Railroads & Locomotives History The Amtrak ‘Auto Train’ throughout the years

The Amtrak ‘Auto Train’ throughout the years

By Trains Staff | December 4, 2023

The evolution of today's classy hotel on wheels

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From Auto-Train to Amtrak Auto Train

Today’s Auto Train is a stellar option for people looking to travel long distances with their car in tow between northern Virginia and central Florida. Amtrak’s marketing slogan on its website is “Take Your Car on an Auto Train Road Trip.” Those traveling in sleeping cars receive traditional dining-car meals, along with complimentary wine. Coach customers are given a complimentary breakfast and are able to purchase food and beverages while en route from the Cross-Country Cafe. Free WiFi access is available for all travelers.

But today’s Auto Train is only the latest installment of a unique service that dates to 1971. Amtrak didn’t always own this “classy hotel on wheels,” as Trains Correspondent Brian Solomon refers to it in his travel column [see “Travel: Amtrak’s most unusual train”, Trains.com, Dec. 10, 2023]. The original, privately owned and operated version, Auto-Train, was created by businessman Eugene K. Garfield and spawned by the availability of surplus passenger equipment at Amtrak’s inception. It went bankrupt in 1981, expiring after the launch of an ill-fated second route serving Florida from Louisville, Ky., and several derailments.

Amtrak’s own Auto Train (minus the hyphen) began on Oct. 31, 1983. It was resurrected by W. Graham Claytor Jr. — Amtrak’s fourth president — when the arrival of Superliners created another pool of hand-me-downs to launch what has become a massive success. Originally run triweekly, it’s now offered daily.

As you’ll see in the photos below, showing how the train evolved over the years, it has a long history with General Electric diesels dating back to the original, privately operated train.

For more on the history of the Auto Train, read the print feature, “The Train With Two Lives,” by Al DiCenso, in the January 2013 issue of Trains.

Passenger train with auto racks departs station
The northbound Auto Train departs Sanford, Fla., on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023.  David Lassen

Cars lined up on road next to passenger train
Cars wait to be checked in at Amtrak’s Sanford, Fla., Auto Train terminal on Feb. 11, 2020. A nationwide rental car shortage helped the service become Amtrak’s top performer. Bob Johnston

long blue and white Amtrak train in middle of road on tracks
General Electric Genesis Series 1 diesels made their debut on the Auto Train and have continued to work it. Amtrak 831 and 816 lead train No. 52 on its northward run over CSX’s former Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac main line at Ashland, Va., on June 8, 2015. The Auto Train is an end-to-end express with no intermediate stops and routinely runs ahead of the published schedule. Brian Solomon

A silver and dark blue General Electric diesel locomotive leads a train of silver bi-level passenger cars
Amtrak Train 53, the southbound Auto Train, leaves the Lorton, Va., terminal behind a General Electric Dash-8 P40BH on Feb. 27, 2012. Today, typical motive power for the daily Auto Train is a pair of GE Genesis Dash-9 P40DC diesel-electrics. Al DiCenso

close up of silver Auto Train on tracks
Northbound train No. 52 crosses the Occoquan River south of Lorton, one of many bridges in Virginia, in August 1998. Michael S. Murray

side view of white Auto Train
The first edition of Amtrak’s Auto Train, comprising single-level equipment and secondhand Auto-Train Corp. auto racks, arrives at Lorton, Va., in July 1988. Alex Mayes

black and white auto train on bridge above water
An early incarnation of Amtrak’s Auto Train crosses Powell’s Creek near Dale City, Va., on April. 27, 1986. Alex Mayes

Silver-and-black Amtrak GE P30CH locomotive leads passenger train under highway bridge
Amtrak GE P30CH locomotive No. 714 and a mate lead Amtrak’s Auto Train north at AY interlocking in Acca Yard at Richmond, Va., in 1984. Doug Riddell

black and white train photo on tracks
A clean Amtrak GP9 is assigned to switching duties at the Auto Train’s Lorton, Va., terminal on Oct. 16, 1983, two weeks before the start of regular service. Alex Mayes

black and white photo of Amtrak Auto Train on tracks
An Amtrak Auto Train test run is seen at Orange City, Fla., on Oct. 8, 1983, about three weeks before the start of regular service under Amtrak. J.L. Oates

long train on bridge with ships below
The southbound Auto-Train, operating under the auspices of the original corporation, crosses Neabsco Creek near Woodbridge, Va., in July 1980. Alex Mayes
An undated advertisement for the original Auto-Train Corp. illustrates the advantages of letting the train do the driving. Trains collection

black and white photo of auto train
The Auto-Train speeds away at Collier Yard near Petersburg, Va., on May 26, 1979, with 47 cars. Curt Tillotson Jr.

black and white photo of train derailment site
Officials and workers look on at the wreckage of the Auto-Train at Florence, S.C., on Feb. 24, 1978. Note the temporary shoo-fly around the derailment site to the right. S.M. Bridges Jr.

black and white photo of auto train on bridge
The northbound Auto-Train crosses Powell’s Creek near Dale City, Va., on Aug. 8, 1977. This is the same location as the January 2013 cover photo. Victor Hand

black and white AutoTrak photo
A brand-new auto rack for Amtrak’s never-run AutoTrak service sits outside of the carbuilder’s shop at Omaha, Neb., in April 1974. George R. Cockle

Auto-Train auto rack car with caboose coupla.
The original Auto Train was required to have a caboose on the back end for the leg originating in Louisville, Ky. R. Lyle Key Jr.

Note: This gallery has been updated and revised from its original publishing (Nov. 21, 2012) by Nastassia Putz, Production Editor.

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