The Innovation of the Auto Train

As a child, my parents would take my brother and I to see Santa somewhere in Downtown Brooklyn. There was a few years where I asked the Big Guy for just one gift. This wasn’t because I was intentionally selfless or trying to outwit Santa, hoping he would put me higher up on the good list if I didn’t go present crazy in my requests.  No, the only reason I asked for one gift was because even back then, I realized it was HUGE. Actually, huge is an understatement. All I wanted was an HO sized model train layout of the entire New York City Subway System.  HO is 1:87 scale of real life. That is a layout of epic proportion. Looking back it isn’t a surprise that my parents/Santa never delivered on the gift.

It wasn’t for a lack of effort though. Realizing they had a train-crazy kid on their hands, my parents bought two different types of train layouts one Christmas.  One was one of those oversized faux-Wild West trains that ran in a loop. While that did

An Impressive Brio Layout Via Scrapdragon.com.au

became a mainstay in my toy roster, I went gaga over the second train toy – Brio. For those who are unfamiliar, Brio trains are wooden toys that run on snap-tracks that can be laid out in any variation you can come up with. I took over our front parlor with innumerable layouts, filled with switches, platforms, and elevated structures. A few days ago, I caught an obituary in The New York Times about another person, who as a kid fell in love with trains by watching them go round and round on the floor of his childhood home.

Before the closing days of 2010, the name Eugene Garfield, who passed away on December 26, 2010, meant little to me. Now that I’ve read up on his life, his story is the type of inspiring story that shouldn’t just be heard after someone dies.

Garfield, born in 1936, grew up in Newark, New Jersey. As The Times explains, at a young age, his parents gave him a train set and he would watch it go round and round.  Later, he served as assistant to the secretary of transportation in the Johnson administration, Alan Boyd.  In the mid-1960’s, as passenger rail across the United States was withering away, the Department of Transportation concluded that an auto-ferry service between the Northeast and Florida could be a money-maker, but in those pre-Amtrak days, the government wasn’t interested.

Eugene Garfield's Auto Train Via Washington Post

When President Johnson did not run for re-election, Garfield left the public sector and, in 1969, founded the Auto-Train Corporation.  Two years later, in December 1971, the first Auto Train left Lorton, Virginia for Sanford, Florida.  The Washington Post wrote in their obituary of Garfield that the train was quickly profitable as it provided passengers with a rail travel experience filled with “upscale comfort” that the then fledgling Amtrak could not match.

By the 1980’s, however, Garfield’s dream was being shut down. After expansion efforts faltered, derailments disrupted service, and the company had more than $10 million in accrued debt, the last privately run Auto Train left for Florida in May 1981.  The shut down was temporary, since Amtrak revived the service in 1983. It still runs today.

Eugene Garfield spent the remainder of his life trying to get people to leave their cars for trains, while working to bring high-speed rail and Mag-Lev technology to Florida.

This post is an installment in the WordPress Daily Post series I wrote about yesterday. Their suggestion for a blog post topic was to name someone who deserves more credit than they get. Well, I think Garfield is the type of person who deserves more credit. He was someone who saw an opportunity that the government took a pass on and realizing that it had potential, seized it. As passenger rail was dying, he

Amtrak's Auto-Train Via Wikipedia

and his business partners saw an opportunity.  They were risk-takers, but they were right. As both The Times and Post point out, the venture did fail. This failure, however, does not take away from the success of Auto Train. It was so popular that Amtrak, the perpetually underfunded national rail provider brought it back. In Fiscal Year 2009, it had the highest revenue of any long-distance train Amtrak operates.

If just a fraction of the attention paid to celebrity relationship drama, reality stars inability to deal with the rules of reality, and OMG OBAMA IS A MOSLIM, maybe the innovators – in all aspects of life, not just the tech sector – would get more

20th Century Technology on 19th Century Infrastructure

attention, which they truly deserve.

And for those wondering about that Brio set, it is stored somewhere in Vermont, but this Christmas, my girlfriend gave it my Brio RR an injection of rolling stock and right of way as the accompanying picture can attest to. BRIO, BIDEN-style.

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One thought on “The Innovation of the Auto Train”

  1. You know Ferris, I blogged about this recently on my blog. This blog post has provided me with some food for thought, I feel that you have made many very intriguing points. In fact, I simply wish I’d found it before I published my own blog post!

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