An Old Idea Whose Time Has Come Again
The proposed and much-debated infrastructure bill includes money for Amtrak improvements, quite a contrast from past budgets when Amtrak was routinely starved for funds. Part of the proposals for Amtrak is fast intercity trains, connecting major cities with other population centers that are too close to warrant airline service. The Acela train on the northeast corridor proved the concept. Such trains are being considered all around the country, especially for major markets such as Chicago and L.A. Some are already in service.
Locally, Brightline is a good example. Although currently suspended due to the pandemic, it has already proved itself as a fast way to navigate the Gold Coast from Miami to Palm Beach, and should really show its value when extended to the Treasure Coast and eventually Orlando. These new railroads are not conventional commuter trains. Tri-Rail has stations every three miles, but the intercity concept puts stations 10 or 15 miles apart. They are meant to be a quick ride.
To implement this fast train concept, existing railroads will have to be improved for higher speeds — in some cases entirely new tracks unimpeded by grade crossings. Such plans are being considered for a new service from Atlanta to Nashville by way of Chattanooga. That revelation brought to mind an idea we have promoted for almost 50 years: an expansion of the successful Auto Train concept.
The obvious move is a Midwest train, using the existing Sanford station as its Florida terminus and somewhere in the Indianapolis area as its northern. The concept is not new. In fact, it was tried, back before Amtrak took over what started as a private company. That was in the mid-1970s. Auto-Train Corporation had introduced its northeast service so successfully that after riding it a few times, we were so convinced the idea would sweep the county that we bought stock in the company.
The move to serve the Midwest made sense, especially when the train was combined with a regular passenger service. Alas, the execution was poor. Railroads in general were under pressure at the time, and the quality of many routes in the Midwest had deteriorated, slowing speeds and creating hazards. The host railroads even warned Auto-Train Corporation that its locomotives were too heavy for the substandard tracks.
The new service barely had a chance to prove itself when a serious derailment caused the train to be suspended. The legal problems that followed caused the whole corporation to fail. Amtrak discontinued its conventional Chicago-Florida train in 1979. But the concept of loading cars on trains was sound, and after a few years Amtrak took over the northeast Auto Train and has run it to this day. It is one of the few Amtrak trains to almost pay for itself.
The idea of a Midwest auto train comes up periodically, but now, with the possibility of rebuilding the rails it would use, it is tempting to make a real push. Combined with a conventional long-distance passenger train, it seems more than feasible.
The trick is to combine the best features of the proposed intercity trains with the established Auto Train. It would begin in Miami and serve the present Amtrak stations in South Florida. There are five between Miami and Palm Beach. But once it hooks up with Auto Train in Sanford, there should be only a few stops at key locations — South Georgia, Atlanta, Chattanooga, Nashville, Louisville. Those few minutes delay will not be important to Auto Train patrons, but should add considerably to ridership, and the bottom line. That kind of schedule would work well as a connection with the intercity trains being planned.
The same applies in the north. After Auto Train disconnects somewhere south of Chicago, the conventional Amtrak section could continue on to Chicago and the Twin Cities or Milwaukee.
Initially, this train need not be daily. Schedule what the traffic will bear. Auto Train users, and Amtrak long distance riders in general, do not make spur of the moment travel decisions.
A Midwest auto train made sense 50 years ago, but it was badly executed. Now seems the time to do it right.