amtrak auto train
Amtrak’s Auto Train
When we decided to go to Florida for Christmas 2007, we looked into the Auto Train, which I’ve always wanted to try. It was a better deal then all of us flying down there and renting a car, so decided to take it. We teamed up with my parents and took their van with us and decided on the coach seats on the train (as opposed to the rooms they have available). The Auto Train was started by a private company in 1971 on the same route it follows today (Lorton, VA to Sanford, FL) and was taken over by Amtrak in the early 80′s. The train is mostly popular with families with young children heading down to the theme parks in Orlando and retirees who spend the winter in Florida, but you’ll see people of all ages on the train.
We arrived to the Lorton station at 2 PM and just waited a few minutes in the line of cars ahead of us. After the initial check in, your car is given a number and you’re asked to drive ahead to the drop off area where they video tape your car as you take whatever you want to bring on the train with you. The process is really quite simple as most everyone else who has written about the Auto Train on other web sites has described. Inside, you check in again to get your boarding passes and choose your dinner time (5, 7 or 9 PM). If you want to avoid eating with the kids on the train, take the 9 PM like we did (we ate at the 7 o’clock dinner on the way back and it felt like we were in a Chuck E Cheese).
On board, I was really surprised to see how big and comfortable the chairs were and how much room there was in between them – it was easily equal to a first class cabin on any commercial airline. We still had an hour or so before departure, so we walked back into the first class section of the train with the sleeper rooms. The rooms seemed very nice from what we saw, and the dining area was a little nicer. We departed about 15 mins ahead of schedule, at 3:45 PM, which is quite common if all the people and cars are on board prior to 4 PM.
I really enjoy traveling by train…we had tons of room to stretch out and you could just watch the scenery go by or read a book or watch a DVD at your seat, which a lot of people were doing. We all went to the lounge car at 7 PM to watch the movie, The Bourne Ultimatum. Dinner came very soon at 9 PM, which was very nice. The food was better than anything you’d ever get on an airplane and all of the waiters and waitresses have a great sense of humor. Because there were four of us, we got our own booth to ourselves. If you’re traveling as a couple or alone, you’ll be paired up with some strangers witch can be great or a disaster, depending on your attitude and theirs! Most people on the train a very friendly and inclined to strike up a conversation with someone else.
After dinner, we returned to the lounge car and watched The Bourne Ultimatum again while playing cribbage. The lounge car was definitely the best car on the train, there is a small bar with a decent selection of beers and mixed drinks and plenty of tables to sit at. The only smoking section on all of Amtrak’s lines is also on the lower level of this car. We stayed in there till well after midnight, then went back to the chairs to sleep. The chairs recline very far and have a leg rest that comes out of the bottom to make it as comfortable a chair can be for sleeping. Most people were sound asleep when we got back and as hard as I tried, I didn’t get more than 15-20 mins of sleep at a time during the whole night. I am about 6 ft. tall and it just wasn’t possible to get into a comfortable position without cramping up somewhere eventually. Also, people were walking through the cars throughout the night, opening and closing the doors, which kind of kept me up.
At about 2 AM, we stopped in Florence, SC to gas up and change engineer crews (the cabin crew stays on the train for its full journey). We rolled through Jacksonville, FL, just as the sun was coming up which was pretty odd, as I was wondering what this train full of sleeping people must look like to all the people stopped at the RR crossings in their cars on their way to work. After sunrise, we rolled through central Florida and past some citrus farms, the scenery having changed 100% from the industrial areas in Virginia. The head conductor made an announcement that we’d be pulling in early to Sanford, so early that we’d have to wait a few minutes for the station crew to arrive. Breakfast also started at this time, which is a nice continental breakfast served in the dining cars. No need to reserve a time to eat, just head down and grab any available seat.
Sure enough, we arrived at about 6:45 and waited until 7 AM for the crew to arrive so that the auto rack cars could be uncoupled from the train. The Sanford station seems painfully old compared to the Lorton station, for a few reasons. One, the auto rack cars are moved in front of the train, then onto the other side of the station, across the parking lot to unload the cars. Second, the station is so small that the passenger cars need to be separated into two blocks and parked on either side of the platform for disembarkation. Lastly, the station is just plain old. The waiting area was small and there was rust on just about everything outside, which was a real contrast to the Lorton station we were at just the day before. The crew at Sanford were just as good and professional as the crew in Lorton, and we got our car in about 20 mins. The station is located in an industrial complex, but it’s very easy to navigate your way out of there and then onto Interstate 4 which goes to Orlando.
All in all, I’d highly recommend the Auto Train. In many cases, it is cheaper than buying plane tickets for the family, then renting a car (a necessity) in Orlando for a week. The one thing that we will do different next time is to spend the extra money for a Roomette. The Roomette is not so much a room, as it is a bunk bed set up with a wall for privacy. The “room” is only 3 1/2 ft. wide and has two chairs facing each other. At night, the chairs folds into a flat bed and another bed folds down above it from the wall. While this may not seem like much, the value of having a flat bed to lay on is huge and the extra privacy of a wall would provide for a much better night’s sleep. If you can’t get the Roomette, I’d suggest trying to score a couple of seats on the lower level of the coach car. This room only holds about 12 people and is much more private than upstairs, though I imagine you might hear a bit more noise from the tracks.
If you’re ready to book your trip on the Auto Train, you can call 1-800-USA-RAIL or click here.