here and take their carry-on bags with them into the station to await boarding. The vehicles are then staged near the autorack ramps by size and length for optimal loading order, and are then loaded onto the autoracks. In the case of motorcycles, the owner assists with tying their bikes down to a dedicated motorcycle carrier which is then loaded into the autorack. Passengers do not have access to their vehicles during the trip. Boarding begins at 2:30 pm. At 3 pm, a wine and cheese tasting is offered in the lounge cars.
The last vehicles and passengers are accepted at 3 pm, at which time the autoracks are closed and coupled together, the passenger cars are coupled together in the case of Sanford departures, and the autoracks are coupled to the rear of the consist. At 4 pm, the locomotive engineer is given clearance to occupy the main line, and the train departs the station to begin its run.
There are 2 or 3 dinner seatings, depending on how full the train is. Dinner (included in the ticket price) is served in the dining cars at 5, 7, and when there is a third seating, 9 pm. Each seating is announced over the intercoms in each car, and in each sleeping compartment. After the first dinner seating, a recent movie is shown on televisions in the lounge cars, which is repeated later in the evening. After midnight, the train arrives in Florence, South Carolina, where it stops briefly to be refueled and re-watered. A crew change also occurs here for the locomotive.
At 6 am, the dining car crew serves breakfast. No announcement is made for this seating until 7 am, however. Breakfast is served until 8 am.
As the train approaches the destination station, announcements are made concerning arrival time updates, and a general call for the passengers to gather up their personal belongings. At 9:30 am the train arrives in the destination station. Passengers may not immediately detrain at this point, as the autoracks are first decoupled from the consist, and in the case of the Sanford station, the passenger cars are split into two sections to fit on Sanford's shorter platforms. At this point the passengers are then allowed to detrain and move to the auto claim area. Cleaning crews move into the train once all passengers are off and the train is re-supplied with that day's food and water. The passenger car's seat backs are all changed to allow everyone in seats to ride facing forward. The train's power (locomotive engines) is turned around, using a railway turntable in Lorton and a wye in Sanford.
The autoracks are further split into 4–6 sections and each section is lined up with a loading ramp (see picture). The doors between each are opened, and connecting ramps are lowered to allow vehicles to move between cars. At this point vehicles begin to roll off the autoracks and around to the claim area, where they are identified and announced by a vehicle number that was attached to the vehicle at the origin station. Vehicles are not unloaded in the same order they were loaded the previous day. It normally takes 2 hours to unload all vehicles from a full train.
Lorton, Virginia is about a half-hour drive south of Washington, D.C., just off Interstate 95 in Northern Virginia. Amtrak's new Lorton terminal opened in early 2000 as a replacement for the original station built during the 1970s, and features a large, modern waiting area with high glass walls. The station was designed by architect Hanny Hassan. The suspended sculpture in the lobby was designed by Patrick Sheridan. Outside the waiting room are the tracks where passenger cars are set out for boarding. The platform is 1,480 feet long.
Lorton was selected as site of the northern terminal because the 20-foot-2-inch height autoracks were too tall to pass through the First Street Tunnel into Washington, D.C.
Sanford, Florida is the southern terminus and is about a half-hour drive north of Orlando. The original facility was an older and smaller facility than the terminal at Lorton. Currently, the Auto Train loads its passengers on two tracks in Sanford, as no one track is long enough to accommodate all the passenger railcars. Sanford's operation is also unique in that a railroad crossing runs through the middle of the rail yard. This complicates some switching procedures and also produces the need for a three-man yard conductor crew – conductor, assistant conductor, and footboards – as opposed to Lorton's two-man operation (conductor and assistant conductor). Both yards operate with one engineer. Sanford serves as the main mechanical and maintenance location for Auto Train, with diesel and car shops to service the fleet. Superliners and engines needing to be rotated out of Auto Train service are usually deadheaded to Lorton and then swapped out through an extra move to Ivy City in Washington.
On March 13, 2009, it was announced that $10.5M would be spent to rebuild the aging Auto-Train facilities in Sanford. Amtrak, the state of Florida, Seminole County and the city of Sanford coordinated their efforts to rebuild the facility. Groundbreaking for the new terminal took place on May 18, 2009. The new terminal opened on October 18, 2010, and is four times larger than the original station. It includes a gift shop, cafe, and a waiting area that can accommodate up to 600 passengers.
Auto-Train ex-Santa Fe "Big Dome" dome cars at Lorton, Virginia in 1973.
By Bengt Mutén - originally posted to Flickr as Old126340, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6557068
Auto Train is an 855-mile-long scheduled train service for passengers and their automobiles operated by Amtrak between Lorton, Virginia (near Washington, D.C.), and Sanford, Florida (near Orlando). Although there are similar services around the world, the Auto Train is the only one of its kind in the United States. The Auto Train is the only north–south Amtrak train in the east to use Superliner cars.
Passengers ride either in coach seats or private sleeping car rooms while their vehicles (car, van, sport utility vehicle, motorcycle, small trailer, or jet-ski) are carried in enclosed automobile-carrying freight cars, called autoracks. The train also includes lounge cars and dining cars. The Auto Train service allows its passengers to avoid driving Interstate 95 in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, while bringing their own vehicle with them.
The service operates as train 53 southbound and 52 northbound, making no station stops between its terminals at Lorton, Virginia, and Sanford, Florida. Amtrak's Auto Train is the successor to an earlier similarly named service operated by the privately owned Auto-Train Corporation in the 1970s.
During fiscal year 2011, the Auto Train carried over 250,000 passengers, a 6.4% increase over FY2010. The train had a total revenue of US$68,618,768 in FY2011, an increase of 12.5% over FY2010. The Auto Train had the highest revenue of any long-distance train in the Amtrak system.
The original Auto-Train operated on Seaboard Coast Line Railroad and Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac tracks. It was operated by Auto-Train Corporation, a privately owned railroad founded by Eugene K. Garfield. Garfield had worked at the U.S. Department of Transportation. The Department had funded a study of the practicality of an automobile-train service. Garfield resigned and used the study as the blueprint for his enterprise. The company used its own rolling stock to provide a unique rail transportation service for both passengers and their automobiles in the United States, operating scheduled service between Lorton, Virginia, near Washington, D.C., and Sanford, Florida, near Orlando, Florida.
Passengers rode either in wide coach seats or private first-class sleeping compartments while their vehicles were carried in enclosed autoracks. The train included dining cars and meals were served. The equipment of the Auto-Train Corporation was painted in red, white, and purple colors. The typical train was equipped with two or three General Electric U36B diesel-electric locomotives, 75 ft double-deck auto carriers, streamlined passenger cars, including coaches, dining cars, sleeping cars, and 85 ft full-dome cars, and a caboose, then an unusual sight on most passenger trains. Auto-Train's first auto carriers were acquired used, and started life in the 1950s as an innovation of the Canadian National (CN) Railroad. The CN bi-level autorack cars had end-doors. They were huge by the standards of the time; each 75-footer could carry 8 vehicles.
Auto-Train Corporation's new service began operations on December 6, 1971. The Auto-Train was immediately popular with the traveling public and at first enjoyed financial success as well. In FY 1974 the company earned turned a profit of $1.6 million on revenues of $20 million. In May 1974 service began over a second route between Florida and Louisville, Kentucky, and the company was mulling additional service between Chicago and Denver. The Louisville extension proved to be the company's undoing. The decaying Louisville and Nashville Railroad track between Louisville and Florida (which also hampered Amtrak's Floridian) hindered operations, and a pair of derailments stretched the company's finances to the breaking point. Service ceased in April 1981.
Auto-Train acquired a significant number of dome cars, so much so that in 1974 it did not roster any conventional coaches. These included seven ex-Western Pacific dome coaches, each seating 36, which Auto-Train called "Mini-Domes". These had previously run on the California Zephyr. It also acquired all but one of the Santa Fe's Big Domes (six dormitory-lounges and seven of eight full lounges) and the lion's share of the Union Pacific's Astra Dome fleet: seven coaches, nine dining cars and fourteen lounge-observation cars. Two of the Big Dome lounges and two of the Astra Dome lounges were rebuilt as "Night Club" cars. The remainder of the Astra Domes were dubbed "Maxie-Domes", as opposed to the "Mini-Domes".
Food service cars
Auto-Train acquired a wide variety of food service cars. These included ex-Seaboard kitchen-dormitory cars, ex-Seaboard dining cars rebuilt as buffet cars, and five Norfolk and Western and Western Pacific coaches which were also rebuilt as buffet cars.
Sleeping cars acquired by Auto-Train included six ex-Santa Fe Regal series sleeping cars (4 bedrooms, 4 compartments, 2 drawing rooms), five ex-Union Pacific Ocean series sleeping cars (5 bedrooms, 2 compartment, 2 drawing rooms), and three ex-Seaboard sleepers (5 bedrooms, 1 compartment, 4 sections, 4 roomettes).
The centerpiece of the Auto-Train was the 62 ex-Canadian National bi-level autoracks, which were acquired between 1971–1973. The passenger equipment acquired by Auto-Train used steam heat, so the company also acquired steam generator cars. These were mostly former Great Northern cars, but the Auto-Train also rebuilt several former Western Pacific and Santa Fe baggage cars into steam generator cars.
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