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Auto-Train reborn!

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, May 24, 2017

 Just when I thought that Auto-Train Corp. would fade into the sands of time without a proper telling of its short but fascinating history, along comes Doug Riddell. Quite under my radar, Doug researched, wrote, and produced Auto-Train, which has been published by the Richmond Fredericksburg & Potomac Historical Society this spring. To order it, go here. It’s the sort of accurate and readable work we’ve come to expect from Doug over the decades. And it comes with lots of skirt.

In 218 pages and 400-plus photographs, Riddell takes us from Auto-Train’s inception as a twinkle in the eye of Eugene Garfield to its incorporation in 1969 and launch in 1972 to its collapse less than a decade later, on May 1, 1981. (Amtrak revived the service in 1983, taking the hyphen out of the name, but that’s outside the scope of Riddell’s book.)

A couple of thoughts.

First, buy the book. It’s a really good read.

Second, only a visionary like Garfield could have attempted to get this Mission Impossible off the ground at the absolute low point of the American passenger train and succeeded. Anyone else would have given up in the face of insurmountable odds. That’s entirely to his credit. Not to Garfield’s credit is that he was a terrible business executive. As Riddell documents, the company never accepted that the reason it attracted customers was solely the long love affair between well-off Northeasterners and the Sunshine State. Garfield was convinced that what worked in that market could work elsewhere, when in fact it could not.

Third, my one quibble with Doug’s narrative is his explanation for the company’s failure, namely, poorly conceived expansion projects outside the core Virginia-to-Florida market, compounded by expensive derailments that ate through the company’s roster of equipment. That’s true enough. But the greater truth is that Auto-Train Corp. was never, ever financially sound, even during those few years during the 1970s when as a public company it reported profits. Grossly under-capitalized to begin with, it never produced from operations anywhere near the money required to modernize the passenger cars it bought for nickels on the dollar, to make them sustainable for the long term. So when they wore out (Auto-Train never attempted to convert its fleet to head-end power) or were damaged in those derailments, that was it for Auto-Train. Doug’s analysis of the company’s failure never quite hones in on that sad reality.

Fourth, oh my god, the women! They were attracted to work that train like ants finding a picnic. They were lovely ladies. I know because no small number of those 400 photos are of them. Thank you, Doug. A friend of mine—the product of a wealthy Washington, D.C., family—was one of the relatively few male on-board employees. Decades later, he describes after-hours employee parties aboard the train in such a manner that it was obviously the high point of his life. Now I know why.

Okay, have I convinced you to fork over $60? If not, what in hell do I need to do?  Auto-Train is a one-of-a-kind book that will appeal to absolutely everyone who loves trains.—Fred W. Frailey

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