Proposed Amtrak cuts impact Florida's routes, Auto Train

By John W. Davis, Reporter
Last Updated: Sunday, April 09, 2017, 9:09 AM EDT

President Donald Trump's proposed budget is calling for major cuts to Amtrak, impacting passenger service throughout Central Florida.

The cuts are part of the proposed "America First" plan released last month and if approved would begin Oct. 1.

Those cuts would affect the popular Sanford Auto Train, which allows you to ride the rails north with your vehicle. 

"[I] come down around Sept. 1, and I go back some time in April," said Earl Hearst, who was on his way back to his home in Maryland on Friday afternoon. 

Hearst spends every fall and winter in The Villages. So for the self-proclaimed snowbird, the Amtrak Auto Train is a necessary convenience.

"I suspect there's mainly seniors on the train who don't want to take long drives. They would rather just put the car on the train and relax," Hearst said.

Even with traffic backed up down the street waiting to board the train, the service used by hundreds of people every day is on the chopping block in Trump's proposed budget.

Proposed cuts would eliminate funding for the Sanford Auto Train and long-distance passenger service across Florida, including stops at historic stations in Orlando and Winter Park.

"I use the Auto Train, so that's the part I hope they won't cut," Hearst said.

"My family rode the Amtrak train from Sanford when we went up for swearing-in," said Democratic Rep. Val Demings, who represents west Orange County. 

“The president, as you know, as candidate Trump, led with a jobs plan and huge — his favorite word — infrastructure plan. And to reduce the service that Amtrak gives and others like it would be a major hit to the transportation industry," Demings said.

"I’m hoping that he’ll listen to the people who are in this area and depend on it," she said.

The Auto Train makes the 900-mile journey from Sanford to Lorton, Virginia, in about 17 hours. For Hearst, it's a safer alternative compared with pushing through a long, tiring drive on Interstate 95.

"It probably saves me an extra day of driving eight hours a day and then having to stop and rest and finish up the journey the next day," Hearst said. "It's very comfortable."

Also included in the proposed cuts are plans to restore the Sunset Limited service from Jacksonville to New Orleans. That route has been out of service since Hurricane Katrina washed out the rail line in 2005. However, Amtrak and the Southern Rail Commission has been negotiating plans to bring back the service.

Any cuts would still need to be approved by Congess.

In total, 18 cities in Florida would be affected by the proposed Amtrak budget cuts.

In 2016, 949,710 passengers used Amtrak trains in Florida, including more than 238,000 on the Auto Train in Sanford alone. Amtrak employs some 731 Florida residents.