There is a rhythm to train travel that is different. This is especially true when you are taking a train for a long distance. I recently took a round trip excursion on Amtrak’s Auto Train. And it immediately reminded me why I enjoy train travel so much.
The Auto Train is a non-stop service (19 hours) between Lorton VA (about 10 miles south of Washington DC) to Sanford FL (about 15 miles north of Orlando) that allows passengers to take their own cars along on the trip. It carries about 200-300 passengers and around 150-200 cars. In fact, with its passenger and auto cars together it runs over three quarters of a mile long and is the world’s longest passenger train.
As I said, there is a rhythm to train travel. The first thing that you have to realize when taking the Auto Train is that rushing is not the answer. You pull into the Auto Train station sometime between 11:30 and 2:30 to drop off your car. I would highly recommend eating lunch before you get there as the terminals, while nice, have only a snack bar for food. Boarding takes place around 2:30. Your seats are assigned when you check in at the terminal and you choose which of three dinner seatings (5pm, 7pm or 9pm) you want. So when they call boarding, there is no reason to rush.
Palm motifs abound in Lorton VA
Artwork in the Lorton Terminal
Once you are on the train, settle in, sit back and relax. Really, it takes about 45 minutes for all of the car carriers to be attached to the passenger cars. Use the time well. Get comfortable. Introduce yourself to your neighbors. Get your books, music and snacks together. This will be your home for the next 19 or so hours.
Here is where difference of train travel really takes over. It is slower, but it is relaxing. You sit in comfortable seats and you watch the scenery go by. This lets your mind wander. You read a little. You look out the window, talk to your traveling companion.
Here is some of the scenery we passed that afternoon:
One unique aspect of the Auto Train is that the ticket includes meals. Included in your fare are dinner services in the dining cars at 5PM, 7PM and 9pm, and a continental breakfast served in the morning. On our trips the dinner was a choice of roasted chicken, rib-eye steak, salmon, and veggie and cheese stuffed shells, along with desert, coffee and iced tea. All of the options were tasty. The breakfast was muffins, bagels, cereal, coffee, tea and milk.
At your meal time you walk to the dining car. Seating is at a table for 4 so, unless you are a group or family you will have company. Going south we had dinner with a couple from Williamsport PA, home of the Little League World Series. Both retired now, we discovered that he was a restorer of cars and that they were on their way south to pick up another car for him to work on.
After dinner it’s back to your seat. If you get thirsty or just want a change of pace, walk to the lounge car. There are plenty of tables so hang out, meet new people or play cards. Every evening they show a movie at 7 and 9 pm.
Around 11pm most of the lights go out. It is quiet time in the train. Everyone bunkers down (bring your own blankets and pillows). Here is where seat selection is important. There is an overhead light on in the middle of the car at the stairway and at the end, between cars, so you probably want seats about halfway between the center and the ends (numbers 10-20 or 45-55). Our trip was very quiet. People really respect sleeping time. Unlike sleeping in coach on a plane, on the train seats are wide and recline enough to be comfortable and make sleeping easy. Also, the aisle is much wider than a plane, so people passing by tend not to bump into those who are sleeping.
Breakfast service begins at 6am. You sit down and at the table is choice of muffins, bagels and cold cereal. There are no scheduled seatings, just come when you are ready, although it does fill up and you might have to wait for table. The lounge car also has coffee and muffins available if you don’t want to wait.
Sunrise in Florida:
Once the sun comes up you can again enjoy the passing towns and farms. If the train is on time (both of ours arrived early) you get to the end of your journey around 9:30am. It takes a while to detach the car carriers, but again, there is no rush. Even when they detrain the passengers, it will still take a while before your car comes out, in fact it could take up to an hour. And it doesn’t matter when you brought your car in, you just can’t predict when it will be taken off of the train. For a $50 charge you can have make your car a “priority unload” and be one of the first 20 or so cars to detrain.
There were plenty of free luggage carts – a pleasant surprise if you are used to paying up to $5 at U.S. airports.
The Auto-Train started as a private company in 1971, and it eventually included trains from Louisville KY, Chicago IL and Denver CO to Sanford. Its start coincided with the opening of Disney World and development of Florida as huge tourist destination. Auto-Train Corp. went out of business in 1981. Amtrak reinstated it in 1983, using the original stock.
Amtrak updated all of its equipment on the line in the mid-1990’s and uses Skyliner bi-level cars. These have really comfortable wide seats with about 2.5 feet between seats. The back recline pretty far down and they have a leg rest that comes up so sleeping is comfortable. There are seating options on both the upper and lower levels. The upper level seats about 67 people and the lower level seats about 20. The upper level has better views as you travel, and all passages between cars is on the upper level, so that is how you get to the dining car and the lounge. The lower level is much quieter and all bathrooms are on the lower level of the cars. The Auto Train also has 4 sleeper cars. The cost of sleepers ranges from $300 - $800 per leg.
One other piece of advice, especially if you are in the theme of train travel – slow down even before boarding – I strongly suggest staying nearby the night before and/or after your trip. 19 hours on a train is much less tiring than flying, but if you add several hours of driving time before and after, then you are traveling for 24 or so hours, which can take a toll on you (it did on us).
Think of train travel as a time to slow down your hectic life. Think of it as an opportunity to restore and regenerate. Let the conductor worry about getting you there.