Auto train from Florida handles 330 vehicles with dispatch
Ride to Virginia includes adventures and renewals of acquaintances
Hank McFarland, story and photographs
When my wife Nancy first suggested that we return to New Hampshire from Florida using the auto train, I was skeptical.
After all, trains are dirty, noisy, and slow when compared to air travel, and in comparison to driving our own car it was a matter of timing. We would have to use a departure and arrival time which was set in stone, not follow our own at-will time table.
Route of the Amtrak Auto Train. (from Wikipedia).
I asked many of our friends in Florida if they had ever traveled on the auto train, and most said they had not. However, I did get input from two people whose opinions I value. One said that they loved the trip, the other said they would never do it again.
We decided to try it and make up our own minds.
On the morning of our departure we were up early. There were last-minute preparations to make at our condo before vacating it for a long period of time. Furniture to bring in, water valves to turn off, and cupboards to clean out. We drove away with mixed feelings, leaving behind our many Florida friends but eager to see New Hampshire friends and family.
Trip Tick had provided us with precise directions to the Sanford, Florida auto train depot. Unfortunately, the directions were not precise enough. The very last leg of the trip was cloaked in ambiguity. Were we to go east on West 46th Street or west on East 46th? We desperately tried both. Our initial direction, which in the end proved to be correct, seemed wrong. We made a legal U turn and went five miles in the opposite direction. As the city surroundings gradually turned into farm land, we decided that we were again on the wrong track, and another legal U turn brought us back in the proper direction.
Yes, there was a sign on the right side of the road Auto Train Terminal
. It was only a few hundred yards from the main road. We took a right turn, and suddenly we were in a long line of cars waiting to be checked in to the auto train.
We were impressed by the efficiency of the check in process. Five lines of vehicles were being processed simultaneously, side by side. As the Amtrak representative took our information she told us to take the things we needed and proceed inside the depot building to pick up our tickets. Having been fore warned that our living space would be limited, we took only a camera and a canvas travel bag with us, leaving the rest of our luggage and travel items in the trunk of the car. The Amtrak person cautioned us to leave our keys in our vehicle so that it could be loaded onto the train.
Within the station, another Amtrak representative quickly dispensed our tickets and in the process checked on our desired dining time. We chose the 7 p.m., sitting over the early bird 5 p.m. and the night owl 9 p.m. options.
Sanford waiting area.
It was a 45-minute wait before we could board the train. The May weather in Florida was in the humid 80's, but we found some shade alongside the patiently waiting train and relaxed while sipping some raspberry tea.
At 2:30 p.m. we boarded the train with the help of Larry, our cabin master. He escorted us to our cubicle and pointed out a few controls for various accessories.
I must admit that on first viewing our space looked pretty small, but on the positive side it was much cleaner than I had somehow expected. Larry assured us that we would be comfortable there. He then invited us to go to the lounge car where they were serving wine and cheese, an offer we immediately took advantage of. The lounge car was busy. At one end was a small wine bar with the choice of red or white wines. Across from it were tables with crackers and blocks of white and yellow cheeses. We helped ourselves and sat at a nearby table where we were quickly joined by fellow travelers. At first sight one couple looked familiar, and after a brief conversation we confirmed that they had once been residents of the same condo that we still reside in. We spent a half hour catching up on old friends, and when they left to do some reading another lady plopped herself down at our table and introduced herself. "Hi, I'm Barbara!" she said, not the least bit shyly, and the next half hour was spent hearing about Barbara's life story and family tree. By then the train was moving, and we politely excused ourselves to go get a little rest before dinner.
We soon learned that the auto train was loaded with 330 vehicles, stacked side by side and one over another upon a very long string of rail cars which trailed the passenger occupied front section of the train. The passenger cars contained more than 600 people, and as a whole the train was the longest passenger train in the United States. As you rounded a curve in the tracks, you could look back and see that you were being followed by a multitude of rail cars.
It didn't take long to explore our bedroom. It was six and a half feet by seven and a half feet, and that included the bath and toilet area which was all in one. It was rather neat the way the toilet paper was protected from the shower water by a little movable piece of plastic.
There was a small table by a large window. On one side of the table was a little upholstered chair, and on the other side was a sofa which converted to a bed at night. Above the sofa was another tier of furniture which made up into a second bed, an upper bunk bed, at night. There was XM satellite music playing soft rock songs in our unit, and we had the controls to lower or shut off the volume. We also discovered the next morning that we had the ability to control our cabin temperature. Unfortunately, we spent a rather warm night before making this discovery.
At 7 o'clock we were called to dinner. We were seated with another couple, and after some polite exploratory conversation we realized that this couple was another ghost from our past. Indeed, he was a Ford dealer from Massachusetts, and we had been to various meetings and trips with them over 25 years ago. We had a wonderful time renewing our acquaintances.
Dinner consisted of several options, among them a steak, vegetable lasagna, and chicken. The food was hot and serviceable, though not of gourmet status. Our attentive waitperson made up for any deficiencies in the food by pouring wine enthusiastically. It was a convivial atmosphere.
After dinner there were two showings of a movie in the lounge car. Nancy and I chose to go sit and watch the Georgia landscape slide by in the late May dusk.
The night proved to be something of a challenge. Just getting street clothes off and sleeping clothes on in the confined nature of our cabin required some strange contortions. Larry had prepared our cabin for sleeping, which meant that the sofa was now a double bed which intruded into enough of the room so that there was barely room to stand between the bed and the vanity. Meanwhile the train lurched from side to side like a storm tossed boat, making the chore of balancing on one foot to remove or get into clothing interesting.
Three hours after getting into bed I was still awake. The train was rolling through the Georgia and South Carolina countryside, and at every side road and every driveway that it crossed it belted out its mournful whistle. As I lay tossing from side to side in my tiny space it seemed we had several encounters with near disaster. The train jounced violently from side to side, as if it were jumping back from a gigantic precipice, and occasionally there would be a loud crashing sound. Meanwhile, Nancy slept peacefully on the bed below.
I decided I would be more comfortable if I made a visit to the bathroom. First, I had to undo the snap on the harness that kept me from being accidentally thrown out of bed during one of the train's heavy duty lurches. Next, I eschewed descending the ladder that Larry had discreetly placed at the head of the bed in favor of stepping first onto the wash cabinet, then on the edge of Nancy's bed. This was done in a careful manner to avoid waking my spouse and to keep from a disastrous tumble.
Returning to bed posed a bigger problem, because it was too big of a step to get my foot up onto the wash basin. I decided to go with the ladder, and it was fortunate that I did so as it was all the exertion that I needed at 1:30 in the evening.
The long train.
Once back in bed, I lay listening to the whistles and wondering exactly where in the Carolinas we were. That must not have lasted very long, because the next thing I knew we were stopped. The silence was amazing. Suddenly, a southbound train ripped by us at the speed of sound. Our train rocked back and forth from the wind stream of the passing cars.
Wow, I thought. Someone had gotten us off that southbound track at just the right time.
The next thing I heard was Larry, waking us for breakfast. Somehow I had gotten four or five hours sleep.
I carefully extricated myself from the upper berth and sat on the bed below, looking into the mirror and shaving from a sitting position. I didn't look too bad for the night's experiences, and Nancy was looking fine. We decided to forego the challenge of showering in a 24-square-inch facility. We were passing through the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia, and the train was barely crawling along. It was interesting, trying to pull clothes on in front of the cars parked at the railroad crossings.
Breakfast was buffet style. When we lingered a little too long our server asked us to move along since there were more fellow travelers waiting for breakfast. We arrived at the northern terminus of Amtrak in Lorton, Virginia, about an hour early.
Unloading in Lorton, Virginia.
We detrained to the Lorton depot amidst promises that our cars would be off the train and back in our hands within one hour. Fortunately, it was far less time than that. Only twenty minutes from the time the train pulled to a stop in Lorton, we were on Interstate 95 heading north.
Nancy and I believe we saved close to nine hundred miles of driving. Not only that, even with minimal sleep on the train I felt rested and confident as we continued our trip.
We will definitely ride the auto train again.
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