Eugene K. Garfield, founder of Fla.-bound Auto Train, dies at 74

Eugene Garfield at the Auto Train's final departure from the Lorton Terminal on May 1, 1981.
Eugene Garfield at the Auto Train's final departure from the Lorton Terminal on May 1, 1981. (Harry Naltchayan - The Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2010; 8:12 PM

Eugene K. Garfield, 74, who founded Washington's Auto Train service, the first rail line to ferry both vehicles and passengers in America, died Dec. 26 at a hospital in Pembroke Pines, Fla. He had esophageal cancer.

One of the only privately held American passenger train lines started in the past 50 years, the Auto Train ran from Lorton, Va., to Sanford, Fla., outside Orlando, from 1971 to 1981.

Mr. Garfield came up with the idea in the 1960s when he served in the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson as an assistant to Transportation Secretary Alan S. Boyd and White House Chief of Staff W. Marvin Watson.

In the mid-1960s, the government had conducted a study on the feasibility of a train line that moved people as well as their cars. Car-carrying passenger rail lines had been a staple of European travel since the 1950s. In the end, federal officials agreed such a service could be profitable but opted to leave the idea to the private sector.

Aware of the federal study's conclusion, Mr. Garfield founded Auto Train in 1969. As he started to organize his business, he heard plenty of dissenting voices urging him to reconsider. By that time, almost all train lines in the United States were subsidized by the government.

On Dec. 7, 1971, the first Auto Train left the Lorton station bound for the sunnier climes of Florida.

On the inaugural outing, riders were treated to steamed lobster, fried chicken and beef Wellington. The train included sleeper accommodations, glass dome-topped observatory cars and a cocktail lounge featuring live music and a fully stocked bar that served until 3 in the morning. By the end of the trip, the bartenders had run out of beer and cola.

One rider likened the experience to "New Year's Eve, a carnival atmosphere."

Within three months, Mr. Garfield's unlikely rail service surged to profitability and became one of the most sought-after stocks on Wall Street.

A Forbes magazine article declared in April 1972 that the Auto Train's success was "an illustration of what a young man of brains, ambition and luck can accomplish in our nation's capital."

By riding the 900-mile route by rail, Mr. Garfield contended that drivers saved gasoline and did not suffer the stress of highway travel. Many Auto Train customers were affluent retirees traveling to their winter homes: About 60 percent of the cars ferried were Cadillacs.

On the trains, riders could watch a movie after dinner, play bingo and cards, and shop at the onboard boutique stocked with magazines and Auto Train souvenirs such as engine models, key chains, shirts and hats.

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