Ode to an unsung train

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Saturday, March 27, 2010

What’s the matter with you, America? There's a Morning Sun book about everything, but no “Amtrak’s Auto Train, In Color!” Where's the buzz about Auto Train on the online forums? Why is this not the most talked-about train in the land? The Auto Train is not just an Amtrak train; it’s an experience, even to someone who merely watches it pass in the night — especially to someone who merely watches it pass in the night. I once asked Lou Whitley, an Auto Train engineer these many years between Lorton, Va., and Florence, S.C., if he’d ever watched this train pass him at speed. Lou said no. I replied that if he ever does, he will feel born again.

The Auto Train is in a class by itself. Eugene Garfield conceived the train, and his publicly traded company, Auto-Train Corp., ran it from 1971 until a derailment and ill-conceived expansion drove the enterprise into bankruptcy a decade later. Graham Claytor revived Auto Train as an Amtrak operation in 1983. The unparalleled vacation traffic between the Northeast and Florida makes this operation uniquely popular. You couldn’t make it work as well anywhere else.

The Auto Train is big. The southbound edition I rode this week was 3,800 silvery feet, starting with two General Electric P42s, followed by 16 Superliner passenger cars (six sleepers, four coaches, 3 diners, 2 lounges and a crew sleeper) and then 27 aluminum-sided automobile cars.

The Auto Train is financially the closest thing Amtrak has to a long-distance success. In fiscal 2009, which ended last September, it came in second in total revenue, at $58 million (the Empire Builder was first, at $65 million). It’s one of only two long-distance trains to cover what the Federal Railroad Administration defines as direct costs (the New York-Savannah Palmetto is the other, by a hair), and does so with $8 million to spare. (The Empire Builder comes up $11 million short.) Once all direct and indirect costs are counted, it loses less per passenger mile than any long-distance train. Amtrak’s president, Joe Boardman, should love this train.

The Auto Train pleases people, which is why folks keep coming back. In my many trips, I’ve never encountered a discourteous Auto Train employee. It has its own cars and its own maintenance base, in Sanford, Fla. Things get fixed, or they’ll just bounce right back at you two days later. And it has its own operations manager, Alfred Nardelli, who frets over it like a possessive father.  The once-dismal on-time stats by fiscal 2009 had become the best for any long-distance train, with arrivals on or before schedule 89 percent of the time.

And the Auto Train, by god, is awesome to behold. My favorite time is when the guests are asleep. It rushes out of darkness or at first hint of dawn, headlight ablaze, ditch lights flashing and a melodious chime whistle wafting over the sound of screaming turbochargers. One after another after another the darkened bilevel cars go rapidly by, then almost half a mile of auto carriers. I’m used to six-car Amtrak trains flashing past in three or four seconds; when the Auto Train passes, time is in suspension. Only as the cacophony of sounds fade can you again breathe normally. More faintly with each passing minute you hear on a scanner the signals being called: “P052-27, engine Amtrak 188, clear, north, Track One, downtown Jarrett. P052 out.”

I’m not ready to call the Auto Train the best Amtrak has. It needs some tough love. Several years ago, when CSX permitted rampant freight train interference, Amtrak agreed to lengthen the schedule by an hour. It’s time to take out that hour of padding. The original Auto-Train Corp. ran this service two hours faster than Amtrak does today. If Holiday Inn Express and its competitors can feed their guests omelets and sausage in the morning, Auto Train can serve a hot breakfast to its customers; phooey on bananas, cereal and cold, sticky, tasteless muffins. And must its clients wait more than an hour between the time the train arrives and the first automobile rolls off a carrier? That was the case with my train in Sanford this week. These are things that need fixing.

That said, as hardened and cynical as I am, after all the trips I’ve taken on this cruise-ship of a train, I admit to always anticipating the next one. Yes, this week I showed up in Lorton three hours before departure, to hang out with the other geezers and watch the passing scene outside on CSX. Best or almost-best, it’s the most exciting thing in Amtrak’s timetable. If you like trains, you simply must experience this one; whether from the inside or outside, it doesn’t matter.

Thanks to Alex Mayes for his photos of the original Auto-Train arriving Lorton in 1980 (dig those domes!) and Amtrak’s version just outside of Sanford, in 1993. — Fred W. Frailey

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