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Amtrak Auto Train Expansion Article


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#1 sitzplatz17

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Posted 21 November 2011 - 11:19 AM

During my most productive day at work today *snickers*, I came across this article about one of my favorite routes:

http://articles.chic...passenger-train

The following quote of was particular interest to me:

"We would love to go east to west and also head from Florida to Chicago," said Amtrak spokeswoman Karina Romero.

Other possibilities include Chicago to Arizona and Chicago to Texas, said Larry Vollten, operations supervisor for the Auto Train. Those routes are based on vacation and retiree markets, Vollten said



While I have heard this concept from Armchair Amtrak philosophers before, I hadn't heard that is was actually being looked at by Amtrak officially.

If this has already been discussed before feel free to delete/ignore this post. I did a quick search but didn't find anything. I am open to being corrected.

Otherwise, what do y'all think chances of something like this would be?
If it did happen, where would you find space for the large facilities needed for such an operation?
What route would a CHI - PHX or CHI - DAL Auto Train take?

Obviously Amtrak currently does not have the equipment or money to start up any such a service.
But the Auto Train has been a consistently successful venture, which might be a strong argument to receive funding for an expansion service.

Cheers!

-Sitzplatz17

Edited by sitzplatz17, 21 November 2011 - 11:19 AM.

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#2 johnny.menhennet

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Posted 21 November 2011 - 11:43 AM

In response to your routing question, there are tow "workable routes I think an autotrain to PHX could use... one would be BNSF on the windy route to the north, connecting to the Transcon near Williams, and the other would involve PHX-Tucson - Deming - Hatch, then on up NM o the Transcon --- these would probably be the quickest --- another possibility would be PHX - Tucson - El Paso - Alamogordo, etc.: The route that the Rock Island/Southern Pacific Golden State (I think) took, but this would require more UP running, and we know how that goes
I'm surprised to hear that Florida - midwest is being reconsidered, as we know what a miserable failure Louisville was... but I kind of understand Chicago, if they could find non-decrepit tracks

Edited by johnny.menhennet, 21 November 2011 - 11:45 AM.

Amtrak: Pacific Surfliner (100000000000), Southwest Chief (5), California Zephyr (1), Coast Starlight (6), Capitol Corridor (1), Empire Builder (2), Acela Express (1), LSL (1), NE Regional (2)
Non-Amtrak: NCTD Coaster (at least 20), Metrolink (4), SD Trolley (at least 20), LACMTA Red Line (at least 50), Seattle Streetcar (1), Chicago 'L' (probably 13), NYC Subway (probably 15), WMATA Mass Transit (probably 20), LIRR (1), Las Vegas Monorail (at least 12), MBTA Mass Transit (16), NJ Transit commuter rail (3), I'm sure there are more that I can't think of right now

upcoming Amtrak: Pacific Surfliner (10000000000 more)
upcoming non-Amtrak: Coaster, Red Line/Expo Line in LA, NJ Transit (5-10)

Pretty good for a 16 year old :)


#3 Gratt

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Posted 21 November 2011 - 11:48 AM

I dont see how Chicago-AZ would make sense. The beauty of the Auto train is that it travels mostly at night.

It allows passengers to get on to the train in the afternoon and get off the next morning with more than enough time to reach their final destination.

The distance from say CHI to Flagstaff AZ is almost twice as long. As for attaching it to a current train the SWC does go that route. but it takes almost 29 hours.

As for TX it is close enough and while I would personally love it. I simply do not see the demand. The TE/SL are not exactly the most packed of the western trains, but that might also have to do with scenery as well as population.

#4 johnny.menhennet

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Posted 21 November 2011 - 11:51 AM

I've been wondering this for a while... Does the Auto Train have a slower speed limit since it's a "mixed" train?

Amtrak: Pacific Surfliner (100000000000), Southwest Chief (5), California Zephyr (1), Coast Starlight (6), Capitol Corridor (1), Empire Builder (2), Acela Express (1), LSL (1), NE Regional (2)
Non-Amtrak: NCTD Coaster (at least 20), Metrolink (4), SD Trolley (at least 20), LACMTA Red Line (at least 50), Seattle Streetcar (1), Chicago 'L' (probably 13), NYC Subway (probably 15), WMATA Mass Transit (probably 20), LIRR (1), Las Vegas Monorail (at least 12), MBTA Mass Transit (16), NJ Transit commuter rail (3), I'm sure there are more that I can't think of right now

upcoming Amtrak: Pacific Surfliner (10000000000 more)
upcoming non-Amtrak: Coaster, Red Line/Expo Line in LA, NJ Transit (5-10)

Pretty good for a 16 year old :)


#5 sitzplatz17

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Posted 21 November 2011 - 12:01 PM

I've been wondering this for a while... Does the Auto Train have a slower speed limit since it's a "mixed" train?


Not that I am aware of, I believe it's able to go the usual 79mp/h.

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#6 Trogdor

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Posted 21 November 2011 - 12:01 PM

The Auto Train is currently limited to 70 mph, but I know some work was being done to get the auto carriers certified to 79. Don't know where that stands at the moment.
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#7 johnny.menhennet

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Posted 21 November 2011 - 12:10 PM

I dont see how Chicago-AZ would make sense. The beauty of the Auto train is that it travels mostly at night.

It allows passengers to get on to the train in the afternoon and get off the next morning with more than enough time to reach their final destination.

The distance from say CHI to Flagstaff AZ is almost twice as long. As for attaching it to a current train the SWC does go that route. but it takes almost 29 hours.

As for TX it is close enough and while I would personally love it. I simply do not see the demand. The TE/SL are not exactly the most packed of the western trains, but that might also have to do with scenery as well as population.


One nice thing about the Auto Train IS that it travels at night, like you pointed out... That could be a contributing beneficial factor to Chicago-TX because it probably could be run on an overnight schedule... The Lone Star route would be the quickest: it left Chicago at 4:10P and arrived Fort Worth at 12:50P the next day... take off 30-40 minutes for the new CHI-GBB routing and take off at least two hours for ALL of the stops... In this way, an Auto Train leaving Chicago at 4:00P could be in to Fort Worth by 10:00A or leave at 3:00P arrive at 9:00A. If it took the current routing of the TE to Dallas, I would expect that if it departed Chicago at 4:00P, it would arrive in Dallas at about 11:00A

Amtrak: Pacific Surfliner (100000000000), Southwest Chief (5), California Zephyr (1), Coast Starlight (6), Capitol Corridor (1), Empire Builder (2), Acela Express (1), LSL (1), NE Regional (2)
Non-Amtrak: NCTD Coaster (at least 20), Metrolink (4), SD Trolley (at least 20), LACMTA Red Line (at least 50), Seattle Streetcar (1), Chicago 'L' (probably 13), NYC Subway (probably 15), WMATA Mass Transit (probably 20), LIRR (1), Las Vegas Monorail (at least 12), MBTA Mass Transit (16), NJ Transit commuter rail (3), I'm sure there are more that I can't think of right now

upcoming Amtrak: Pacific Surfliner (10000000000 more)
upcoming non-Amtrak: Coaster, Red Line/Expo Line in LA, NJ Transit (5-10)

Pretty good for a 16 year old :)


#8 sitzplatz17

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Posted 21 November 2011 - 12:26 PM

The Auto Train is currently limited to 70 mph, but I know some work was being done to get the auto carriers certified to 79. Don't know where that stands at the moment.


Thanks for the correction!

I agree that the Texas route makes more sense than the PHX route in a scheduling capacity, but I 'm unsure about the demand.

Wouldn't there be more of a demand for the CHI-PDX route? True it'd be a two-nighter which comes with the need for even more equipment which makes it problematic.

Also I just kind of assumed DAL would be the endpoint, but the article never specified where the southern terminus would actually be.

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#9 johnny.menhennet

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Posted 21 November 2011 - 12:51 PM


The Auto Train is currently limited to 70 mph, but I know some work was being done to get the auto carriers certified to 79. Don't know where that stands at the moment.


Thanks for the correction!

I agree that the Texas route makes more sense than the PHX route in a scheduling capacity, but I 'm unsure about the demand.

Wouldn't there be more of a demand for the CHI-PDX route? True it'd be a two-nighter which comes with the need for even more equipment which makes it problematic.

Also I just kind of assumed DAL would be the endpoint, but the article never specified where the southern terminus would actually be.


Chicago-Portland??? I will assume you mean Chicago-Phoenix (PHX)... I assumed that the endpoint for a Texas line would be in the Metroplex also. If it ended in Fort Worth, I think it would make it there at least an hour faster, plus it would be able to use BNSF if Fort Worth.

Amtrak: Pacific Surfliner (100000000000), Southwest Chief (5), California Zephyr (1), Coast Starlight (6), Capitol Corridor (1), Empire Builder (2), Acela Express (1), LSL (1), NE Regional (2)
Non-Amtrak: NCTD Coaster (at least 20), Metrolink (4), SD Trolley (at least 20), LACMTA Red Line (at least 50), Seattle Streetcar (1), Chicago 'L' (probably 13), NYC Subway (probably 15), WMATA Mass Transit (probably 20), LIRR (1), Las Vegas Monorail (at least 12), MBTA Mass Transit (16), NJ Transit commuter rail (3), I'm sure there are more that I can't think of right now

upcoming Amtrak: Pacific Surfliner (10000000000 more)
upcoming non-Amtrak: Coaster, Red Line/Expo Line in LA, NJ Transit (5-10)

Pretty good for a 16 year old :)


#10 trainviews

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Posted 21 November 2011 - 02:12 PM

Even if the article is a year and a half old it is still interesting. Given the economic performance of the Auto train it is only logical to at least study an expansion.

I especially noticed one comment:

"...probably linking it up with one of our other western trains that already exist," Vollten said.


This is logical in some respects and might be the only feasible way of getting auto trains running in the West but also poses a lot of problems.

The pros are that you don't have to fill a whole train = better economy from the beginning. Also a lot of costs will be shared with the existing LD, giving that a better economy too. Last, but not least, it will save Amtrak to have to negotiate for a new slot with the host railroads and the associated possible for capacity expansions, that would probably kill the project.

But there is a few obstacles:

Car shuffling: The auto train cars will need it's own terminal and then have to be latched on to the LD and then detatched at the other end. I take it that it will only be an end to end service like the current auto train, but even so it takes time that has to be added to the LD's schedule. At Chicago a terminal would have to be somewhere along the route south of town. Somewhere close enough to Union Station that the auto cars could be run into Union Station and joined with the regular LD cars there is unlikely given the crowding on the tracks in the Chicago area and the much larger amount of time this would take for the auto train customers. Likewise at the other end.

Delays: As the joining is at the auto section's starting point, delays of that section is not a question and the usual problem in car splitting of one section having to wait for another, late section is not there for the regular LD. As the terminus for the auto train in Phoenix and in Texas (where somewhere in the Dallas area is the sensible location) is far from the terminus of either the TE or the SWC situations with grumpy auto trains riders sitting for hours in the train at the terminal waiting for their "host" train to show up is bound to happen though. Not good for a "premium" service.

If more than one service is started out of Chicago where should the terminal be? Can a location be found where all the LD's that would pick up cars run sufficiently close by?

Length of train. The auto racks and sleepers of course do not have to get to the platforms on the intermediate stations, but a very long train might block grade crossings or interlockings for sidings while stopped at a station.

"Unnesessary" stops: The regular stops of the LD will be seen as a slow down by the auto train passengers. This is more a psychological problem, but it gives less of a feel of a premium service.

So in all running the trains together will take some toll on both services, but it might be the only way of ever getting such a service started.

I would like to see the feasibility studies mentioned in the article though, both in regards to estimates of cost recovery and start up costs. If auto train service is made part of existing LD's it might have a good operating economy even if the ridership is substantially smaller than the current Auto Train's, but I would really like to see an asessment of the negative effects too. And I have no idea what the capital costs would be for two or three terminals, racks, passenger cars, extra engines and work engines at the terminals, plus any track alterations for the longer trains at stations.

#11 me_little_me

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Posted 21 November 2011 - 02:32 PM


I dont see how Chicago-AZ would make sense. The beauty of the Auto train is that it travels mostly at night.
It allows passengers to get on to the train in the afternoon and get off the next morning with more than enough time to reach their final destination.
The distance from say CHI to Flagstaff AZ is almost twice as long. As for attaching it to a current train the SWC does go that route. but it takes almost 29 hours.
As for TX it is close enough and while I would personally love it. I simply do not see the demand. The TE/SL are not exactly the most packed of the western trains, but that might also have to do with scenery as well as population.

One nice thing about the Auto Train IS that it travels at night, like you pointed out... That could be a contributing beneficial factor to Chicago-TX because it probably could be run on an overnight schedule... The Lone Star route would be the quickest: it left Chicago at 4:10P and arrived Fort Worth at 12:50P the next day... take off 30-40 minutes for the new CHI-GBB routing and take off at least two hours for ALL of the stops... In this way, an Auto Train leaving Chicago at 4:00P could be in to Fort Worth by 10:00A or leave at 3:00P arrive at 9:00A. If it took the current routing of the TE to Dallas, I would expect that if it departed Chicago at 4:00P, it would arrive in Dallas at about 11:00A

Remember, it wouldn't be Chicago to Ft. Worth just like the present Auto Train is not Washington to Orlando. There has to be a place to provide loading docks and parking for vehicles and auto carriers. So when everyone thinks about the A-T, they need to think about a suburban area with tracks and switching, places to parallel-load the auto carriers, places for vehicles waiting to unload or just unloaded, etc.

#12 johnny.menhennet

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Posted 21 November 2011 - 02:51 PM



I dont see how Chicago-AZ would make sense. The beauty of the Auto train is that it travels mostly at night.
It allows passengers to get on to the train in the afternoon and get off the next morning with more than enough time to reach their final destination.
The distance from say CHI to Flagstaff AZ is almost twice as long. As for attaching it to a current train the SWC does go that route. but it takes almost 29 hours.
As for TX it is close enough and while I would personally love it. I simply do not see the demand. The TE/SL are not exactly the most packed of the western trains, but that might also have to do with scenery as well as population.

One nice thing about the Auto Train IS that it travels at night, like you pointed out... That could be a contributing beneficial factor to Chicago-TX because it probably could be run on an overnight schedule... The Lone Star route would be the quickest: it left Chicago at 4:10P and arrived Fort Worth at 12:50P the next day... take off 30-40 minutes for the new CHI-GBB routing and take off at least two hours for ALL of the stops... In this way, an Auto Train leaving Chicago at 4:00P could be in to Fort Worth by 10:00A or leave at 3:00P arrive at 9:00A. If it took the current routing of the TE to Dallas, I would expect that if it departed Chicago at 4:00P, it would arrive in Dallas at about 11:00A

Remember, it wouldn't be Chicago to Ft. Worth just like the present Auto Train is not Washington to Orlando. There has to be a place to provide loading docks and parking for vehicles and auto carriers. So when everyone thinks about the A-T, they need to think about a suburban area with tracks and switching, places to parallel-load the auto carriers, places for vehicles waiting to unload or just unloaded, etc.


Yes, I understand... I was just trying to keep it simple... I do feel, though, that if any new terminals are constructed, they should be within 10 miles of the downtowns

Amtrak: Pacific Surfliner (100000000000), Southwest Chief (5), California Zephyr (1), Coast Starlight (6), Capitol Corridor (1), Empire Builder (2), Acela Express (1), LSL (1), NE Regional (2)
Non-Amtrak: NCTD Coaster (at least 20), Metrolink (4), SD Trolley (at least 20), LACMTA Red Line (at least 50), Seattle Streetcar (1), Chicago 'L' (probably 13), NYC Subway (probably 15), WMATA Mass Transit (probably 20), LIRR (1), Las Vegas Monorail (at least 12), MBTA Mass Transit (16), NJ Transit commuter rail (3), I'm sure there are more that I can't think of right now

upcoming Amtrak: Pacific Surfliner (10000000000 more)
upcoming non-Amtrak: Coaster, Red Line/Expo Line in LA, NJ Transit (5-10)

Pretty good for a 16 year old :)


#13 jis

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Posted 21 November 2011 - 03:05 PM

Good to dream. But nothing of the sort is on the cards for the near or medium future. I did ask specifically about this at one of the various rail advocacy groups meetings earlier this year, where the gentleman who manages Amtrak LD was present. And his comment was we continuously look at all sorts of possibilities but nothing is on the cards at present.

#14 sitzplatz17

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Posted 21 November 2011 - 04:20 PM

Good to dream. But nothing of the sort is on the cards for the near or medium future. I did ask specifically about this at one of the various rail advocacy groups meetings earlier this year, where the gentleman who manages Amtrak LD was present. And his comment was we continuously look at all sorts of possibilities but nothing is on the cards at present.


I figured as much, the topic is very much a dreamers thread. But at least one that's grounded in some sense of reality.

And sorry, yes I meant PHX not PDX. My apologies!

As for places to build a FTW/DAL and CHI terminal, I'm taking the Texas Eagle in a few weeks, I'll keep my eyes open for a good spot! Posted Image

I am also concerned that adding Auto carriers to existing routes e.g. TE or SWC might not be the right approach, but realistically might be the only option for Amtrak.
Ideally for the service to be truly successful you would want to run a dedicated train. Maybe just run one set back and forth and see how it catches on?

Another question: is the Auto Train in it's current incarnation profitable, or does it still lose money? I know it's one of the most monetarily successful routes.
I imagine this could have a large effect on getting states interested as well. I believe Florida put in some money for the new Sanford terminal.

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#15 me_little_me

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Posted 21 November 2011 - 04:30 PM



One nice thing about the Auto Train IS that it travels at night, like you pointed out... That could be a contributing beneficial factor to Chicago-TX because it probably could be run on an overnight schedule... The Lone Star route would be the quickest: it left Chicago at 4:10P and arrived Fort Worth at 12:50P the next day... take off 30-40 minutes for the new CHI-GBB routing and take off at least two hours for ALL of the stops... In this way, an Auto Train leaving Chicago at 4:00P could be in to Fort Worth by 10:00A or leave at 3:00P arrive at 9:00A. If it took the current routing of the TE to Dallas, I would expect that if it departed Chicago at 4:00P, it would arrive in Dallas at about 11:00A

Remember, it wouldn't be Chicago to Ft. Worth just like the present Auto Train is not Washington to Orlando. There has to be a place to provide loading docks and parking for vehicles and auto carriers. So when everyone thinks about the A-T, they need to think about a suburban area with tracks and switching, places to parallel-load the auto carriers, places for vehicles waiting to unload or just unloaded, etc.

Yes, I understand... I was just trying to keep it simple... I do feel, though, that if any new terminals are constructed, they should be within 10 miles of the downtowns

Why? What would it gain? The idea is that you have your car at both ends. So why would you want to drive downtown to either drop off your car or pick it up? Either way, you are fighting traffic. There is no advantage to downtown or near-downtown locations but there are lots of disadvantages (traffic for drivers, land cost for Amtrak, e.g.). For other trains, downtown has lots of advantages (business, tourists, other trains, public transportation, etc.).
For a straight A-T, suburban would be better. If Amtrak decided to add single car-carrier between major cities (say CHI-DAL or ATL-Richmond) as part of an ordinary train, then a station along the route near the major city but where the car-carrier could be picked up or dropped off and unloaded might be a better alternative. It would not require the massive infrastructure of a full A-T. You show up early, load your car on the carrier then wait until the train comes though. While boarding, the pre-positioned carrier is added to rear of train. It is dropped off at the destination. You need a siding, a small yard diesel and a single load/unload dock.

#16 Palmland

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Posted 21 November 2011 - 04:40 PM

The Auto Train was originally run by a private company - for profit. I believe it did okay until it unwisely expanded to Louisville and experienced a couple costly derailments. With a separate maintenance base in Sanford, and the two independent (of Amtrak regular service) terminals, this would be a prime candidate to be spun off and operated by someone with marketing and service expertise. But, they would have to bring deep pockets to cover equipment and station capital costs. Perhaps someone like the successful Orient-Express Co. could make a go of it. With current budget struggles and congressional meddling, don't see this happening under Amtrak.

I am surprised Amtrak mentions Phoenix and Texas as possible candidates. To me the obvious one would be Chicago to Denver - for retirees and vacationers in the warm months and skiers in the winter. Like the current service it is just a quick overnight and avoids a boring drive on I-70 or 80 with lots of truck interference. While Chicago-Florida certainly has the market for an auto train, it would be a tough sell to the railroads due to the heavy freight traffic and longer running time required would be less attractive to potential travelers who might not think more time on the rails is a good thing.

Edited by Palmland, 21 November 2011 - 04:41 PM.


#17 Texan Eagle

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Posted 21 November 2011 - 05:10 PM

Car shuffling: The auto train cars will need it's own terminal and then have to be latched on to the LD and then detatched at the other end. I take it that it will only be an end to end service like the current auto train, but even so it takes time that has to be added to the LD's schedule. At Chicago a terminal would have to be somewhere along the route south of town. Somewhere close enough to Union Station that the auto cars could be run into Union Station and joined with the regular LD cars there is unlikely given the crowding on the tracks in the Chicago area and the much larger amount of time this would take for the auto train customers. Likewise at the other end.


As jis mentioned, this is not happening anytime in foreseeable future, but there is no harm in discussing the possibilities, right?

One idea to have an Auto Train tagged onto Texas Eagle between Chicago and Fort Worth could be something like this- have an Auto Train loading station somewhere out of Chicago Union Station, on the TE route. The car carriages and sleepers of Auto Train would be populated from this station, and an engine, maybe just a switcher would be enough, can tow this consist to an appropriate point on the TE route, say for example, Joliet, and attach it to the back to Eagle when it comes by, and everyone is on their way. This way the normal passengers of Eagle do not have to wait agonizingly long for the car carriages to fill up and attach. At the other end, at Fort Worth, again a switch engine can pull off the car carriages and Auto Train sleepers from the end of the train and take them to an Auto Train depot built somewhere appropriate, with all those parallel loading decks et al, while the Eagle can continue its journey after regular FTW halt. In the other direction, the same procedure happens in reverse. This way the normal passengers do not have to wait for Auto Train loading and unloading and the Auto Train folks can board and alight at a separate facility with their cars rather than passing through crowded main stations.



#18 johnny.menhennet

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Posted 21 November 2011 - 05:13 PM

One Auto Train expansion I'd LOVE to see is from San Diego/LA to a point midway up the Peninsula in the Bay Area... The train could start in San Diego around 6:00P, pick up some pre-loaded racks in LA around 9P, and arrive to a point within 20 miles of San Francisco, San Jose, and 30 miles from Oakland, at 7:00A... The 5 has become so dang crowded and jammed with trucks that I KNOW a service like this would be extremely popular

Amtrak: Pacific Surfliner (100000000000), Southwest Chief (5), California Zephyr (1), Coast Starlight (6), Capitol Corridor (1), Empire Builder (2), Acela Express (1), LSL (1), NE Regional (2)
Non-Amtrak: NCTD Coaster (at least 20), Metrolink (4), SD Trolley (at least 20), LACMTA Red Line (at least 50), Seattle Streetcar (1), Chicago 'L' (probably 13), NYC Subway (probably 15), WMATA Mass Transit (probably 20), LIRR (1), Las Vegas Monorail (at least 12), MBTA Mass Transit (16), NJ Transit commuter rail (3), I'm sure there are more that I can't think of right now

upcoming Amtrak: Pacific Surfliner (10000000000 more)
upcoming non-Amtrak: Coaster, Red Line/Expo Line in LA, NJ Transit (5-10)

Pretty good for a 16 year old :)


#19 afigg

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Posted 21 November 2011 - 05:20 PM

Another question: is the Auto Train in it's current incarnation profitable, or does it still lose money? I know it's one of the most monetarily successful routes.
I imagine this could have a large effect on getting states interested as well. I believe Florida put in some money for the new Sanford terminal.

No, the AutoTrain still runs at a loss. It has the highest cost recovery percentage of the LD trains, but it still runs at a net loss. The FY11 financial numbers are not yet available, but the last monthly report in May with detailed financial performance showed the AT losing $11.7 million Oct 10 to May 11 before OPEB and other costs were allocated.

The Sanford station refurbishment was covered by stimulus funding. Don't know if FL contributed.

#20 Ziv

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Posted 21 November 2011 - 06:29 PM

This might not break a lot of new ground for the auto train, but what about having the current auto train start at Newark NJ at 1 pm with older 2 level autoracks to avoid the height difficulties en route to Lorton. Then hook the Newark train to the Lorton train and off you go at 4 pm. I am a huge rail fan, but I probably don't understand a myriad of problems this would face. But it seems like it would be a relatively simple way to add riders to an existing train, while using older autoracks to avoid height issues. And how does the train only average 49 mph if it stops just once?



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