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Auto Train Why not more routes?

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I’m on the west coast and have only seen the Auto Train in YouTube videos. I’d love to see auto carriers included on more of the long distance routes. Probably just a pipe dream.
 

tgstubbs1

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You're absolutely right in my opinion. It's not fair to the rest of the country.

With electric cars, crowded highways, gas prices, how can they be so shortsighted?

Well, it would cost a lot of money, probably $50-100 Billion, but I think it would be worthwhile as a great, nationwide project.
 

me_little_me

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Well, it would cost a lot of money, probably $50-100 Billion, but I think it would be worthwhile as a great, nationwide project.
Where did you get that number unless you think that the autotrain (and it's future possible lookalikes) make stops at every station along the way to drop off and pick up cars.

On the other hand, if Amtrak started slowly on selected routes adding one or two car carriers between selected cities (or nearby more convenient locations along the route), that the cost would be $50B+ with no positive return on investment.

Asking for more autotrains (not necessarily new separate trains) does not mean every place every day nor even new trains.
 

bratkinson

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The independent-company Auto-Train in the late '70s-early '80s tried to expand by adding a Louisville to Florida route. Why Louisville and not Chicago-area? That would have required an extra set of equipment vs same-day turnaround in Louisville and they didn't have the capital dollars to do it. A couple of accidents wrecked enough equipment that they didn't have the money to repair, so they ultimately went bust.

The Amtrak Auto Train makes sense today because NY-FL is STILL the busiest passenger long distance route(s) they had...2 trains per day until 10/1/20 and STILL has daily operation since then...PLUS Auto Train! Both Silvers have a high percentage of senior citizens that winter in Florida and don't want to drive all the way, so that's a plus for Auto Train. To make any Auto Train a success, it has to start with a high demand for travel from A to B -AND- be time competitive with driving!

Crossing mountains instantly removes being time competitive with driving as passenger trains ascend/descend at about 25mph due to horsepower to weight ratio ascending and remaining safely in control with appropriate braking descending. Here in western Massachusetts, obeying the speed limit (I don't) I can drive Springfield to Albany in 90 minutes, give or take, Interstate 90 all the way. Meanwhile, the 'pokey' train #448 ALB-SPG takes a shade less than 2.5 hours on a good day, ie, when #449 is on time and they meet west of Pittsfield. I've waited on both those trains too many times to count because one or the other is late. Crossing the Rocky Mountains, Sierras, and Cascades on a train adds roughly a full day vs driving. The Coast Starlight has a couple of mountain climbs, and the Sunset Ltd has to get out of the Los Angeles basin. The Alleghenies are crossed on the Cardinal and Capitol Ltd routes. All possible routes CHI-FL have too much single track and slow running which eliminates that possibility as well.

That leaves CHI-NYC (Lakeshore Ltd), CHI-NOL (City of New Orleans) as candidates. Is there sufficient demand to even warrant a second passenger train much less an Auto Train on those routes? Do large numbers of 'old folks' routinely travel between those endpoints? I don't think so.

Assuming that some overnight route CAN be determined that would have sufficient year-round traffic, then the next question is 'got money?' Billions with a B would be needed up front for equipment and terminals. Once operating, T&E crews as well as locomotive fuel stops, etc have to be arranged, in addition to paying the host railroad(s) whatever they determine is a fair price for use of their trackage. Amtrak only pays an incremental fee whereas a new startup would be paying 'full tilt' fees. Those daily operating costs is the difference between 'make' or 'break'. And don't forget the investors 'return on investments' is also required.
 

Trogdor

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This question comes up maybe once or twice every year.

The reason the current Auto Train works is because it is a fairly fast railroad on a heavily traveled corridor with basically just one way to travel (by road) between the northeast and Florida. Therefore, if you’re going to drive, you’re going to go past the Auto Train terminal on both ends of the route.

There really is no other corridor that offers the same combination of factors. Folks have mentioned midwest to Florida or Arizona. The problem is that the “midwest” is such a large region that there is no single point to funnel people through. Therefore, getting to a hypothetical auto train terminal would require people to go out of their way, and/or drive practically halfway there before even getting to the train. At that point, why bother?

There’s also the fact that DC-Florida is pretty quick on the train, board in the mid-afternoon, arrive the next morning. Once you start making routes longer, it costs more to operate. The Auto Train is in a sort of “sweet spot” in terms of equipment requirements, crew costs, travel time (for passengers, it’s basically board, lounge, eat, sleep, wake up, arrive), etc. You’re not likely to find that on any other single route in the US.
 

dlagrua

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I would say that there are enough snowbirds in the midwest to support an Autotrain there. IMO, the failure of the Louisville Ky to Sanford route had a few factors working against it. First off that Autotrain ran on some of the old routes of the L&N railroad. The tracks were in very poor condition and that limited speeds to 25 mph on several portions. Some of those routes are abandoned today. Another point is that the Autotrain attached to the Amtrak Floridian in a rail yard outside downtown Louisville and was detached in Sanford. The trip averaged 26 -30 hours long and the train was was hardly ever on time. I doubt that we will ever see it again as the will of the current management is not there to try any new LD routes.
 

Dakota 400

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I would say that there are enough snowbirds in the midwest to support an Autotrain there.
I agree that, at least, a seasonal Auto Train makes sense. Daily service? Probably not. But 2x or 3x per week?

The problem is that the “midwest” is such a large region that there is no single point to funnel people through.
I understand what you are saying, but the distances one would have to drive to get to a departure city, are they that much different than the distances one has to drive to get to/from Sanford in Florida? Or the distances that one has to drive from the Northeast to get to/from Lorton? Florida is a big State.
 

IndyLions

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What about Fort Wayne IN for a Midwest to Florida Auto Train? It’s not that far out of the way for a number of Midwest cities - Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Toledo. And it would be a relatively short backtrack for Columbus, Cincinnati and Indianapolis.
 

gwolfdog

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I agree that, at least, a seasonal Auto Train makes sense. Daily service? Probably not. But 2x or 3x per week?



I understand what you are saying, but the distances one would have to drive to get to a departure city, are they that much different than the distances one has to drive to get to/from Sanford in Florida? Or the distances that one has to drive from the Northeast to get to/from Lorton? Florida is a big State.
To get to the Auto Train and then from Sanford to Fort Lauderdale meant 9 hours of driving. Made for a long trip with overnight in Lorton (old & beat).
 

jebr

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I understand what you are saying, but the distances one would have to drive to get to a departure city, are they that much different than the distances one has to drive to get to/from Sanford in Florida? Or the distances that one has to drive from the Northeast to get to/from Lorton? Florida is a big State.
The markets within a similar driving distance are smaller, and it's still "out of the way" for a lot of markets, which cuts into the time savings of being able to ride through the night. If you draw a line straight north from DC, basically everyone to the east of that line would pass by the current Auto Train terminal in Lorton. That includes most of the DC metro area, Baltimore, Philadelphia, NYC, Boston, New England, and much of upstate New York. Not all of those are conveniently timed for a morning trip to Lorton to catch the train, but it will clearly save anyone going from there to Florida 11-12 hours, without having account for the time spent driving "out of the way" to the station.

It's worth remembering that you have to account for at least 3 of those hours, and likely 4, being spent transferring from car to train. You must arrive and be checked in an hour and a half before departure, and so realistically you should be arriving no later than two hours beforehand. Add variable traffic to hit a set time, and that grows a bit more to have a buffer. On the other end, it'll take some time to get your car off the train. If I'm going two to three hours out of my way to catch the train, that cuts even more into the time savings over just driving the full way, even with the time spent stopped to sleep.

What about Fort Wayne IN for a Midwest to Florida Auto Train? It’s not that far out of the way for a number of Midwest cities - Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Toledo. And it would be a relatively short backtrack for Columbus, Cincinnati and Indianapolis.
It's also not on the way for almost every major Midwest metropolitan area. That, again, cuts into the time savings offered by an Auto Train. If I'm having to go out of my way to get to the train station, it's a lot less likely that I'll find enough time savings by taking the train to make the switch.

There's also the timing of any train - you basically need, at minimum, an afternoon or later departure and a morning arrival to allow people to have enough time on both ends to drive to/from the station same-day. Some people might get a hotel room on one end or the other and still take the train, but a lot less than if they can at least do the rest of the driving the day of arrival/departure. There's very few "on the way" cities where track speeds make that workable, and by the time you start getting to where multiple routes converge (such as Nashville,) you're far enough away from the major metros that you can't make the same-day timing work.
 

Siegmund

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There's also the timing of any train - you basically need, at minimum, an afternoon or later departure and a morning arrival to allow people to have enough time on both ends to drive to/from the station same-day.
This suggests there might be some interesting possibilities ~36 hours apart, with two nights on board. (West-side suburban) Chicago to Phoenix is the one I'd guess would be most likely to succeed, with the help of snowbirds. Seattle to LA on a schedule opposite to the Coast Starlight's would work timing-wise though I can't imagine many people being eager to drive in southern CA.
 

me_little_me

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Again, why not start with a one or two car carrier add-ons to an existing train? This would reduce startup costs dramatically, test the waters and get more people to travel by train.
A little work needs to be done to find suitable start and end points
The trip would be longer than a non-stop but if demand is there, then a non-stop train can be added.
A test could be done between Lorton and somewhere near Chicago by having an engine pull a sleeper plus car carriers to/from Lorton to meet the Capitol Limited to be attached to it.
 

Trogdor

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Again, why not start with a one or two car carrier add-ons to an existing train? This would reduce startup costs dramatically, test the waters and get more people to travel by train.
A little work needs to be done to find suitable start and end points
The trip would be longer than a non-stop but if demand is there, then a non-stop train can be added.
A test could be done between Lorton and somewhere near Chicago by having an engine pull a sleeper plus car carriers to/from Lorton to meet the Capitol Limited to be attached to it.
It wouldn’t reduce costs that much. Car carriers are (relatively) cheap. Building a terminal to load/unload the cars would be fairly expensive, and would cost more-or-less the same whether you have 1 autorack or 15.

Then you have to factor in how much time it would add to the schedule. There’s nowhere near Chicago Union Station to have such a facility, so you’d have to add the switching time to add/remove the car, plus the fact that the train would then be limited to 70 mph (I don’t believe the auto racks are certified for anything faster).

Even ignoring any speed reductions/required switching times, an Auto Train-Capitol Limited connection would be about 42 hours and 2 nights, vs. 17 hours (Google Maps driving time) plus one overnight, so call it 25-30 hours with rest stops. Florida-Chicago via DC is not at all direct. And if Chicago isn’t your destination, the time difference would be even greater.
 

me_little_me

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Even ignoring any speed reductions/required switching times, an Auto Train-Capitol Limited connection would be about 42 hours and 2 nights, vs. 17 hours (Google Maps driving time) plus one overnight, so call it 25-30 hours with rest stops. Florida-Chicago via DC is not at all direct. And if Chicago isn’t your destination, the time difference would be even greater.
I wouldn't even consider doing any kind of connection between the AutoTrain and a Chicago car train that was attached to, say, the CL because Amtrak's performance would never let them work until such time as Amtrak really gets priority on the rails. I only mentioned Lorton because it already has the facilities, it should not be a major effort for a limited attached couple of cars and the hours could be adjusted so they would not step on each other allowing for shared crews. In fact, Lorton is out of the way for the CL but might be ideal for some cars attached to the Crescent (to near Atlanta) or Carolinian to Charlotte.
 

jiml

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Potential expansion of the Auto Train routes has been discussed many times, and most of those fed into the already existing terminal in Florida. That means you'd only need a new loading facility at one end, e.g. somewhere in upstate New York, Michigan or Chicago area. (I'd be a big fan of either of the first two.) Most here thought it would simply not be viable or someone would have tried it and Amtrak might be doing it. Being someone who travels south regularly - often driving, part of what guarantees the success of the current Auto Train is no one wanting to drive I-95 and the Auto Train being a faster option. Fortunately those of us not on the coast have the option of better and less-busy highways to choose from - in our case I-75 and I-65 (to northwest Florida). Couple that factor with less direct rail routes and the cost of new terminus construction and there's not really a recipe for another successful Auto Train.
 

Palmland

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As we have discussed before the route that to me had the most potential for another A-T service is the Chicago area to Denver area.

The SWC route seems to be the most promising as west of KC the route has minimal freight traffic which would improve reliability and KS has already invested in its maintenance. Using the SWC schedule as a guide, a mid afternoon train with a 4:00pm departure, perhaps from the Naperville/Aurora area (I-55, 355, 88 nearby), wold arrive Trinidad, CO at about 10:30 am. Return would be a similar schedule.

Denver is a major city in its own right, but of course nearby are the Rockies with attractions for skiing in the winter and sightseeing/camping the rest of the year. Amtrak station in Trinidad is adjacent to I-25 that is a straight shot to Colorado Springs and Denver or NM, AZ, and CA points. It avoids that long boring, for many, drive across the heartland. There is a small BNSF yard next to the station in Trinidad that could perhaps could be partially repurposed as an A-T terminal.
 
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tgstubbs1

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To make any Auto Train a success, it has to start with a high demand for travel from A to B -AND- be time competitive with driving!
I think there are several other motivations to take Auto train.

Security and safety, even in bad weather.

Fuel savings and less wear and tear on your vehicle. The IRS approved mileage rate for automobiles is 57.5 cents per mile, thats over $500 for the 855 mile trip,

Less CO2 emissions compared to driving and a solution for people with EVs means the Auto train is environmentally friendly.

Luxury and Convenience. My computer says it's a 27 hour drive from Boston to Orlando, and Lorton is over 13 hours. The traffic is terrible, etc. etc. etc. so it could take even longer. How many motel stops is that?

Crossing mountains instantly removes being time competitive with driving as passenger trains ascend/descend at about 25mph due to horsepower to weight ratio ascending and remaining safely in control with appropriate braking descending.

Crossing the Rocky Mountains, Sierras, and Cascades on a train adds roughly a full day vs driving. The Coast Starlight has a couple of mountain climbs, and the Sunset Ltd has to get out of the Los Angeles basin.

Do large numbers of 'old folks' routinely travel between those endpoints? I don't think so.
This is really not the point, if you ask me. I don't know the actual speed of LD trains like the SWC, but the schedule shows about a 42 hour trip from CHI to LA. I don't think anyone can drive that quickly. The Auto train is faster than the Silver Meteor, maybe because it doesn't make as many stops, but I doubt it is any faster than the SWC.

Most people driving from Chicago to LA would take several motel stops.

As far as old folks go, I can assure you that they are everywhere. The Auto trains serves more than snowbirds otherwise they wouldn't have a year round business.
 

tgstubbs1

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The reason the current Auto Train works is because it is a fairly fast railroad on a heavily traveled corridor with basically just one way to travel (by road) between the northeast and Florida. Therefore, if you’re going to drive, you’re going to go past the Auto Train terminal on both ends of the route.

There really is no other corridor that offers the same combination of factors. Folks have mentioned midwest to Florida or Arizona. The problem is that the “midwest” is such a large region that there is no single point to funnel people through. Therefore, getting to a hypothetical auto train terminal would require people to go out of their way, and/or drive practically halfway there before even getting to the train. At that point, why bother?
Don't all LD Amtrak trains to the west coast essentially "funnel' through Chicago? (except Sunset Limited)
Why wouldn't they pick up west bound traffic from places like Detroit, Cleveland, Indianapolis and for that matter the entire NE region?

I think the EB could have an auto dock somewhere between Minneapolis and Milwaukee with another terminal in Vancouver, WA. I am sure people in Minneapolis would prefer driving a few hours in the wrong direction versus driving all the way to the west coast.

The SWC could share a dock with the CZ in Galesburg. Maybe a good endpoint would be Williams or Flagstaff. It's not that far to Phoenix (or even LA). People retire all over the state of Arizona, so they're used to driving, but I bet they hate long distance drives way out of state the most.

People from a number of cities in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, (in addition to the NE) etc. could easily drive to Galesburg and it would save hundreds of miles compared to driving all the way.

I don't know if the distances are great enough for more routes within the NE region. But the traffic is a lot worse, so that could be an incentive to add some.
 

WICT106

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Don't all LD Amtrak trains to the west coast essentially "funnel' through Chicago? (except Sunset Limited)
Why wouldn't they pick up west bound traffic from places like Detroit, Cleveland, Indianapolis and for that matter the entire NE region?

I think the EB could have an auto dock somewhere between Minneapolis and Milwaukee with another terminal in Vancouver, WA. I am sure people in Minneapolis would prefer driving a few hours in the wrong direction versus driving all the way to the west coast.

The SWC could share a dock with the CZ in Galesburg. Maybe a good endpoint would be Williams or Flagstaff. It's not that far to Phoenix (or even LA). People retire all over the state of Arizona, so they're used to driving, but I bet they hate long distance drives way out of state the most.

People from a number of cities in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, (in addition to the NE) etc. could easily drive to Galesburg and it would save hundreds of miles compared to driving all the way.

I don't know if the distances are great enough for more routes within the NE region. But the traffic is a lot worse, so that could be an incentive to add some.
One big issue is that the majority of Midwesterners have never taken a train trip -- not even once. They have no experience taking a train anywhere, but we have plenty of experience driving, and driving everywhere. Drive a few hours in the wrong direction ? Big nope on that one -- many of us would simply drive the correct direction, and then keep driving. ( I would rather take the train, but that's my personal preference. The majority of Midwesterners won't even consider an Auto-Train like what you describe ).

Another issue to consider is that Midwesterners don't have the strong affinity for going to Florida to the degree the Northeasterners do. Midwesterners go to AZ, or Southern CA, or HI, or southern TX ( a few, during the pre- COVID times, might even go to Mexico, or Belize, if they had the means ). One reason the Auto Train works where it does is the affinity for folks from the Northeast to travel to Florida -- that's not the case in the Midwest.
 

bratkinson

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In response to several replies about having pickups/setouts at other than endpoints I have several thoughts:

1. To stop the train, make a cut (behind the locomotives?), proceed forward to a point beyond the switch, backup to make the hitch, test the connection, proceed forward far enough the last car clears the switch, back down to the disconnected passenger train (yep, the passengers are without HEP the entire time!...no A/C, no heat, no functioning toilets!), make and test (a slight yank) the hitch, make air and electric connections (would that require a craft position other than onboard conductors?...or a local yard switch crew 'on standby' waiting for the train to arrive?), perform a brake test, then wait for a clear signal to highball. That's 45-60 minutes on a GOOD day! Meanwhile, passengers whose cars were just added to the train, where were they the whole time? Presumably the train originally stopped with the sleepers in front of the station. But then you get into safety concerns with disconnecting or connecting to the train and the attendant jolts and boarding in the dark at night without HEP. Recalling the fun and games of simply adding or subtracting M&E cars and sometimes Roadrailers to the Amtrak trains I was on, 30-60 minutes was the 'normal' time. And that was usually at the rear of the train, not somewhere up front. I was angered every time at the those delays. 15 minutes would be OK, but 30 or more, no way!

2. Added costs likely exceed the revenue generated. I'm thinking that like the intermodal business where short-hauls don't make business sense, I suspect there's some not-yet-determined 'magic number' of miles and revenue that makes business sense for an Auto Train operation. Would a 500 mile Auto Train make money? I don't think so, especially since it can be comfortably driven in 8-9 hours including a couple of rest stops.

3. Chicago-Denver was suggested and makes sense as it is quite close in mileage with the existing Auto Train. But is there sufficient demand? Perhaps a check of pre-Covid airline schedules WAS to Florida compared to Chicago to Denver might be a gauge. Note that I said Florida rather than Sanford as there's countless destinations within Florida easily accessed from Sanford, especially Disneyworld, and major cities such as Orlando, Jacksonville and Tampa within a 2 hour drive. Arriving in the morning in Florida makes south Florida accessible in the day as well. The snow-bunny business is big business to/from Florida, both for vacations as well as all winter. How many travelers would spend the summer or winter in a cabin in the mountains? How many major destinations are within a 2-3 hour drive from Denver? How many attractions comparable to Disneyworld are near Denver? Maybe skiers could be enticed in the wintertime, and hikers/campers in the summer, although I suspect there aren't enough of them to make that a 'demand' level.

4. I think that a separate Auto Train location would be necessary for all points, including pickup & setout points. For example, how many passengers would be happy to leave their car in the covered 'drop off' area at Chicago Union Station to a stranger that promises to get it loaded on the trilevel autorack 5 or 6 blocks away? What about arrivals? Where would arriving cars be parked so passengers can pick them up. Clearly, locating out town such as Dyer IN or Galesburg IL would work best, especially with low-cost land available. Locating on the best rail line from Chicago to Florida or Denver is also crucial. Knowing firsthand how CSX gives the Cardinal the shaft on the ex-Monon line, I'd definitely consider another railroad out of Chicago for ramp placement decision making. By the way, the location should be an easy off/easy on in both directions to a freeway. Wandering down country lanes for 10 minutes could certainly lose some drivers.

5. And, of course, would the railroads involved be willing to host an extra Amtrak train each way without paying them an arm and a leg for such things as extra sidings, new signaling, and anything else they can dream up. When Covid is over and done with, and Amtrak returns the LD trains to daily operation, anyone want to bet the railroads WON'T charge Amtrak extra to 'add' 4 extra trains per week to the route? Lookup the ridiculous numbers UP and CSX have come up with through the years to make the Sunset Ltd and Cardinal a daily operation for the answer.

While pie in the sky thinking is what motivates business expansion as well as new business creation, one must always consider what is the 'market' for the product and both the startup and ongoing costs of running the business. "Build it and they will come' doesn't automatically spell S-U-C-C-E-S-S. Investors want to be very sure they'll get a good return on investment before they'll put down millions of their money. Or, if pure speculators, they want a big portion of the business ala 'The Shark Tank'.
 
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Trogdor

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In response to several replies about having pickups/setouts at other than endpoints I have several thoughts:
Generally agree with points 2, 3 and 4 (and sort-of 5). For point #1, I agree that enroute switching would be a source of delay, though I don’t think you’d need to switch in/out passenger cars, particularly if the hypothetical auto train stop was near the end of the regular route anyway. Just have the entire passenger consist go to the end of the line, and auto train passengers would board/alight as they would any other station stop.

For #5, they absolutely would charge three arms and a leg to host another regular long-distance train. However, I am assuming (hoping) Amtrak has suspended service in such a manner that they retain rights to resume service at previous frequencies at the same terms as they previously had. So, the “extra” will only be to go back to what they were previously paying vs. the current reduced schedule.
 

railiner

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The Auto Train, does not appeal to everyone, even in its best target market.
Once again, I drove my Prius up to my Queens apartment from West Palm Beach, and returned a few weeks later.
My return trip was on Wednesday. I left Queens at 9:30 AM, passed the Lorton Auto Train station exit at about 2:30 PM, probably about the time I would arrive there if taking the Auto Train. I arrived at my home at 6:05, Thanksgiving morning. The train did pretty well...it departed Lorton at 3:42 PM, eighteen minutes early, and arrived Sanford at 7:56 AM, an hour and two minutes early...pretty good performance. But I was in my bed by 6:30 AM, where if I got off the Auto Train, by the time my car was unloaded, and I drove home from Sanford, I probably wouldn't until after 11:00 AM. And it cost me a lot less...
 

tgstubbs1

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The Auto Train, does not appeal to everyone, even in its best target market.
Once again, I drove my Prius up to my Queens apartment from West Palm Beach, and returned a few weeks later.
My return trip was on Wednesday. I left Queens at 9:30 AM, passed the Lorton Auto Train station exit at about 2:30 PM, probably about the time I would arrive there if taking the Auto Train. I arrived at my home at 6:05, Thanksgiving morning. The train did pretty well...it departed Lorton at 3:42 PM, eighteen minutes early, and arrived Sanford at 7:56 AM, an hour and two minutes early...pretty good performance. But I was in my bed by 6:30 AM, where if I got off the Auto Train, by the time my car was unloaded, and I drove home from Sanford, I probably wouldn't until after 11:00 AM. And it cost me a lot less...
Why would you go to bed at 6:30 AM?
 
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