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What do you folks think about a CHI-NOL-Florida Auto Train? I know, I'm really Day Dreaming here!!! I ask because there are so many snowbirds down here from the Mid-West!

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What do you folks think about a CHI-NOL-Florida Auto Train? I know, I'm really Day Dreaming here!!! I ask because there are so many snowbirds down here from the Mid-West!

So sort of like the proposed NOL-JAX CONO, but with auto racks? Well I strongly support that route on it’s own, I don’t see why that would make much sense for an Auto Train. There would have to be a very long layover in NOL, due to the time it takes to load/unload the cars, refuel, restock multiple dining cars, etc. The costs and overhead involved in providing that service are best suited for nonstop routes. And bear in mind that a large portion of Auto Train riders are “snow birds”, heading south for the winter. And an NOL to Florida route wouldn’t have that market at all. I could definitely see the appeal of a nonstop Chicago to Florida Auto Train - that’s a route that hasn’t been offered at all for decades, but passing through NOL would add many hours to the journey, plus (as I said) refueling and restocking. Bear in mind that the current Auto Train, a 17 hour journey, has to stop once in Florence to refuel. A CHI-NOL-FL train would probably need to stop at least three times - it takes a lot of fuel to pull 40-50 train cars.

 

So no, that does not seem like a good idea for a train.

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The old Auto Train Corporation tried that, and it ultimately failed, even after combining with Amtrak's Floridian train for a number of years. It ran from Louisville to Sanford.

 

Besides all of the logistical reasons that would make starting that service very difficult...I really doubt there is the demographic's there to sustain that market. The one in the East is very unique. I don't know how it is doing in terms of ridership, but wonder if even it will be able to hold its ridership in future generations... :unsure:

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Looking @ today's demographics and changing lifestyles, the Long term prospects for the Auto Train is not Rosey! YMMV

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The old Auto Train Corporation tried that, and it ultimately failed, even after combining with Amtrak's Floridian train for a number of years. It ran from Louisville to Sanford.

 

Besides all of the logistical reasons that would make starting that service very difficult...I really doubt there is the demographic's there to sustain that market. The one in the East is very unique. I don't know how it is doing in terms of ridership, but wonder if even it will be able to hold its ridership in future generations... :unsure:

It’s 18 passenger cars and sells out frequently, so I think ridership is doing fine. But again, most of those passengers would have no use whatsoever for the NOL-FL segment, which would add drastically to the trip tIme, and most likely require a change to the unloading process. Departing CHI, they would probably have to have CHI-FL cars farthest in, and CHI-NOL cars at the end. Then at NOL, they unload all of the lattter, and load in the NOL-FL cars. The is the best way to organize it, but the process at NOL would take FOREVER since they need to unload and load all those cars.

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The old Auto Train Corporation tried that, and it ultimately failed, even after combining with Amtrak's Floridian train for a number of years. It ran from Louisville to Sanford.

 

Besides all of the logistical reasons that would make starting that service very difficult...I really doubt there is the demographic's there to sustain that market. The one in the East is very unique. I don't know how it is doing in terms of ridership, but wonder if even it will be able to hold its ridership in future generations... :unsure:

Its 18 passenger cars and sells out frequently, so I think ridership is doing fine. But again, most of those passengers would have no use whatsoever for the NOL-FL segment, which would add drastically to the trip tIme, and most likely require a change to the unloading process. Departing CHI, they would probably have to have CHI-FL cars farthest in, and CHI-NOL cars at the end. Then at NOL, they unload all of the lattter, and load in the NOL-FL cars. The is the best way to organize it, but the process at NOL would take FOREVER since they need to unload and load all those cars.
I don't know exactly what OP meant, but I interpreted it as routing the train through New Orleans with nothing more than a service stop there (similar to Florence). The route would be roundabout, but maintains faster speeds than the more direct routes so may actually reach Florida faster. If a Chicago-Sanford train was routing via New Orleans, it would take roughly 37 hours, where as a routing via Washington would take about 36. When the Floridian still ran, it took 34 hours Chicago to Sanford, and a similar train today would likely take longer. However, while I have long been a supporter of Chicago-Florida train, I don't think an Auto Train would be a success. It would require a new facility in the Chicago Area and would bypass the large intermediate markets currently without Amtrak service that a train from Chicago to Florida could stop in, such as Mobile, Pensacola, and Tallahassee or Louisville, Nashville, and Macon. Other large markets that could benefit from such as train include Memphis, New Orleans, and Jacksonville or Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Jacksonville.

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I wonder if the OP actually contemplated loading and unloading cars at NOL or if that was just an indication of the route. Offhand I wouldn't see much demand for CHI-NOL or NOL-SFA, at least in comparison to CHI-SFA.

 

I also wonder if it would need to be a separate train, at least at the beginning. Just pick up a couple autoracks and the associated passengers on the way out of CHI (around Kankakee, maybe?) and run them through on the extended CONO.

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I really didn't have anything in mind, just throwing it out there for discussion. Thanx for your replies!

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Why not load a separate cut of cars in NOL and swap them with those cutting off from either end? Much faster as the train doesn’t need to wait for the cars to be loaded or offloaded. PS, autoracks are cheap compared to passenger cars.

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Why not load a separate cut of cars in NOL and swap them with those cutting off from either end? Much faster as the train doesn’t need to wait for the cars to be loaded or offloaded. PS, autoracks are cheap compared to passenger cars.

But they’ve still got to shunt and couple 15 or so cars. That also takes a while.

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just throwing it out there for discussion.

Like to live dangerously, don't you? You know what you're in for on here when you throw something out for discussion! :giggle:

 

I think it's a nice idea in theory, but can see all the caveats and obstacles that others have mentioned.

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Why not load a separate cut of cars in NOL and swap them with those cutting off from either end? Much faster as the train doesn’t need to wait for the cars to be loaded or offloaded. PS, autoracks are cheap compared to passenger cars.

But they’ve still got to shunt and couple 15 or so cars. That also takes a while.
Maybe an hour. Time that can also be used for restocking the train.

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While not true "auto-trains', I vaguely recall some railroads back before Amtrak did offer some type of car-carrier service on some routes where you could ride the train, and ship your car along, too...not sure, but could have been the B&O, the CN, and maybe other's....anyone recall anything like that? :unsure:

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While not true "auto-trains', I vaguely recall some railroads back before Amtrak did offer some type of car-carrier service on some routes where you could ride the train, and ship your car along, too...not sure, but could have been the B&O, the CN, and maybe other's....anyone recall anything like that? :unsure:

Yep, there were multiple trains that did that. Sort of like Amtrak Express but with cars. The passenger service was relatively conventional, and you weren’t mandated to take a car.

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It has been discussed on this forum before, but a lot of the reasons that make the current Auto Train work do not apply to a Chicago-Florida (or Chicago-Southwest) route.

 

1) The sheer magnitude of the demand. The Northeast is very densely populated. Far moreso than the Midwest. Further, if you are going from the Northeast to Florida by land, there is, for all intents and purposes, one route you can take to get there. And the Auto Train happens to be right along it.

 

The Midwest isn’t that densely populated. The large cities are pretty far apart. From those large cities, there are lots of road-based routes to get to Florida. So it’s not a given that any Auto Train terminal would be conveniently on the way. Also, while I don’t have specific data, I suspect the snowbirds in the Northeast are going to Florida, while those in the Midwest are split between Florida, Arizona, etc. More spread out origins and more spread out destinations doesn’t lend itself too well to this concept.

 

2) The current Auto Train is a 16-hour trip. This makes for an easy overnight run. Get on, eat dinner, go to sleep, wake up, eat breakfast, get off. A lot of folks can manage something like that, because half the time on the train is essentially spent asleep.

 

A Midwest route would be a lot longer, which fewer people would be willing to do. At least with driving, you can break the trip up wherever/whenever you want.

 

Also, the shorter trip means it can be done with two sets of equipment, and two operating crews per trip. A longer run would require more trainsets, and more crews. This means higher cost.

 

So, when you take the lower, more spread-out potential ridership base, split up their destinations between vastly different areas of the country, reduce demand through longer trip times, and increase the cost to provide the service, it gets much harder for such a service to pencil out. There’s a reason one Auto Train roue was kept and the other wasn’t.

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I think a few times a week Chicago to Denver auto train would do better. Why? People traveling west would save a day's driving to the mountains, both skiers in winter, national park visitors in summer (it would still save time to Yellowstone etc) as well as cross country drivers who could start their trip at the beginning of the scenic portion of the trip (no offense to Iowa and Nebraska).

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I think a few times a week Chicago to Denver auto train would do better. Why? People traveling west would save a day's driving to the mountains, both skiers in winter, national park visitors in summer (it would still save time to Yellowstone etc) as well as cross country drivers who could start their trip at the beginning of the scenic portion of the trip (no offense to Iowa and Nebraska).

But once again, no snow birds. And isn't it a relatively hilly route? Those are not ideal conditions for an Auto Train.

Edited by cpotisch

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I think a few times a week Chicago to Denver auto train would do better. Why? People traveling west would save a day's driving to the mountains, both skiers in winter, national park visitors in summer (it would still save time to Yellowstone etc) as well as cross country drivers who could start their trip at the beginning of the scenic portion of the trip (no offense to Iowa and Nebraska).

But once again, no snow birds. And isn't it a relatively hilly route? Those are not ideal conditions for an Auto Train.

 

A lot hangs on the word "relatively," but compared to the route west of Denver, no, Chicago-Denver is not hilly.

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Considering that jokingly speaking, the highest altitude in Nebraska changes with the season, depending on the height of the Corn ... :giggle:

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The route is pretty flat overall, but there's still the problem of:

 

1. Population. Chicago has nowhere near the population of Boston + NYC + DC, and going from the Midwest to Denver Chicago is only really in line for people coming from northern Ohio/Indiana and the lower peninsula of Michigan. That adds some population, but you're still nowhere near the population of the Northeast megaopolis.

 

2. Snowbirds, or more broadly stated, temporarily relocating people. The Auto Train costs around $400 to haul a vehicle round trip, saver coach round trip is $190, and a roomette round trip for one person seems to settle around $530 (including the one person's rail fare.) Flights on Spirit are typically under $200 round trip, and legacy airlines are closer to $400 round trip on more expensive days. That means a car rental would have to be over $200 for it to break even to bring your own car if you took coach and got the saver fare, or over $550 if you went for the roomette. That'd be even higher if you took Spirit, Frontier, or got a good deal on a legacy airline ticket. For a week or two, it'll almost certainly make more sense to rent a car. The savings only really start adding up if you're in the area for longer than a few weeks, because then it's significantly cheaper to haul your own vehicle than to pay for a rental. That's why snowbirds are such a lucrative market for the Auto Train; they will typically be relocating for a few months so renting a car while at their destination is a lot more expensive proposition than someone visiting for even a couple weeks.

 

3. Traffic and auto driving cost. For such a train to work, you'd need loading and unloading facilities for the train, which typically aren't economical to build in city centers. For the sake of argument, let's say Amtrak would choose Naperville (just outside of Chicago) and Fort Morgan (a bit outside of Denver.) That's about 900 miles; since we have a car already, the fixed cost for owning the car is sunk, so a fairer comparison would be the IRS standard rate for moving purposes (18 cents/mile), which is based on the variable costs for operating an automobile. That results in driving the vehicle costing $324 round-trip. Even with a night's stay each direction at $80ish/night and tolls at $10 each way, the cost is still around $500 round trip. That's not much less than coach for one person, but coach only gives you a seat to sleep in, where an $80 hotel room will typically give someone a decent roadside motel to sleep at for the night along the route. If there's more than one person, then the difference is quite a bit greater ($250.) There also generally isn't the traffic issues along I-80/I-76 that I-95 seems to have (at least from what I've heard about I-95.) That means that avoiding traffic isn't as much of a selling point.

 

Realistically, the reason that the Auto Train works is that there's enough daily demand along the I-95 corridor where people really want to have their own vehicles at the destination to make a train that takes vehicles worth running daily. That means that there's enough demand to generally cover the fixed costs (loading facilities, auto carriers, etc.) There really aren't any other corridors that fit that criteria in the United States; there's typically not enough demand on any single corridor to make it worthwhile, and there's no natural choke point or similar route to make a particular leg of it worthwhile.

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The route is pretty flat overall, but there's still the problem of:

 

1. Population. Chicago has nowhere near the population of Boston + NYC + DC, and going from the Midwest to Denver Chicago is only really in line for people coming from northern Ohio/Indiana and the lower peninsula of Michigan. That adds some population, but you're still nowhere near the population of the Northeast megaopolis.

 

2. Snowbirds, or more broadly stated, temporarily relocating people. The Auto Train costs around $400 to haul a vehicle round trip, saver coach round trip is $190, and a roomette round trip for one person seems to settle around $530 (including the one person's rail fare.) Flights on Spirit are typically under $200 round trip, and legacy airlines are closer to $400 round trip on more expensive days. That means a car rental would have to be over $200 for it to break even to bring your own car if you took coach and got the saver fare, or over $550 if you went for the roomette. That'd be even higher if you took Spirit, Frontier, or got a good deal on a legacy airline ticket. For a week or two, it'll almost certainly make more sense to rent a car. The savings only really start adding up if you're in the area for longer than a few weeks, because then it's significantly cheaper to haul your own vehicle than to pay for a rental. That's why snowbirds are such a lucrative market for the Auto Train; they will typically be relocating for a few months so renting a car while at their destination is a lot more expensive proposition than someone visiting for even a couple weeks.

 

3. Traffic and auto driving cost. For such a train to work, you'd need loading and unloading facilities for the train, which typically aren't economical to build in city centers. For the sake of argument, let's say Amtrak would choose Naperville (just outside of Chicago) and Fort Morgan (a bit outside of Denver.) That's about 900 miles; since we have a car already, the fixed cost for owning the car is sunk, so a fairer comparison would be the IRS standard rate for moving purposes (18 cents/mile), which is based on the variable costs for operating an automobile. That results in driving the vehicle costing $324 round-trip. Even with a night's stay each direction at $80ish/night and tolls at $10 each way, the cost is still around $500 round trip. That's not much less than coach for one person, but coach only gives you a seat to sleep in, where an $80 hotel room will typically give someone a decent roadside motel to sleep at for the night along the route. If there's more than one person, then the difference is quite a bit greater ($250.) There also generally isn't the traffic issues along I-80/I-76 that I-95 seems to have (at least from what I've heard about I-95.) That means that avoiding traffic isn't as much of a selling point.

 

Realistically, the reason that the Auto Train works is that there's enough daily demand along the I-95 corridor where people really want to have their own vehicles at the destination to make a train that takes vehicles worth running daily. That means that there's enough demand to generally cover the fixed costs (loading facilities, auto carriers, etc.) There really aren't any other corridors that fit that criteria in the United States; there's typically not enough demand on any single corridor to make it worthwhile, and there's no natural choke point or similar route to make a particular leg of it worthwhile.

I agree with most of your post, except perhaps about avoiding the traffic on I-95 by taking the Auto Train...

The Auto Train carries you between Lorton, Va. and Sanford, Fl. That portion of the trip has a lot less traffic normally than driving along the NEC to reach Lorton, or driving the stretch between WPB and MIA....so you still have to fight I-95 traffic over the heaviest portion, albeit shorter in miles than the train ride.

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The route is pretty flat overall, but there's still the problem of:

 

1. Population. Chicago has nowhere near the population of Boston + NYC + DC, and going from the Midwest to Denver Chicago is only really in line for people coming from northern Ohio/Indiana and the lower peninsula of Michigan. That adds some population, but you're still nowhere near the population of the Northeast megaopolis.

 

2. Snowbirds, or more broadly stated, temporarily relocating people. The Auto Train costs around $400 to haul a vehicle round trip, saver coach round trip is $190, and a roomette round trip for one person seems to settle around $530 (including the one person's rail fare.) Flights on Spirit are typically under $200 round trip, and legacy airlines are closer to $400 round trip on more expensive days. That means a car rental would have to be over $200 for it to break even to bring your own car if you took coach and got the saver fare, or over $550 if you went for the roomette. That'd be even higher if you took Spirit, Frontier, or got a good deal on a legacy airline ticket. For a week or two, it'll almost certainly make more sense to rent a car. The savings only really start adding up if you're in the area for longer than a few weeks, because then it's significantly cheaper to haul your own vehicle than to pay for a rental. That's why snowbirds are such a lucrative market for the Auto Train; they will typically be relocating for a few months so renting a car while at their destination is a lot more expensive proposition than someone visiting for even a couple weeks.

 

3. Traffic and auto driving cost. For such a train to work, you'd need loading and unloading facilities for the train, which typically aren't economical to build in city centers. For the sake of argument, let's say Amtrak would choose Naperville (just outside of Chicago) and Fort Morgan (a bit outside of Denver.) That's about 900 miles; since we have a car already, the fixed cost for owning the car is sunk, so a fairer comparison would be the IRS standard rate for moving purposes (18 cents/mile), which is based on the variable costs for operating an automobile. That results in driving the vehicle costing $324 round-trip. Even with a night's stay each direction at $80ish/night and tolls at $10 each way, the cost is still around $500 round trip. That's not much less than coach for one person, but coach only gives you a seat to sleep in, where an $80 hotel room will typically give someone a decent roadside motel to sleep at for the night along the route. If there's more than one person, then the difference is quite a bit greater ($250.) There also generally isn't the traffic issues along I-80/I-76 that I-95 seems to have (at least from what I've heard about I-95.) That means that avoiding traffic isn't as much of a selling point.

 

Realistically, the reason that the Auto Train works is that there's enough daily demand along the I-95 corridor where people really want to have their own vehicles at the destination to make a train that takes vehicles worth running daily. That means that there's enough demand to generally cover the fixed costs (loading facilities, auto carriers, etc.) There really aren't any other corridors that fit that criteria in the United States; there's typically not enough demand on any single corridor to make it worthwhile, and there's no natural choke point or similar route to make a particular leg of it worthwhile.

I agree with most of your post, except perhaps about avoiding the traffic on I-95 by taking the Auto Train...

The Auto Train carries you between Lorton, Va. and Sanford, Fl. That portion of the trip has a lot less traffic normally than driving along the NEC to reach Lorton, or driving the stretch between WPB and MIA....so you still have to fight I-95 traffic over the heaviest portion, albeit shorter in miles than the train ride.

 

If memory serves, it takes something like 13 hours to drive the Auto Train route. While someone from NYC still has to drive for five or so hours to get to Lorton, cutting 13 hours out of the drive is massive. My point is, though people might still be driving for the worst portion, that's still a hell of a lot better than doing the worst portion AND another 13 hours.

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I think that a non-daily train from the mid-west west would do well. Detroit, the big three in Ohio, Indy, Chicago and Milwaukee would be a seasonal draw. The problem would be spring and fall when there was less attraction to go west. Of course, I don't see it happening anytime soon. Nor should resources be put into it.

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I think that a non-daily train from the mid-west west would do well. Detroit, the big three in Ohio, Indy, Chicago and Milwaukee would be a seasonal draw. The problem would be spring and fall when there was less attraction to go west. Of course, I don't see it happening anytime soon. Nor should resources be put into it.

 

Non-daily trains never do well.

 

Not only does it require people to work their travel schedule around the days of operation, but it also makes it virtually impossible to get any kind of economy of scale out of staff, facilities, etc.

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Even ignoring the fixed cost aspect, I'm not convinced it'd really do well in attracting riders. The Auto Train takes advantage of the fact that there's only really one shortest way to get to/from the Northeast to Florida - pretty much all of the Northeast corridor will run along or near I-95 for a large portion of the journey. That's a lot of destination pairs where the Auto Train isn't very far out of the way to take a significant chunk of the driving out, and it essentially makes the two day drive (unless you're wanting to drive 13+ hours in a day) still two days. There isn't a similar road for the Midwest; someone going from Milwaukee to Phoenix will be significantly different than someone going from Cincinnati to Las Vegas. There just isn't the same shared route that a lot of people used. Mixed with the rather long journey time (over a full day) and rental cars being rather inexpensive for vacation-length rentals, and the audience starts dwindling rapidly.

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