Morning Coffee On The Iron Horse
Now it is morning. This is being written on a train, which is just passing through Fredericksburg, Va. Robert E. Lee once courted his wife in this place and three decades later Lee’s boys slaughtered the Irish Brigade in a hopeless attack against Confederates on Marye’s Heights, a hilltop protected by a stone wall. Only a practiced eye from the train window can spot that hill, identified in the distance by a monument or two, but from the elevated tracks there is a great view of the town and the brown and tranquil Rappahannock River just beyond it. The railroad actually figured in the fight. On one flank the Southern and Northern forces faced each other across the railroad embankment, just before the tracks took a sharp right turn through the town and across the river. These tracks were a major railroad in the Civil War, and still are. Inevitably much of the battlefield has been lost to industrial and residential development. One sees no hint of former violence from the train.
The train is running early, almost 90 minutes ahead of schedule, and the reason is that this is the one and only Amtrak Auto Train, which leaves central Florida as soon as everybody is aboard. In this case we jump-started by 15 minutes. The train makes only one stop, to change crews in the middle of the night, so if it runs ahead of schedule there is no fixed timetable to slow it down. In the short time we have been laptopping, the train has rolled through fresh spring-green forests and is now running within sight of the broad Potomac and is approaching the Marine Corps base at Quantico.
We cross rivers, all flowing toward the Potomac, and beneath us there are marinas of pleasure craft gleaming white in the morning sun. The train is arriving at Lorton, the northern terminus, so far ahead of schedule that the crew that unloads the train is not yet at work. But shortly it will be, unloading 251 vehicles, including 18 motorcycles. The train seems crowded, with snowbirds heading north, along with Florida families with young kids fresh out of school and off on vacation. Busy as it seems this day, in fact the train could accommodate another 80 vehicles.
So instead of driving this mad stretch of I-95 leading to Washington, D.C., tired after 1,000 miles behind the wheel, likely bitching up a storm with the bride, we sit, sipping coffee and casually composing this little essay. And wondering why people all over the country can’t do this. The Auto Train has been around since the 1970s, first as a private company that was actually making money when a mound of debt forced it into bankruptcy. A few years later Amtrak recognized a good idea and took over the equipment and service. Among all Amtrak trains, it is one of the few that is generally profitable. The service from northern Virginia to Florida is a natural, with so many snowbirds and vacationers traveling the route year after year. But one would think by now a Midwest train to Florida would be equally successful. The original Auto Train actually tried that idea, but the expansion was not well planned. It only went as far as Louisville, Ky. Another 100 miles closer to Chicago would have helped. Then the management ignored warnings of overweight engines, and a derailment (and lawsuits) followed. As a stockholder in the original private corporation, we are convinced the Midwest train would have eventually worked as well as the east coast train, but what seemed a good idea never had a chance. It lasted only seven months, and helped bring down the train that had already proved successful. End of the private venture. Enter Uncle Sam.
In the last decade Amtrak has launched, with 15 states, highly successful partnerships for intercity travel along busy corridors. These trains, some using the tracks we ride on right now from Richmond to Washington, and on such routes as Philadelphia to Harrisburg and Portland to Boston, are practically long-range commuter trains. They take cars off crowded interstates. So does the Auto Train, with the great added value that people can get back in their cars at the end of an overnight ride. People we have met on this trip are driving on to upstate New York, Long Island and Cleveland.
Thinking globally, imagine the money saved in fuel, and the pollution that doesn’t occur. With the present administration less hostile to rail service than previous shortsighted Republicans in Washington, it would seem the right time to take this good idea and run with it to other busy long-distance routes. One can envision four Auto Trains operating south of Chicago, all from the same large terminal, able to handle more than one train at a time, and directing iron horses bearing cars along lines that Amtrak now serves – toward New Orleans, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. There currently is no long-distance service from Chicago to Florida. There should be, and it should be a train bearing cars.