Auto-Train: Book Signing

Auto-train book cover

Bell, Book and Candle, Ashland, VAThe book Auto-Train by Ashlander Doug Riddell has just been published (224 pages with over 400 color and black and white illustrations).

Doug will be hosting a book signing on Train Day, November 5th 2016 at the Bell, Book and Candle book store (106 1/2 South Railroad Avenue, Ashland, VA 23005). Stop by and pick up your signed copy.

Ordering information is provided by the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad Historical Society.

The following information about the book has been provided by Doug.

Auto-Train, by Doug Riddell, is underwritten by the RF&P RR Historical Society, published by Outer Station Projects, 2016.

While it is a history of the original private auto ferry service between the Washington suburbs and central Florida inaugurated by attorney Eugene Garfield, the story is told largely in the words of, and through the eyes of it’s youthful workforce that at one time numbered over 700 employees. The rise and decline of its stock was meteoric, beginning in 1971 until the under-under capitalized railroad crashed into bankruptcy ten years later following a series of costly derailments and an unwise attempt to expand operations to the Midwest. The avant-garde train, decorated in red white and purple, traded traditional blue uniforms worn by elder railroaders, for yellow red and purple maxi and mini skirts and tunic donned by smiling youthful crews who looked as though they’d answered a Hollywood casting call. Travelers were feted to lobster and beef Wellington accompanied by complimentary wine and deserts.

In the end Garfield attempted to save his company by seeking financing from a seamy Las Vegas hotel/casino cartel, and was very nearly the unwitting victim of con artists purportedly fronting for a Swiss bank. After near two years absence, Amtrak acquired the rights and with its vast resources resurrected the service in 1983 and has since operated it as its flagship train.

Shirts Blanton Autotrain book
Shirts Blanton

The Town of Ashland was placed in the national spotlight by Parade Magazine, on its December 24, 1972 cover, featured the Auto-Train, stopped at the home of Lewis “Shirts” Blanton, who befriended passengers and crews of passing trains at the front door of his home from his wheelchair. Crews halted the train briefly to give him gifts and sing carols.




Traffic Growth

Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) traffic growth

The justification for the High Speed Rail project is growth in rail traffic. With that in mind the recent publication of the document Rail Safety by the FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) provides some useful insights.


The chart below shows the growth in Amtrak traffic from the year 2000 to 2014. It has gone from 22 million to 32 million — a 45% increase, roughly 3% per annum. This is not a dramatic figure, but it is greater than the growth in the overall economy.

Growth in Amtrak traffic


The next chart shows the growth for intermodal (containers). It shows 3.1 million units in 1980, rising to 11 million units in 2003 — a growth rate of 11% per annum. Since then the number of units carried has been about constant.

Growth in intermodal traffic


We took a look at the change in coal traffic in our February 2016 post Freight Traffic. The chart for the last three years is shown below.

To quote,

. . . coal traffic by rail in the United States decreased by 15% during 2015; from January 2015 to January 2016 it is down 31%. It is questionable if coal traffic will return to its earlier levels given environmental pressures and the economics of natural gas.



Based on the above data sets we can arrive at the following tentative conclusions.

  • Amtrak ridership is growing at 3% per annum. The growth rate appears to be quite steady.
  • Coal tonnage has fallen dramatically in the last few years and is not likely to ever return to its previous levels.
  • Intermodal traffic grew dramatically in the 1980-2005 period but has since flattened out. Given the overall decline in world economic activity it is likely that it will remain flat for the foreseeable future.

All of the above data is for nation-wide traffic. Regarding the traffic through Ashland, the following information can be added:

  • We have around 75 trains per day.
  • Of these about 17% are passenger.
  • The small growth in passenger traffic, and the relatively small number of passenger trains compared to freight, indicate that there will be little, if any, growth in the number of trains in the coming years.
  • Subjective observation suggests that the amount of traffic in the last few years has been steady, at best, and may actually be declining, thus supporting the above conclusion.


There seems to be little justification for spending large amounts of public funds for a small and rather dubious projected increase in rail traffic along our corridor.