Railroading North America

September 20, 2009

30 Days on Amtrak & VIA Rail Canada (on right) —–>>

Filed under: 1 — petecrow @ 4:32 pm
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September 15, 2009

All Aboard Auto Train // … non-stop Orlando to Washington, DC

(“Thirty Days on Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada” is on the right and following this Auto Train post.

Note: Another Auto Train post was published here on September 15, 2011, with photos of the new Sanford Terminal and other updated information.

Auto Train turned 25 the other day. Amtrak, which took over Auto Train after it floundered, takes a lot of pride in this train, and it shows.

Auto Train is the fastest way for you and your car to get from Washington, DC, to Orlando — or back. The train runs non-stop both ways nightly from Lorton, Virginia, south of Washington, DC, auto train poster -- DSC06549 usemeCOLORjust off the I-95 Exit 163, non-stop to Sanford, Florida, north of Orlando (Exit 101C off the I-4). There is a crew change about one a.m. in Forence, South Carolina, but you’ll probably be sound asleep and never notice.

Auto train is, at varying times, very cheap or very expensive. During the slack months when few people are heading north, prices drop. When the Florida snowbirds are in flight, the price rockets.

No one can just climb on Auto Train and go. You have to show up with a car or motorcycle — and the vehicle is a separate charge. The basic price includes a seat for you; if you want a room that is a separate price and, like all other costs on Auto Train, the price varies depending on the time of the year — and even sometimes varies from day-to-day. auto train MAPCheck back often and be flexible for a better deal.

The train departs promptly at 4 p.m. seven days a week from both Lorton, VA, heading south, and Sanford, FL, heading north, passing each other during the night. SUV Vehicles have to be checked in by 2 p.m. and are the largest vehicle Auto Train can handle. Regular vehicles and motorcycles must be checked in by 3 p.m., an hour before departure. To repeat, Auto Train departs promptly at 4 p.m. Be smart, though — come early: Auto Train has a complementary wine and cheese party from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. daily prior to departure. For those with private rooms, there is also coffee and water available in the cars.

Amtrak packs an unusual amount of value on this train. Besides being a non-stop train, the on-board staff is as good as it gets for Amtrak. Courteous, friendly and knowledgible, the staff is downright likeable, and that’s not true on other trains (think Empire Builder from Seattle/Portland to Chicago). The trains and cars are also clean engine at sanford DSC06568 usemeand well-maintained which really isn’t true on other Amtrak trains.

Dinner and a continental breakfast are included in the price of your ticket. Unlike other Amtrak trains the food is served on china (versus styrofoam with meals as high as $22 on other Amtrak trains) and the food is generally good. Pride again.

The biggest benefit of going by train is avoiding the I-95. That road is a monster and can be bumper to bumper from Virginia straight into Florida during the holidays. The train is simplicity itself — the train leaves at 4 p.m.; you have dinner; you sleep; and in the morning by 9:30 a.m., and usually earlier, you are in Lorton (about ten miles south of Washington, DC) or Sanford (about fifteen miles north of Orlando).

The biggest drawback, other than price, are the rails themselves. Amtrak does not own the track. The tracks are used for freight which means there is no effort to improve the smoothness of the rails for passengers. The result is that the rails are uneven and when there is little freight traffic pushing Auto Train aside, Auto Train barrels through the night sometimes arriving as much as two hours early but at a cost: the speed on the uneven tracks beats passengers around and on the nights when the train is making the best time, some passengers have trouble sleeping.

That said, Auto Train is simply a hoot and easily the longest non-stop train in North America. It is a must-do for train buffs.

I have ridden Auto Train half a dozen times or more, usually with my wife, sanford yard DSC06548 usemeuseme2but once by myself sitting up all night in coach.

In mid-September 2009, I set out north on Auto Train on one of my periodic prowls of the United States — primarily to travel and to write. After some debate, I took our SUV (a hulk which we call McMansion, but which is actually an Infiniti QX56). I took the SUV rather than a smaller car we keep in Florida because Auto Train, on this particular day, was charging only a few dollars more to carry it. This price for the SUV was unusual. SUVs are usually much more expensive on Auto Train, although oddly, occasionally Auto Train charges less for SUVs than for regular vehicles. That disparity is probably caused by operational necessity: on days when Auto Train has few SUVs booked, they still must send the larger SUV railroad cars down to Florida or up to Virginia to accommodate the Auto Train bookings on subsequent days.

After I would leave Auto Train in Washington and set out driving, the amount of room and stuff in the SUV soon resulted in my beginning to misplace things, and eventually to misplace everything. I do better in small spaces with less stuff. I considered ruling the back seats of the SUV off-limits for storage and then told myself to get a grip. Soon I was even heaving fast food wrappers and bags over my shoulder into the backseats. engine fueled DSC06575 usemeFor awhile it began to look like a dumpster. … but wait: This is about Auto Train, not my porcine behavior.

I may have taken the Auto Train a lot of times, but I promptly forgot how to find the Sanford Auto Train station itself. Once I exited I-4 at Exit 101c, I looked in vain for the signs to Auto Train. Along the I-4 the directions to Auto Train are well marked. But once you exit, you are on your own until you see a single sign (just over a high train bridge where the Auto Train yard is located as you are heading east). Then it’s easy, if you consider making a right turn over two curving sets of railroad tracks into the Auto Train yard easy.

I’m always amused that they are waiting with a video camera and pointer. Once you surrender your car, Auto Train personnel swarm the vehicle photographing the entire outside and pointing out each nick and dent. Smart move. They’ve got a record when you grouse that they dinged your car.

I went looking for the snack bar which used to be on the west side of the station but which now has been leveled in preparation for building an entirely new station. Lorton, VA, already has a sparkling new station. One for Sanford is on the way, according to posted signs.

On board.

On the day I took Auto Train (Monday, September 14, 2009) there were only 72 vehicles on board and about 125 passengers. The light load explains why my SUV and I got the ride for $370 and that included a private room (bathroom and shower down the hall). DSC06271_2 useme

For some reason, even with few people, Amtrak booking placed all of the passengers in our car next to one another (there were only six of us in three rooms). It was probably done for the convenience of their personnel, certainly not for the passengers. Across the hall was a couple going to Pennsylvania. A famly of three, including a LOUD child, was at the end of the hall. Upstairs only one of the rooms was filled, and it was comped, which means that Amtrak took care of its own, giving the comped passenger privacy and quiet not accorded to paying customers.

Marriott or Hilton, Amtrak ain’t.

From a practical standpoint the light load did mean the common bathrooms on the bottom level of our car remained clean. Amtrak bathrooms can be ghastly (try the Adirondack, NYC-Montreal, or the ever-grim Empire Builder, Chicago-Seattle/Portland)

Usually I socialize, but I had little interest on this trip because I was working. I settled into my private compartment and asked the cabin stewart, to make up the bed so I could stretch out and work. I skipped the free wine, fruit and cheese (3 p.m. to 4 p.m.).

DSC05743 usemeTrouble soon began: My neighbors with the LOUD child were considering the entire mostly empty car their child’s playground — eventually I asked if they would close their door and, happy surprise, they were not insulted by the request: things quieted down.

But now I had attracted the attention of the couple across the hall so we chatted an appropriate amount of time and, escaping, I asked him when he had served in Vietnam since he proudly was sporting a “Vietnam Veteran” ball cap.

He said he had served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, and had been in a unit that flew missions in Vietnam. He began retreating when I asked him more, saying he himself hadn’t actually been in the unit when it was flying Vietnam, and, he stammered on, he himself had never set foot in Vietnam. Oh. A Vietnam veteran who had never set foot in Vietnam. I retreated, saying no more, deciding that I’ve gotten too sensitive about this Vietnam thing …

A lot of older guys in recent years apparently are now claiming they were in Vietnam while they were actually in Canada or Sweden evading the draft — some now apparently have even bought medals and have been wearing them (along with ball caps, too?). The federal government passed a law not long ago making all of this bogus stuff a crime (gawd, more laws?) I don’t know what to make of it. Few people know I was ever in the Army, or that I spent 21 months in Vietnam. War is a ghastly business. No one has ever seen my medals; no one probably ever will.

Dinner and Breakfast
There were only two dinner seatings (5 p.m. and 7 p.m.). When Auto Train is running heavier, there is a third seating (9 p.m., I think, but am not certain).

Dinner was surprisingly good, as I have mentioned, although breakfast was only a continental breakfast. No complaints.

From the amount of bumping through the night, it was apparent that we were running fast. Usually the crew change in Florence is 1 a.m., but this trip it was about 11:30 p.m. That meant we made great time coming out of Florida. It also meant that by 7 a.m. we were approaching Lorton, VA, and were two hours ahead of schedule.

This had some direct practical, and irritating, effects:

When I got up to go to the bathroom at 6 a.m., intending to return and go back to sleep, Priscella, the steward who up to now I had been getting along with, raced in and turned my bed back into a sitting room. When I protested, she was unrelenting saying we were arriving in Lorton in less than half an hour (you were wrong, Priscella: we arrived an hour and a half later). I considered how to turn the room back into as bedroom and decided it was not worth the effort (the bedsheets had been snatched and had vanished, fer crissake). Peeved I headed up to breakfast.

Amtrak personnel insist on trying to run compartment passengers out of their rooms long before trains arrive at their destination. I mixed it up with them on the Empire Builder from Seattle to Chicago last year pointing out I had roughly 15% DSC05747 usemeof my trip left and asking if I would get a 15% refund on my room charge. They were humorless. I assume Amtrak stewards do this so they can flee the train as soon as it arrives and go home. They get their work done at the expense of their paying customers. It’s crazy.

There are a myriad of practical ways to fight Amtrak’s unfriendly behavior.

If you are not traveling alone (as I was on this trip and was on the Empire Builder), have your traveling companion guard the room, and do not go to eat or adjourn to the bathrooms or showers together unless you are ready to have your room grabbed while you are gone. Unguarded, the compartment you’ll return to will probably have been tossed and your bedding and bedsheets gone. Worse, finding whatever you had carefully stored in one place or another in the compartment may prove difficult. If you do not search the compartment thoroughly before leaving the train, you could cruise off the train leaving things behind that Amtrak personnel stuck somewhere while re-making your bedroom into a sitting room.

Arriving early creates a Dither.
The practical effect of arriving early on the day I took AutoTrain in September 2009 was to throw everything off in Lorton. We arrived at 7:30 a.m., two hours early.

The drivers who unload the cars do not arrive until 8:15 a.m. so no one could get their cars.

Breakfast was supposed to be served to 9 a.m., but was cut off much earlier.

And, like airplanes arriving too early at their gates, Amtrak would not allow any of us to get off for 45 minutes until the drivers arrived — so I sat (instead of lounged in bed) in my well-made-up compartment, feet on the furniture and worked.

Still — Had I set out to drive this 900+ miles from Orlando to Washington on the murderous I-95 at 4 p.m. the previous afternoon, I would have been only halfway to Washington and probably would be exhausted. Yet here I was, well fed and rested and with quite a bit of work done overnight, as well. And within an hour and a half, my car was unloaded and I was on my way.

I’m a fan. Auto Train is one of my favorite trains. This is easily the best train that Amtrak — which, god knows, is not a great railroad — has to offer.

pmc THEMIS photo 021707 usemeautotrainblogPhotographs:
1/ Auto Train poster;
2/ map from Amtrak web site showing Auto Train route;
3/ leading engine Engine 130 (one of two) of Auto Train in yard in Sanford, Florida, Monday, September 14, 2009;
4/ Sanford, Florida, Amtrak yard with yellow loading ramps for automobiles and motorcycles in background;
5/ fuel tank on Engine 156, trailing engine of two engines, with amount of fuel on board on left
6/ Yellow ramps and Auto carrying rail cars backed into Yard, awaiting unloading, Lorton, VA
7/ Close up, closed end auto carrying car, Lorton, VA
8/ Doors open, automobile visible inside, ready to be driven off car down ramp
9/ (left) Me, reporting a Space Shuttle Launch in Florida in February 2007.

(the content and photographs on petecrow.wordpress.com are jointly copyright 2008-2009 by peter m. crow and by seine harbour productions, llc, studio city, california)

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