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How the Auto Train became one of Amtrak’s most profitable routes

by Staff

Amtrak has 37 routes that crisscross the United States. Three of them are profitable. Two of those — the Northeast Regional and the high-speed Acela — traverse the heavily populated territory between Boston and the Mid-Atlantic.

The third, according to an Amtrak representative, is the Auto Train, which carries passengers and their motor vehicles between Lorton, Va., and Sanford, Fla.

The Auto Train might seem like an unlikely contender to be a moneymaker for Amtrak. It operates on one single route in the Southeast, a region not known for a reliance on trains. It makes no true stops on its approximately 900-mile journey, just a pause to refuel. It runs only once a day, and passengers must allot extra time to load their vehicles (which can include cars, vans, SUVs, trucks and motorcycles) onto and off the train. Amtrak suggests arriving at the Auto Train station at least two hours before departure time.

It’s also a 17.5-hour ride that requires spending the night on the train — not a popular choice in the United States.

So how does the Auto Train continue to be such a bright spot for Amtrak as most of its routes lose money? To answer that question, we have to travel back in time.

Railroads were once the engine of an expanding United States. In 1862, the Pacific Railway Act authorized the construction of a transcontinental railroad; by 1900, four more were built.

Then car ownership began to proliferate. Between 1919 and 1929, the number of passenger cars in the United States increased from 6.5 million to 23 million, and the government invested more in roadways. In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a law creating the interstate highway system, and car-centric suburban living grew in popularity. Air travel was becoming more accessible, too.

Trains competed with cars for local travel and with planes for long-distance travel, said Nick Little, director of railway education at Michigan State University. “It was really the advent of fairly cheap air travel that started in the 1950s that spelled decline for the intercity rail services,” he said.

At the time, private railroads were moving freight and also transporting passengers. Then the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970 relieved the private railroads of the expensive responsibility of people-moving. This spurred Congress to create Amtrak to provide passenger rail service. Amtrak was incorporated in 1971 with a hybrid model: It was a for-profit company, but the federal government was its majority stockholder. Amtrak received equipment, funding and certain rights, like the use of existing railroad tracks.

In the 1960s, the Department of Transportation issued a report suggesting an auto-ferry, but it left the effort up to the private sector. Eugene K. Garfield, who once worked for the Transportation Department, founded the Auto-Train Corporation, which began daily service between Lorton (about 20 miles from Washington) and Sanford (about 25 miles from Orlando) in 1971.

The Auto-Train was so popular that the company started a second line of service from Louisville to Sanford. However, it suffered two major derailments, and the company faced mounting financial problems, which weren’t helped by an unsuccessful attempt to start an Auto-Train in Mexico. By 1981, the Auto-Train Corporation had ceased operations.

Amtrak received hundreds of requests to revive the Auto-Train. In 1983, Amtrak took up the mantle and acquired key assets from the Auto-Train Corporation, including land, stations and auto carriers. Amtrak began with triweekly service between Lorton and Sanford, expanding to daily service the following year. (Amtrak also eliminated the hyphen in “Auto Train.”) The Auto Train’s current profitability may be attributed in part to its decision not to pursue expansion, which spelled doom for the former Auto-Train Corporation.

Compared to Amtrak’s other profitable lines, the Auto Train carries a tiny load. Combined, the Northeast Regional and Acela posted more than 12 million customer trips in fiscal 2023. The Auto Train had fewer than 300,000.

The Auto Train’s particular route has been key to its success for decades. It takes travelers between two popular tourist destinations, D.C. and Orlando, the latter being a year-round favorite because of the access it provides to Disney World, other theme parks and beaches.

“Our biggest customer segment is snowbirds,” said Eliot Hamlisch, Amtrak’s executive vice president and chief commercial officer, referring to Northeast residents who escape the winter by vacationing in the South. Another sizable segment, families, enjoy being able to use their own car seats and vehicles, filled with all the children’s toys and gear, at their destination.

But perhaps most important, the Auto Train parallels a vast stretch of Interstate 95, where traffic and infrastructure have worsened over the years, making for an often-miserable driving experience. “There are a lot of highways that I don’t like to spend a lot of time on,” Hamlisch said. “I-95 is certainly one of them.”

Even back in 1970, the Rail Passenger Service Act stated that “rail passenger service can help to end the congestion on our highways and the overcrowding of airways and airports.”

“The Auto Train, as I understand it, has grown in popularity particularly on that one route because of the sheer congestion that people face on driving down the I-95,” Little said. “A lot of people are prepared to pay for the convenience.”

That convenience is so attractive to some people that the Auto Train draws customers far from its terminals. Little said he knows someone who is enamored of train travel and drives from Michigan to the Lorton station, and on the other end continues driving down to Miami.

“I think it’s gotten worse,” Auto Train fan Bobbi Dempsey said about driving conditions on I-95, citing construction, accidents, delays and texting while driving. Dempsey, a content specialist based in Hazleton, Pa., estimates she’s taken the Auto Train 12 to 15 times. It takes her about three hours to drive from Hazleton to Lorton, and she said she’s met fellow travelers who have driven from as far away as Upstate New York and Canada.

The length of the trip on the Auto Train is just right, Little said. It spans only one night, unlike some other long-distance routes, like the famously scenic California Zephyr that lasts two nights. Many of Amtrak’s long-distance routes have significant operating losses.

The Auto Train offers other advantages over driving or flying the approximately 900 miles from D.C. to Orlando, Little said. Passengers can sleep and move around in relative comfort; they can also bring much more stuff in their cars than they could on a plane. They don’t need to rent a car upon reaching their destination, and they spare their vehicles wear and tear relative to driving the whole way.

Amtrak has long advertised itself, and the Auto Train specifically, as a solution to high gas prices. One poster, which Amtrak says is probably from the late 1970s — a time when gas prices were spiking to record levels — spoofed a pharmaceutical ad, with the text “Gas Pains? Take Amtrak for Relief!”

Today, the Auto Train is generally a more expensive way to travel than driving or flying, and accordingly, many of its riders are avowed train enthusiasts rather than bargain-seekers. Round-trip fares can run close to $200, or up to the thousands for a private room, though tickets can go on sale for as little as $19 in coach. That doesn’t include the cost of bringing your car, which is required and starts at $450 round-trip for a standard vehicle.

By comparison, driving from Lorton to Sanford and back would cost around $200, according to GasBuddy, plus the likely expense of a night or two in a hotel. A round-trip flight from D.C. to Orlando on a low-cost carrier often ranges from $100 to $200.

The Auto Train is part of some people’s annual travel plans, but it continues to attract new customers, who represent a third of ridership, Hamlisch said.

There’s a novelty to the Auto Train, said Jenna Rose Robbins, a writer in Los Angeles who is originally from Long Island and fondly recalled old Amtrak advertisements saying, “There’s something about a train that’s magic.” She estimates she’s taken the Auto Train three to five times.

“The people who take it for the first time — everyone gets so excited to watch their car go on,” Robbins said. “They take a video.”

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