It's been little more than five years since Auto-Train Corp. began hauling passengers and their automobiles back and forth to Florida, "but we've had almost 50 years" experience in 5 years," says Eugene Kerik Garfield, the company's founder, chairman and president.

"For a young company, we've learned a lot," Garfield acknowledges somewhat ruefully.

Among the lessons Auto-Train has learned is one other railroads spent decades demonstrating - it's tough for a railroad to make money carrying passengers.

After four years of erratic profits, Auto-Train lost $366,715 in the fiscal year ended April 30 and ran in the red by another $371,408 in the latest three-month reporting period.

The company blames the abrupt plunge from profitability on two major derailments last year.

As a direct result of the derailments, maintenance costs have skyrocketed, insurance premiums have jumped and the company faces a half-million-dollar deductible on its next claim. Service on one of Auto-Train's two routes had to be suspended for lack of equipment and [WORD ILLEGIBLE] has been halted entirely. Subsequent difficulties have come cascading like dominos.

Auditors qualified their latest financial report, noting that no funds were set aside for two pending lawsuits from other accidents which could adversely affect the company's reported finances.

The Internal Revenue Service is auditing the company and has asked an additional $75,000 in taxes for one year, with other claims possible.

Garfield and his two chief lieutenants last month cut their own pay by 15 per cent. He says the voluntary reductions were meant to show the executives were doing their part to cut costs; critics contend Garfield was heading, off complaints about high-living executives.

And Auto-Train stok, once a Wall Street high-flyer that traded for more than $50 a share, now floats in the $4 range on the American Exchange. Though the company's headquarters are in Washington, no local brokerage houses make a market in the shares. The stockbroker in Florida that handled Auto-Train's initial offering has since gone out of business.

Efforts to find a financial analyst who follows the company proved futile. "It's just not an investment-grade security," said one transportation stock specialist who used to study Auto-Train.

Interviewed in his office overlooking 1, Street, Garfield gritted his teeth and smiled at the litany of difficulties, then insisted, "I've always had faith in the concept and the company.

"I've always thought this could be a $100 million company, and I still do. We've had a pause. We've had problems. But you put them to bed and move on."

Garfield thought up Auto-Train while he was an aide to the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, organized the company and launched it with a public stock offering back in the days when venture capital was not a dirty phrase on Wall Street. He has been chief executive since Day One, and is the largest stockholder, controlling 141,000 shares, including 14,000 owned by his wife. Garfield's personal holding of 127,000 shares amounts to just under 8 per cent of Auto-Train's stock.

Some hardnosed housecleaning - including renting out part of the corporate offices - and changes in corporate strategy to emphasize two projects that have been in the works for several months should turn the company around, he said.

One of those long-promised new projects became a reality Friday when the Interstate Commerce Commission approved a joint venture by Auto-Train and Eastern Airlines.Effective Nov. 6, Florida-bound vacationers will be able to fly from Washington on Eastern and ship their cars on Auto-Train. Details of the new service will be announced Tuesday.

Fares for the new service will be filed with the ICC in the next month, along with a new tariff adjusting fares on the regular Auto-Train service, said Richard Goldstein, senior vice president.

Goldstein declined to specify the new rates until they are filed with the ICC, but said they will lower the charge for transporting automobiles and raise the fares for passengers. The present fare is $159 for cars and $44 per passenger, with added charges for bedrooms and other deluxe accomodations. Carrying cars is more profitable than carrying people, he said; the new fare will reflect the higher cost of passenger service.

Last week, Auto-Train filed anothe rbatch of are revisions, cutting the price of some services in hopes of boosting ridership and raising the price of other, fully utilized services to make more money. Some of those rates will be invalidated by the latest rate change.

Eastern will promote the new service and handle reservations for it, Goldstein said, and for the first time travel agents will be paid commissions for bookings on the trainplane service. Regular Auto-Train service has not been a nd will not be commissionable, be noted. By handling its own reservations, Auto-Train has avoided paying a portion of fares to travel agents and wholesalers, but has limited its marketing reach.

Under the new service, Florida-bound travelers will drop off their cars at Auto-Train's terminal in Lorton, then will be transported to National Airlines for the flight to Orlando, where transportation to the Auto-train terminal in Sanford will be provided. At one end of the trip of the other, they'll spend a night in a motel to give the train time for its trip.

Garfield said Auto-Train will seek to extend the service south to miami and north to Philadelphia or the New York area, probably Newark airport. New York is the Number One market for Auto-Train, but tunnels on the Amtrak line north of Washington are too small for the auto-carrying cars.

Auto-Train also is negotiating to set up service in Mexico, carrying tourists and their cars from the U.S. border to near Mexico City. The Mexican route has been discussed in company reports for three years, but has yet to be completed.

Auto-Train would not operate the service, but would license Mexican interests to use its name, would provide management assistance, and would lease much of its idle rolling stock to the venture.

Too much and too little rolling stock have contributed to Auto-Train's fiscal problems. Auto-Train service from Louisville, Ky., to Florida had to be suspended for several months last year after a derailment took many of the specialized auto transport cars out of service. Service was restored, but last month was suspended indefinitely after Amtrak, which cooperated in the venture, changed its schedules.

But Auto-Train also suffered from too many cars and was unable to keep enough of them filled on the Louisville run to make money. Switching from daily service to every other day produced a confusing schedule that discouraged passangers, Garfield said, describing the route as "a drain on the company."

Garfield's critics contend that another drain on the company has been the salaries and expenses paid the top executives. Garfield's contract guarantees him $125,000 a year through 1980, and last year he collected another $5,000 in fees as a director of the company. Goldstein earned $65,00 last year, and Philip Cruver, senior vice president, was paid $60,000. Both also were paid director's fees in addition to their salaries.

In addition to his salary and director's fees, Garfield in May 1977 was loaned $25,000 by the company. The demand note, payable when the company he heads wants it, carries interest 1 per cent over the prime rate at Riggs National bank. Auto-Train has a revolving credit line with Riggs at the same rate, but pays three points over prime on some of its borrowings. In addition to that loan, Garfield has in the past year pledged 53,000 shares of Auto-Train stock, worth more than $200,000 at today's prices, as collateral for other loans, company records disclose.

Other Auto-Train directors also do business with the company, its reports show. Director Seymour Kleinman is a member of the firm of Golnbock and Barrell, which was paid $66,206 in legal fees last year. The law firm also owns 13,648 shares of the company's stock.

Another director, Jerald O. Jarrard, who owns 100 shares in the company, is president of Marriott Contract Foot Services and a corporate vice president of Marriott Corp. Marriott provides food service to Auto-Train passengers, for which it was paid $1,726,408 last year.

Last year's results would have been worse had not the company changed its accounting proceedures. By shifting some costs of upgrading its equipment from operating to capital expenditures, the loss was pared by $153,000.

Garfield said the change was necessary because the cost of fixing up the used railroad cars the company purchased is more properly considered a capital expense. A stepped-up safety maintenance program was launched after two derailments.

Another accounting change, a revision of the company's fiscal year, had been announced, but was later rescinded. Auto-Train officials said they dropped the change to avoid any appearance of juggling figures.

The firm's auditors already were uncomfortable with the handling of two wrongful-death lawsuits, filed by the families of persons who were struck and killed by trains. "Substantial damages are claimed under these actions," the auditors' statement in the latest annual report notes, "and no provision for a liability, if any, has been made in the financial statements."