Auto Train rode from bankruptcy to success

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ORLANDO, Fla. — The Auto Train started as a shortcut to paradise, according to the Orlando Sentinel.


The idea: Use a train to move Northerners and their cars back and forth from Florida — eliminating a dreary drive of more than 850 miles on Interstate 95.


Auto Train Corp., formed in 1969, launched the service Dec. 7, 1971. It was funded by a $7 million public stock issue. Its amenities included brightly uniformed attendants, aisle-roaming entertainers and a dining car with china, crystal and even midnight snacks.


The service, brainchild of Washington, D.C., businessman Eugene K. Garfield, was profitable from 1973 to 1976. But the train ran on a shoestring for much of the 1970s, racking up debts because of inconsistent northbound ridership during several months of the year, while people stayed over in Florida for the winter.


Garfield, the company’s president, inaugurated another Auto Train service between Sanford and Louisville, Ky., in May 1977. But it was a flop, shutting down in September 1977 after losing millions.


Two Auto Train derailments in 1976 and a major derailment in 1978 — which injured four people — shut down service for weeks and cost the company more than $6 million in lost revenue. Debts accumulated, including millions in taxes, leading to cutbacks in maintenance that slowed operations.


The company’s stock, which during better times had soared to $60 a share, dropped to $2.75. The company went bankrupt in 1981, owing more than $25 million, and service was halted.


By October 1983 — two and a half years after the trains had stopped running — Auto Train was taken over by Amtrak, the federally subsidized railroad system. Tri-weekly service started Oct. 31, 1983, and daily service resumed a year later.


It has been a success ever since, with a regular ridership shuttling to and from the Northeast.


Today, the train carries more than 200,000 passengers and 100,000 vehicles annually between Lorton, Va., outside Washington, D.C., and Sanford. It serves as a rail gateway for Central Florida theme parks, beaches and other tourist sites.


“Promise yourself that this year you’ll take Amtrak Auto Train — the easy way to travel between the great vacation destinations of Washington, D.C., and Orlando, Florida,” says Amtrak’s Web site advertising the service. ” . . . You can spend the time together as a family, free from the stress of driving I-95. Sit back and relax in your roomy coach seat or private sleeper. Put your feet up. Read a book. Let the scenery entertain you.”


Trains leave almost simultaneously from Virginia and Florida at about 4 each afternoon and arrive 16 1/2 hours later, at about 8:30 a.m. They pass one another midway in South Carolina.


The trains are assembled a few hours before each trip, with automobiles loaded via ramps into car carriers, followed by passenger, dining and sleeper cars joined to locomotives.


One way, peak-season prices in the winter can range from nearly $600 for a couple and car to $1,200 for coach seats and $2,116 for a deluxe cabin with bathroom and shower. Dinner and breakfast are included.


Each train can carry 465 people and 264 cars.


For the most part, the Auto Train only accepts passengers with cars. Exceptions are usually limited to rail officials. But last September, in the wake of terrorist attacks on America, members of the Boston Red Sox baseball team hitched a ride on the Auto Train when they were stranded in Florida because of air-travel shutdowns.


In recent years, Garfield, 66, now of Hollywood, Fla., has continued to push intrastate train service. He helped raise $16.5 million in 1997 to operate the Fun Train — dubbed a theme park on wheels with elegant dining, a movie theater and cocktail bar — to shuttle Central Florida tourists to South Florida beaches. It closed 11 months later.


He also has been active in trying to promote a 54-mile high-speed rail service between Orlando and Port Canaveral.

April 22, 2002