MEMORIES OF THE ORIGINAL AUTO-TRAIN – INSPIRATIONS FOR YOUR NEXT TRAIN LAYOUT?
By David B. Balton
It was back in the 1970’s, growing up on Long Island, NY, when I with my family took the first of three trips on the original, privately run Auto-Train. Perhaps more than anything else, these train trips solidified my interest in railroads and subsequently, model railroading as a hobby and profession.
Before I describe these memorable experiences, a brief history of the Auto-Train is in order.
Auto-Train was privately conceived in the early 1970’s, in part as an answer to the growing energy crisis of the time period. It would be a service that would carry passengers and their automobiles the 850+ miles between Lorton, Virginia (just outside Washington, D.C.), and Sanford, Florida (near Orlando). The concept of a train carrying passengers and their autos actually was not a new one; it had been previously tried in Europe with some success. The ACL (Atlantic Coast Line) and later SCL (Seaboard) had considered running an auto train on the current route in the 1960’s. This was, however, the first time such a service would be tried in the U.S.A.
Map from Wikipedia Auto-Train Magazine from
The Story of the 1971-1981 Auto-Train site
Rolling stock and locomotives were purchased. These included luxury streamline passenger cars left over from various railroads after the Amtrak consolidation, and dual-level, then later tri-level enclosed auto rack cars, coupled with new, state of the art (for the time) GE U-36B Diesel Electric locomotives. These locomotives were rated at 3600 HP, and would be operated by Seaboard Coast Line crews, on which tracks the trains would operate. Typically, four of these locomotives would power each train.
Service began in 1971 to rave reviews, and enjoyed immediate success. As the “Energy Crisis” intensified, the early years were so successful for Auto-Train that, soon a second route was added, this one originating in Louisville, Kentucky, also running to Sanford, Fl.
Through the mid-1970’s, the service continued to enjoy a measure of success. Then however, as the decade proceeded into its later years, profitability for Auto-Train began to decline. This was due to the fact that, as the energy crisis began to ease, people decided to stay in their cars more & more and thus ridership on the trains began to drop.
Contributing to this decline was a series of highly publicized accidents involving derailments that really cut into profits, as well as damaging the service’s reputation.
The ‘domino’ effect was profound. First the Louisville route was dropped. Then quality of service began to suffer. Eventually, the company began to lose money on the Lorton route as well, and by the end of the decade they were operating substantially in the red. The inevitable “end of the line” came in April 30, 1981 when the last trains pulled out of their stations, one northbound and one southbound. The Auto-Train Corporation then went into bankruptcy, followed by liquidation.
That would’ve been the end of the Auto-Train story except for the fact that Amtrak knew a good thing when they saw one, and two years later resurrected the service. Outfitted with new equipment, Auto Train operates to this day as one of the most popular (and profitable) trains on the entire Amtrak system.
One of Auto-Train’s bumper stickers, playing on the Energy Crisis theme
My memories of the Auto-Train began in early 1975. The first thing I remember about it was my Mom and Dad telling me & my brother that for Easter Vacation we were finally going to go to Florida, specifically the Florida Keys, and to get there we were going to ride this unique long distance train called “Auto-Train”. We would ride the train for most of the trip but still have our car with us! I remember looking forward to this trip with wondrous anticipation, not knowing quite what to expect. My experience on trains up to this time had been limited to occasional short one hour rides on the Long Island Railroad into Penn Station in Manhattan.
Finally, the day for this first trip arrived. It was late March, and though it was early spring in the Northeast, it still looked much like winter, as the trees were only just starting to bud. We drove the 5 hours from Massapequa, Long Island, NY to Lorton, VA. seemingly in a flash. Before I knew it, we were at the terminal. I was impressed by how large the complex was, with the passenger cars on one side, and the loading area for the Auto-rack cars on the other. We actually did arrive a bit too early to check-in as I remember, so we got some lunch at the local eatery around the block from the station.
The Auto-Rack cars were situated on one side of the Lorton. Va. station complex…
…while the Passenger Terminal was situated on the other side. (photos by the author)
After lunch, we checked in, gave the attendant the keys to the car, and we were shown to our accommodations on the train, two roomettes on one of the sleeping cars. I marveled at how cool this was going to be; our own private rooms and then sleeping on the train, just like in the movies!!
Auto train advert
Once on board we simply relaxed, as it was still several hours from scheduled departure time. Our particular car was located directly opposite the Auto-racks so when they started to assemble the train we got a good look at this process as they began by assembling the auto-racks first. Then our car started to move back and forth as they began to assemble the passenger cars for the train. For me, the voyage had more or less already begun, yet we hadn’t even left the station yet!
Finally, at around 5:30 PM, the train was fully assembled. All motion then stopped for a pause as the station crew prior to departure made final checks on the train. Moving extremely slowly at first, the train began to crawl out of the station. It seemed like forever for us to clear the station, and even longer for us to get up to any kind of speed (mind you, I was used to the relatively quick acceleration of the LIRR commuter trains, not that of a half-mile long train). Eventually, the four GE U-36B’s on the point did get the train up to speed, and we were truly underway.
One of the powerful GE U36B locomotives in the yard at Lorton, VA (photo by the author)
Immediately I was fixated by the Virginia scenery going by; soon we were in the Richmond area, and our crossing of the James River was particularly impressive. Just like scenes I had seen from a train on TV, I thought!
Before long, it was dinnertime, my first meal on a train! We walked the half-dozen or so cars from our sleeping car to the diner, passing through some of the coach cars as we did. I remember feeling sorry for the folks sitting in coach, and lucky that my parents had been able to afford us going in style in the sleeper. The food I remember was quite good. The only thing I didn’t like was due to the fact the train was heavily booked, seating in the diner was at a premium and they actually had to split my family up between 2 tables in order to fit us in. I soon got over that, though.
After dinner we spent some time in one of several full-dome cars on the train, watching the scenery go by before we returned to our quarters and then we relaxed some more. By now it had gotten dark so there wasn’t a whole lot to see out the window at this point as we were traveling through mostly wilderness – probably somewhere in northern North Carolina. Soon, the porter came in and prepared our beds for us. This would be yet another cool experience- sleeping on a train for the first time! We retired early and rested in our beds. About 2 hours later I noticed the train was slowing to a crawl (I hadn’t yet fallen asleep). I looked out the window, and to my surprise, it seemed as though we were riding down Main Street in the middle of some town. It was in fact Rocky Mount, N.C., one of the train’s scheduled “service stops”. (The SCL mainline does indeed travel right through the center of town here. Anyone taking Amtrak’s Silver service will see the same vista today).
After the train completed its service stop here, we were on our way again, and I was on my way finally to Dreamland – at least as much as I could be on a moving train.
Nighttime was uneventful. I do remember waking up once in the middle of the night and looking out the window. We were traveling quite fast at this point, and it seemed as though we were literally flying across what looked like swampland in the faint light outside. I figure that we must have been somewhere in Georgia at this point in the journey. Ultimately I went back to sleep for several hours until daybreak.
As dawn broke I got up again, and lo and behold, the trees whizzing past now had leaves on them! And look- some palm trees! I hadn’t seen those since I was a little kid when we went to Jamaica on vacation a number of years prior.
Just before we were called for breakfast the train made its final scheduled service stop in Jacksonville, Florida. I remember how vast the Jacksonville yard was- trains and tracks as far as the eye could see.
As we continued south from Jacksonville, I knew the trip would soon be nearing its end. Still, for a couple more hours we were cruising along quite fast in the Florida sunshine, now passing by orange groves as we went. Eventually, the train began to gradually slow down. We passed by some industries and then the announcement was made that we were approaching our final destination of Sanford. I was both happy and sad at the same time – happy that we were finally here in Florida, but sad that this wonderful train trip was at an end. We disembarked, and then waited (not too long) for our car to be unloaded. Before long, we were back in the car and on the road again, to complete the few hours ride down the Florida peninsula before arriving later that day in Islamorada in the Keys.
The second trip I took on Auto-Train was the following year, 1976, and it was basically a repeat of that first wonderful trip, minus some of the novelty, since I knew now what to expect. Actually, in a way, it made me anticipate the second trip even more because I enjoyed that first trip so much.
The third and final trip I took on Auto-Train was in the summer of 1979. By this time I was well into my college years. This trip was still enjoyable, although less so for the following reasons: First, I was going to be dropped off at school (University of Miami) after a couple of weeks on vacation; therefore I would not be returning home. Secondly, the train trip itself had some problems, including a late departure and subsequent arrival the next morning. The food wasn’t nearly as good as I remember from the previous times, but most of all, the air conditioning in our car went out in the middle of the night. That’s not at all a good thing when one considers you are traveling by train in a sealed passenger car through the Deep South in the middle of August!
Nevertheless, the three trips I took on Auto-train with my family were some of the most memorable experiences I have ever had, and these are memories that I will truly always cherish!
David Balton is a colleague and co-worker of Ray Del Papa at Smartt, Inc.
(photo by Stan Jackowski, the Story of the 1971-1981 Auto-Train.)
(photo by Kevin Pratt)