Quantcast

Auto Train Why not more routes?

Help Support Amtrak Unlimited Discussion Forum:

jebr

Conductor
Staff member
Administator
Moderator
Joined
Jan 23, 2012
Messages
4,026
Location
"The Last Great City of the East," St. Paul, MN
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.
Why am I needing my own car out in the Pacific Northwest? It's not going to be cheap to haul the vehicle - Amtrak currently charges $258 one way, or $466 round trip, for a standard vehicle on the current Auto Train. With the mileage roughly doubled between the two, I'd assume a doubling of those prices, so roughly $900 just for the vehicle round-trip. I could rent a car for a week or two for a lot less than that, and if I only need a car for part of the trip I have that option.

Most people who are making that drive are doing so because it's the cheapest option - variable costs to operate a car are closer to 20-30 cents a mile, and if you have a beater car it's probably less than that (that's why college students do road trips - the only cost at the time is gas and maybe an extra oil change.) There's also a segment that enjoys road trips for the freedom to stop whenever and see a new roadside attraction, visit a random city, etc. - and that market would not find an auto train useful. The main market that would want their own car would be snowbirds or other long-term trips - if you're needing a car for a few months, it's cheaper to bring your own car at that point.

That said, I still don't see a large enough, especially bidirectional, market to support an Illinois to Arizona train, or really any other Midwest-to-somewhere else market. It might be a bit more convenient to not have to drive, but if it's going to cost me $500 plus an Amtrak roomette to go one-way, and I'm still having to drive a few hours on either end? That pays for a lot of gas and hotel rooms along the way, plus the freedom to not have to worry about making the train and its schedule.

With these discussions, I think it bears remembering that the Auto Train only basically breaks-even, and that's in the best market available for it, with very large markets on either end. If the Auto Train was making tons of money, it might be a different story, but with a break-even proposition it seems unlikely that a new service, in less ideal markets, would make money even operationally, and almost certainly not enough to break even with the additional capital expenses needed to start a route.
 

toddinde

Service Attendant
Joined
Apr 23, 2015
Messages
173
Location
Sierra Vista, AZ
I think the Auto Train really only fits the niche it’s in, Chicago to Florida, or Chicago to Arizona. First of all, who is really itching to take their own car on vacation? Most people rent cars at their destination. The lack being able to bring your own car doesn’t hurt the airlines. I can’t see how this is appealing to large numbers of riders. People who want to bring their cars are generally going to a second home where renting a car wouldn’t make sense. Those second homes need to be concentrated near a terminal, like a state that is a narrow peninsula. As others have mentioned, you have the huge expense of building auto train terminals and employees to load and unload cars. It isn’t really compatible with existing trains and would lengthen schedules. We are rapidly moving away from a car culture. I don’t think the auto train concept i replicable.
 

toddinde

Service Attendant
Joined
Apr 23, 2015
Messages
173
Location
Sierra Vista, AZ
Why am I needing my own car out in the Pacific Northwest? It's not going to be cheap to haul the vehicle - Amtrak currently charges $258 one way, or $466 round trip, for a standard vehicle on the current Auto Train. With the mileage roughly doubled between the two, I'd assume a doubling of those prices, so roughly $900 just for the vehicle round-trip. I could rent a car for a week or two for a lot less than that, and if I only need a car for part of the trip I have that option.

Most people who are making that drive are doing so because it's the cheapest option - variable costs to operate a car are closer to 20-30 cents a mile, and if you have a beater car it's probably less than that (that's why college students do road trips - the only cost at the time is gas and maybe an extra oil change.) There's also a segment that enjoys road trips for the freedom to stop whenever and see a new roadside attraction, visit a random city, etc. - and that market would not find an auto train useful. The main market that would want their own car would be snowbirds or other long-term trips - if you're needing a car for a few months, it's cheaper to bring your own car at that point.

That said, I still don't see a large enough, especially bidirectional, market to support an Illinois to Arizona train, or really any other Midwest-to-somewhere else market. It might be a bit more convenient to not have to drive, but if it's going to cost me $500 plus an Amtrak roomette to go one-way, and I'm still having to drive a few hours on either end? That pays for a lot of gas and hotel rooms along the way, plus the freedom to not have to worry about making the train and its schedule.

With these discussions, I think it bears remembering that the Auto Train only basically breaks-even, and that's in the best market available for it, with very large markets on either end. If the Auto Train was making tons of money, it might be a different story, but with a break-even proposition it seems unlikely that a new service, in less ideal markets, would make money even operationally, and almost certainly not enough to break even with the additional capital expenses needed to start a route.
You’re right. If your taking the train or plane, you’re much more likely to rent a car at your destination. If you really want your own car, you’re going to drive. The Auto Train is a niche of a niche market.
 
  • Like
Reactions: jis

toddinde

Service Attendant
Joined
Apr 23, 2015
Messages
173
Location
Sierra Vista, AZ
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.
That’s a really good point. The Auto Train works because you have a huge number of people concentrated in one place who want to go to another highly concentrated place, and not for a short period of time but to second homes. Also, rental cars are absurdly expensive in Florida so a multiple week rental would be ridiculously expensive. There was a proposal at one time for a Chicago to Northern Wisconsin auto train. I just don’t see a broad application for this. It works in Europe between Germany and Italy because people don’t want to drive through the Alps.
 

toddinde

Service Attendant
Joined
Apr 23, 2015
Messages
173
Location
Sierra Vista, AZ
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.
Why wouldn’t most people just rent a car at their destination? I’m not seeing the market for this.
 
  • Like
Reactions: jis

railiner

Conductor
Joined
Mar 20, 2009
Messages
8,658
Location
Palm Beach County
The future doesn't bode well for new auto train operation's. There is a belief among many, that when autonomous vehicles become dominant, private vehicle ownership will decline to only those in rural location's, and everyone will travel in "on demand" vehicles'. There will probably be competing nationwide fleets of these vehicles to become "member's" of...

Even for those who insist on paying the price for private ownership...fully autonomous vehicles mean you can sleep, dine, work, or play enroute, just like you could riding the train. And be taken from door to door, when and where you desire....

While this new technology is just in the 'teething' stage presently, I am confident most of us will live to see it happen.
 
  • Like
Reactions: jis

gwolfdog

Service Attendant
Joined
Mar 27, 2020
Messages
228
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...
You must be a Cannonball Run Veteran. They put Turbochargers on the Prius now? Diapers, Speed Balls and a Cooler? 🤔 😷
 

Palmland

OBS Chief
Joined
May 25, 2006
Messages
913
Location
Carolinas
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.
I think what you describe is why many of us would prefer Auto Train. The last time I did the overnight to FL drive was when I was in college. I admire your energy, but it's a long boring drive.

Certainly the main benefit of A-T is that you can pack your car full of stuff and not have to rent at destination. Not a good choice for a quick trip, but for snowbirds wintering in FL or returning to the NE for a long visit it seems like a good option, especially for those who have disposable income where cost isn't a big factor.
 

jiml

Conductor
Joined
Feb 27, 2019
Messages
2,316
Location
Somewhere in Southern Ontario
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.
Actually our snowbird group in Northwest Florida has lots of people from Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, in addition to those from the northeast. If you don't count the section through Tennessee, which is a mess, the bulk of I-65 is a big, wide open highway with little traffic outside cities - almost perfect for Mid-westerners.
 

Dakota 400

Conductor
Joined
Mar 5, 2014
Messages
2,457
After driving 20 hours, it was about time. ;) Still got up in time for football and turkey dinner....:)
You have your priorities right! 😀

Certainly the main benefit of A-T is that you can pack your car full of stuff and not have to rent at destination.
I completely agree. If one is an over-packer such as me, it helps making the decisions of "what to take/not take" easier. While I don't mind renting a car for a short period of time, 7-10 days, if I am going to be at my destination for a longer period of time, I like having my own car to drive.
 

jpakala

Train Attendant
Joined
Jul 13, 2014
Messages
17
Driving to or from CA is a long, long drive with multiple nights spent for lodging en route unless you want to arrive dead. The Santa Fe, e.g., provided a night-day-night trip from Chicago (fewer hours of course from KC). Someone mentioned that route doesn't involve mountains the way the CA Zephyr's does, e.g. And as with Lorton and Sanford, any termini needn't and indeed shouldn't be inside a big city.
 

me_little_me

Conductor
Joined
Jul 16, 2010
Messages
3,504
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...
That's okay for some people. For me:

I'd have shot a quarter of the idiots on the road and blasted a few more with my RPG after about 2 hours of driving in freeway traffic. Then, after a total of four hours, I'd have to stop for an overnight stay and see some point of interest before having a comfortable dinner and a relaxing evening. The next days would be the same although I'd probably start using my high power laser beam to put holes in the tires of the idiots just for practice.

I wish there were somewhere I could put my car onboard the train. All that ammo and laser energy saved would pay for the trip.
 

tgstubbs1

Lead Service Attendant
Joined
Mar 3, 2020
Messages
384
I used to drive professionally, so I am used to long drives. And I did have about 600 pounds of household items on board...:)
Well, maybe they don't need to add more AutoTrain routes, just relocate the current one to someplace it would be more appreciated.
20201129_064529~2.jpg

This map is a highly accurate and detailed compilation made by the US Geological Survey. The color was added to show elevation, not vegetation.

Lorton to Sanford is 855 miles, a little less than two standard 500 mile days more than enough torture for most people.
Chicago to LA is over 2200 miles. Four days and three nights. Amtrak does it in less than two days.
I don't think your driving style on a trip from NY to LA would work very well.
As you can see by the map, people driving cross country face great distances, especially compared to Europe.
 

jis

Conductor
AU Lifetime Supporter
Gathering Team Member
Joined
Aug 24, 2003
Messages
26,582
Location
Space Coast, Florida, Area code 3-2-1
The only time I have taken the Auto Train is when I moved from NJ to Florida. I took one round trip and one one way all using my then 2010 Prius Hybrid, to move stuff that I would not trust to a mover.

Other than that I have never really found a pressing reason to take my car along. I have always been able to find reasonably priced rentals at both eds for the period that I needed them. So I guess I do not fall in the typical "Snowbird" or "Reverse Snowbird" demographic that is the ideal customer of the Auto Train.

For my specific use it was an excellent service and fit my needs of the moment well. Unfortunately, though, since I do not often move from NJ to Florida, I would not be a very good sustaining customer, and if the service did not exist, I would just drive all the way.

Auto Train works in the VA - FL Corridor because the Acela Corridor to Orlando area and broadly the rest of Florida too one of the most heavily traveled corridors. This is true of air traffic too, and also Amtrak LD trains, one might add. No other corridor, except perhaps the SFO-LAX catchment area corridor comes even close.
 

tgstubbs1

Lead Service Attendant
Joined
Mar 3, 2020
Messages
384
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.

I would probably want to try this service if possible. But for people going to LA it's only about halfway. Another Autotrain from Trinidad to the west might work while this one turns around to return to CHI, but if I had to wait a couple of hours to continue on a 'thru' car I think it would be ok, as long as they let people off to eat or shop.20201129_120746~2.jpg20201129_120456~3.jpg
As you can see, many of the roads in Colorado are paved, oiled, or bitumenous high quality roads, but not all of them.
Also, neighboring states might not be as advanced.
 
Last edited:

railiner

Conductor
Joined
Mar 20, 2009
Messages
8,658
Location
Palm Beach County
Well, maybe they don't need to add more AutoTrain routes, just relocate the current one to someplace it would be more appreciated.
View attachment 19669

This map is a highly accurate and detailed compilation made by the US Geological Survey. The color was added to show elevation, not vegetation.

Lorton to Sanford is 855 miles, a little less than two standard 500 mile days more than enough torture for most people.
Chicago to LA is over 2200 miles. Four days and three nights. Amtrak does it in less than two days.
I don't think your driving style on a trip from NY to LA would work very well.
As you can see by the map, people driving cross country face great distances, especially compared to Europe.
What you say would apply to most people...but I could drive from New York to Los Angeles with one stopover, halfway. I would drive it in two twenty hour segments, with a 12 hour rest in between. Total time, about 53 hours...
 

tgstubbs1

Lead Service Attendant
Joined
Mar 3, 2020
Messages
384
Here is a possible Autotrain western routes map.
The Sunset Limited is not complete so the Palm Springs stop isn't shown( plus I dropped a Sudafed somewhere behind the table).
20201129_120106~2.jpg
 

Cho Cho Charlie

Conductor
Joined
Apr 9, 2009
Messages
2,263
Location
Near an Amtrak station
I agree that, at least, a seasonal Auto Train makes sense. Daily service? Probably not. But 2x or 3x per week?
Equipment sitting idle for those other days, rarely makes for a good business case/justification.

Why am I needing my own car out in the Pacific Northwest? It's not going to be cheap to haul the vehicle - Amtrak currently charges $258 one way, or $466 round trip, for a standard vehicle on the current Auto Train. With the mileage roughly doubled between the two, I'd assume a doubling of those prices, so roughly $900 just for the vehicle round-trip. I could rent a car for a week or two for a lot less than that, and if I only need a car for part of the trip I have that option.
Good point. You'll need a substantial number of the prospective passenger pool, wanting to stay at the destination for a relatively long time. For example, competing with a $100/week rental market, the passenger pool would need to stay for 9 weeks, just to equal the $900 cost of taking their own car.

The middle class in the NE being snowbirds, happens to be that unique passenger pool. I wonder how many of people in Chicago own a 2nd home only in Florida? Or only in Denver. Or only in New Orleans? Or only in Tucson? Remember, if we're adding just one new AT route, then only one of those places can be true.
 

gwolfdog

Service Attendant
Joined
Mar 27, 2020
Messages
228
What you say would apply to most people...but I could drive from New York to Los Angeles with one stopover, halfway. I would drive it in two twenty hour segments, with a 12 hour rest in between. Total time, about 53 hours...
I think most of us have done some Heroic drives' sometime in our live's. I did coast to coast in a similar time in my 20's. I remember seeing a flying Saucer following me at night going over the Rockies. I stopped briefly in Joplin, Missouri but was too wired to sleep. I've also taken a Amtrak coast to coast and prefer the train, enjoying the scenery and relaxing with a cocktail. But whatever floats your boat
 

gwolfdog

Service Attendant
Joined
Mar 27, 2020
Messages
228
I read they had record attendance at Yellowstone just recently. Too bad no train goes there.
The Government and Amtrak Brass thought they would endanger Yogi and Boo-Boo. When they found out it was Jellystone the money was already allocated to a Fence Project in the Southwest. 🤣 😷
 
Top