Auto-Train Corporation (reporting mark AUT) was a privately owned railroad which used its own rolling stock, and traveled on rails leased from major railroads along the route of its trains, serving central Florida from points in the Mid-Atlantic region near Washington, DC, and the Mid-West near Louisville, Kentucky, during the 1970s. Despite the popularity of the service on its primary route, which parallels busy Interstate 95 along much of the eastern coast of the United States in five states, the company failed financially after operating for almost 10 years. After a hiatus, a similarly named and operated service (Auto Train) was begun under the government-financed Amtrak in 1983, which became one of the railroad's most popular services.
A concept of Auto-Train Corporation founder Eugene K. Garfield, a former employee of the US Department of Transportation, the novel approach allowed families to relax en route and save the expense and unfamiliarity of a rental car on arrival. The Auto-Train consists included passenger cars, autoracks, and a caboose. Although the company had its own locomotives and rolling stock, Auto-Train Corporation trains initially operated on Seaboard Coast Line (SCL) and Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac (RF&P) tracks.
Auto-Train Corporation's new service began operations on December 6, 1971, between Lorton, Virginia, and Sanford, Florida. The service was a big hit with travelers. Before long, the ambitious entrepreneurs of Auto-Train were looking to expand into other markets, and even established a short-lived service between Louisville, Kentucky, and Sanford, Florida.
Lack of success from the Louisville expansion, high crew costs and several accidents put Garfield's company into bankruptcy. Auto-Train Corporation was forced to end its services in late April 1981.
Operating for almost ten years, Auto-Train had developed a popular following, particularly among older travelers. No one else offered a similar service until, after a gap of almost two years, service was revived by Amtrak (the National Railroad Passenger Corporation), a federally chartered corporation that operates most intercity passenger trains in the United States.
Today, Amtrak's Auto Train carries about 200,000 passengers and generates around $50 million in revenue annually. In 2014, it is Amtrak's best-paying train, being the top of a handful of Amtrak trains that make a profit.
Auto-Train acquired a significant number of dome cars, so much so that in 1974 it did not roster any conventional coaches. These included seven ex-Western Pacific dome coaches, each seating 36, which Auto-Train called "Mini-Domes". These had previously run on the California Zephyr. It also acquired all but one of the Santa Fe's Big Domes (six dormitory-lounges and seven of eight full lounges) and the lion's share of the Union Pacific's Astra Dome fleet: seven coaches, nine dining cars and fourteen lounge-observation cars. Two of the Big Dome lounges and two of the Astra Dome lounges were rebuilt as "Night Club" cars. The remainder of the Astra Domes were dubbed "Maxie-Domes", as opposed to the "Mini-Domes".
Food service cars
Auto-Train acquired a wide variety of food service cars. These included ex-Seaboard kitchen-dormitory cars, ex-Seaboard dining cars rebuilt as buffet cars, and five Norfolk and Western and Western Pacific coaches which were also rebuilt as buffet cars.
Sleeping cars acquired by Auto-Train included six ex-Santa Fe Regal series sleeping cars (4 bedrooms, 4 compartments, 2 drawing rooms), five ex-Union Pacific Ocean series sleeping cars (5 bedrooms, 2 compartment, 2 drawing rooms), and three ex-Seaboard sleepers (5 bedrooms, 1 compartment, 4 sections, 4 roomettes).
The centerpiece of the Auto-Train was the 62 ex-Canadian National bi-level autoracks, which were acquired between 1971–1973. The passenger equipment acquired by Auto-Train used steam heat, so the company also acquired steam generator cars. These were mostly former Great Northern cars, but the Auto-Train also rebuilt several former Western Pacific and Santa Fe baggage cars into steam generator cars.
- Images of Rail: Auto-Train by Wally Ely (Arcadia Publishing, 2009)
- "Amtrak Ridership And Revenues Continue Strong Growth in FY 2014" (PDF). Amtrak. October 27, 2014. Retrieved January 26, 2015.
- Randall, W. David (1974). Railway Passenger Car Annual, Volume I, 1973-1974. Park Forest, IL: RPC Publications. pp. 36–37.
- ThemeTrains.com - The Story of the 1971-1981 auto-train
- Bill's Railroad Empire - the original Auto-Train page N Scale
- George Elwood's Fallen Flags site, original Auto-Train pages
- from a 1971 Auto-Train Corp. brochure, including information on the 2nd short-lived Auto-Train route (Louisville-Sanford service)
- Pictures of Auto-Train U36B locomotives
- Diesel Shop
- Orlando Sentinel newspaper article about Auto-Train Corp and Amtrak's Auto Train replacement
- Orlando Sentinel article on Sanford Terminal renovation