Part passenger train, part freight train, all fun! The Auto Train hauls both passengers and their automobiles between Virginia and Florida and is the longest passenger train in the world. Similar operations can be found across Europe, including through the Chunnel as part of their high-speed rail network.
Auto Train Corporation
The original Auto Train concept was pioneered by a for-profit company in 1971. The Auto Train Corporation used equipment acquired from a variety of sources to make up its unique train.
This included large dome cars, dining cars, sleepers and coaches from a variety of railroads and of course auto carriers which were among the first enclosed auto carriers built. These came from Canadian National and helped pave the way for future enclosed auto racks to follow.
In typical 1970s railroad style, the train was painted in rather non-traditional railroad colors of white, red and purple from the locomotives to the caboose. The train ran daily over the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac and Seaboard Coast Line between Lorton, Virginia (just south of Washington D.C.) and Sanford, Florida (about 30 minutes north of Orlando.)
Despite high ridership and a loyal customer base, the corporation went into bankruptcy after ten years of operation. Accidents, high operating costs, and unsuccessful expansion attempts were simply too much for the service to carry.
Although the corporation failed, the concept was highly successful and Amtrak resumed the service in 1983, using a combination of original Auto Train equipment and their own refurbished rail cars (Heritage Fleet) and locomotives.
Amtrak modernized the Auto Train with Superliner passenger equipment in the 1990s and 80 new bi-level autoracks built by Johnstown America from December, 2004 to January, 2005.
These replaced the original CN cars as well as some tri-level racks purchased new in 1976. Unlike the auto racks you see commonly in freight trains, these racks are all an integrated construction – not just a rack attached to a flat car. They are completely enclosed with a clean and modern appearance that complements the Superliner cars nicely.
Today the train regularly runs with consists of around fifty cars including sleepers, coaches, diners and lounges and the autocarriers. Each auto car will hold up to ten vehicles and the train will handle up to 330 vehicles and 650 passengers at full capacity. Pulled by two or three P40 locomotives, the train stretches more than 3/4 of a mile in length.
Since traffic is often seasonal with “snow bird” passengers heading south for extended winter stays in Florida, empty cars may be frequently dead-headed to the opposite terminal to maintain a balance. The roster also has enough cars to cover maintenance down-time.
Trains operate daily in both directions, departing simultaneously at 4:00 in the afternoon from each terminal. The trains arrive at the other end at about 9:30 the following morning. Only one stop is made en-route to refuel and allow a crew change for the engineer and conductor. The train averages 49 mph over the run. While this is certainly not competition for air travel, it is competitive with driving and most passengers find it far more convenient and comfortable!
The route remains the same – though the tracks now all belong to CSX. And the train is traditionally one of the most “profitable” on Amtrak (although the train still runs at a lost, its revenue / operating costs are closer than on most runs.) While additional routes for this service have been explored in the past and may continue to be looked at in the future, for now the only firm commitment is this single market to compete with I-95. And its future looks as bright as the Florida sunshine.