Auto-Train Corp., which was founded on the premise that passenger trains could be operated profitably without government subsidies, has asked the federal government for a $3 million loan guarantee.

Auto-Train has applied to the Economic Development Administration, an agency of the Department of Commerce, for the loan guarantee and has also discussed possible federal help from the Federal Railroad Administration of the Department of Transportation.

Federal aid was sought after private consultants were unable to raise capital for the railroad, which as been losing money for more than two years, Auto-Train President Eugene Kerik Garfield said yesterday.

Garfield insisted the move did not mean he had abandoned the philosophy upon which he founded the company eight years ago.

"I've always been a great proponent of free enterprise. I have always shied away from government interference," Garfield said. "But if there is a financial program available, a guarantee program of this type, I treat it as a kind of a bank."

Auto-Train, which carries passengers and their cars between Lorton, Va., and Sanford, Fla., has asked federal help under a program designed to preserve or create jobs in areas of high unemployment.

An EDA official said the application promised more jobs in Newark, N.J.; Sanford, Fla.; and Louisville, Ky., all areas eligible for the federal program.

Garfield said government funding is "only one of the options" for raising money for the financially troubled railroad. He said the company has retained investment banker Samuel Seidman to help raise capital.

Auto-Train has considered and rejected trying to issue new preferred stock, Garfield said, but is still studying some sort of private financing plan.

In two years of unprofitable operations, Auto-Train has accumulated debts of about $9 million.Borrowing another $3 million with government backing would swell the debt to $12 million, about six times the value of Auto-Train's assets.

The company has been unable to pay its major creditors on time for many months, and several of them have given the railroad extended terms and guaranteed its credit to keep the company alive.

Garfield said the $3 million sought from EDA would allow Auto-Train to pay some of its overdue bills, provide a cash reserve against losses from accidents, and finance expansion.

After a series of derailments, Auto-Train's insurance companies raised the deductible on the company's coverage to $1 million, more cash than the struggling company had on hand.

Garfield said the company recently formed a new railway service and supply division to begin repairing and maining freight cars owned by private car leasing companies. Government financing would permit expansion of that work at the company's southern terminal in Florida and in Louisville, terminal for another route, which was shut down last year.

He said the company also hopes by October to extend its route north from Washington to Newark, where a new terminal is planned near Newark Airport.

Both expansions have been discussed for several months, but Auto-Train has been unable to begin either one for lack of cash.

Garfield acknowledged that the railroad has experienced several financial problems, but claimed the fare reductions that went into effect in January and a new marketing program have increased business.

He said, however, that when earnings for the latest period are reported at the end of March "they will not be good."

To help develop the company's carrepair business, George L. Green, a retired president of the Pullman-Standard division of Pullman Inc., has been hired as a consultant and named to the company's board of directors.

Garfield said a plan to provide Auto-Train service in Mexico from near the U.S. border to near Mexico City, which originally was announced to begin next month, is now scheduled for fall operation. Auto-Train will license the use of its name for the service and will receive $1.2 million by selling surplus rail cars to the Mexican venture, if the deal goes through.