Amtrak, Auto Train Pictorial: This is an update on Amtrak’s AutoTrain. You can find my earlier post on AutoTrain from September 15, 2009 by scrolling down. The first few paragraphs here are the same as the 2009 post because both will orient you on how to find the train both in Orlando and Washington, DC, along with departure times and other useful information. Amtrak’s web site for bookings is HERE.

Note —->>>> The pictorial on Auto Train 2011 follows the copy at the end of this post.

Auto Train is the fastest way for you and your car or motorcycle to get from Washington, DC, to Orlando — or back. The train runs non-stop both ways nightly from Lorton, Virginia, south of Washington, DC, just 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.

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Auto Train / September 11-12, 2011

The Auto Train is arguably, along with Acela Express, Amtrak’s premier train. It is also one of its few trains that make money.

Running each afternoon both south from Lorton, Virginia (Washington, DC) to Sanford, Florida (Orlando) the train is a non-stop overnight express for you and your vehicle up the I-95 corridor.

It is remarkably easy and straight-forward – in mid afternoon you drive into the Amtrak yard, they plop a magnetic number of the side of your car, videotape it (the nicks and dings you have this afternoon will match the nicks and dings you have the following morning) and your car heads one way, and you head another. At about 4 pm off you, and your car, go in a train that often stretches 20 or more cars.

The following morning you are in Virginia having thundered through the night on what is almost always a rough ride on freight tracks. Along the way you have had dinner, a movie, and a continental breakfast if you booked a compartment. If you slept in coach, the meals are not included.

Amtrak has been gradually upgrading Auto Train with new terminals. The Lorton, Virginia, station was finished a few years ago and is gorgeous. The Sanford station was largely demolished and rebuilt opening earlier this year. It is utilitarian and, while not dreary, is not overly cheery. Either different architects designed the terminals or the person designing them both was less motivated when he/she got around to designing the Florida station.

Since we are veterans of the train, and since we are gradually riding different sections of the Amtrak rail system when time permits, we are sensitive to how they are doing in terms of cleanliness, food quality, rolling stock and hospitality.

While it is not true of the entire Amtrak system, increasingly sections of Amtrak are falling into the postal service paradigm of poor service, higher and higher prices and indifferent help. Lacking rail competition, and saddled with unprofitable routes that leach money that could be spent to improve profitable routes, it appears that Amtrak is being forced by Congressional politics to do too much with too little resulting in truly ghastly trains on occasion.

The Empire Builder (Seattle to Chicago) compartments stank on one of our trips when toilets quit working and the help, unable to fix the problem, vanished into the Transition Car (their on board dormitory that normally runs at the front of the train behind the engine and baggage car). Similarly, by scrolling down you can read what a joke the car attendants were on our recent trip on the Southwest Chief (Los Angeles to Chicago) when they forget to turn on the heat in our car.

That said, Amtrak does have some fast and efficient trains that run routes where tons of people want to go. The Auto Train, which regularly sells out during the snowbird season, is one of those trains. Not surprisingly on these routes the help is motivated, proud, usually crisp and cheery.

Adios, SOUTHWEST AIRLINES! / We are no longer feeling the love

Normally we fly.

Rarely will we take the train unless we want our own car and intend to stay north for a while or unless we are looking for leisure time to work on projects while going from here to there. Moving our car to Virginia for a while was the reason for our latest Auto Train trip along with our loathing of I-95.

Normally we fly north from Orlando into either Norfolk or Baltimore on Southwest Airlines.

We have a ton of free coupons, and also a companion pass which means one of us flies for free. We have our credit cards linked to them. All are on their way to Glory as we switch airlines and credit cards. As Ronald Reagan said of why he left the Democratic party and became a Republican, “I didn’t leave them; they left me.” Alas, with high prices and a frequent flier program we cannot figure out, Southwest has left us. We’re hardly alone in our feelings.

The problem is Southwest has changed its frequent flier program and jacked its prices sky-high. A flight to Norfolk used to be $70 or $80 or a bit more. Now it is $250. We have stopped flying Southwest (because we no longer feel the love) and are rationing our remaining free coupons, which will run out sometime next summer. Adios, Southwest! – lately we’ve been on Allegiant ($29 Orlando to Northwest Arkansas) and Jet Blue ($109 to Dulles/Washington, DC).

Neither of these airlines has yet taken leave of their senses. Yet.

2011 Auto Train Pictorial

Auto Train has a new terminal in Sanford, Florida, which opened earlier this year. While not quite as spiffy as the one at the other end of the line in Lorton, Virginia, it is bright, comfortable and clean.


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The platform is, of course, where it always was. Signage to the cars is better, however. This sign directs passengers to sleeping car #5245. Each car is clearly marked and the train is adjacent to the terminal now, which it sort of was, and sort of was not, before the new terminal was built.


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Auto Train nightly is dragged by two engines working in tandem. Passengers used to be able to walk around the front of the engines. No more. Moreover, on September 11, 2011, the day we took Auto Train from Sanford north, TSA Security people were walking the platform. Is there an every day occurance now or just because it was the 10th anniversary of the World Trade Center. We didn't ask.


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One great improvement is a playground at the Sanford, FL, terminal with picnic tables and chairs to watch their children. Sanford also runs a free shuttle downtown and back for passengers arriving early. Internet in the station is also free and quite fast, and there are some -- not many -- electric plugs.


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On board the Observation Car now has windows similar to those on the Southwest Chief affording great views. The car also has plenty of electric plugs, although no interent. Cellphone coverage enroute is also spotty, as is to be expected. The color scheme, once tourquoise, has been updated. Downstairs is a concessions area which sell sandwiches and soft drinks. It is adjacent to a smoking room which, sadly, leaks air into the upstairs Observation car making it unusable for those allergic to cigarette smoke. Worse, for sleeping car passengers to get to the dining car, they have to pass through this smoke-filled car.


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Coffee, wine, cheese, fruit is all freely available in the Observation car, and in each of the sleeping cars. Amtrak has greatly upgraded the quality of its coffee -- today it's great; a few years ago, it was not.


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The Observation car has large windows and great views. On the day we took the train in September 2011, the train was empty. In our sleeping car only 4 compartments were booked. This assures clean bathrooms, by the way.


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The trains are scheduled to leave at 4 pm, but if everyone is on board and the autos loaded, off they go. On September 11, 2011, Auto Train left the Sanford Yard at 3:30 pm, fully 20 minutes early. Passengers had to be on board by 3:10 pm. Auto Train is scheduled to arrive in Lorton, Virginia, at 9:30 am the following morning, fully an hour-and-a-half later than it used to arrive. Maybe it does -- but maybe it doesn.t On the day we took the train, we pulled into Lorton at 6:50 am, 2 hours-forty minutes early. That's great except that the unloaders do not show up until 8 am, so passengers are left trapped on the train. Super early arrival seems to be the norm these days.


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This is what the unloading/loading device looks like for the cars. This photo was taken in Lorton, VA, where close observation of the loading and unloading is much easier than in Florida.


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Auto Train is rightly proud of its trains and of its history. This sign in Lorton, VA, sits just outside the terminal on the platform.


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The Lorton, VA., is gorgeous, comfortable and bright. Although newer, the Sanford terminal is not quite as asthetically beautiful although it, like the Lorton terminal, is clean, bright and comfortable.


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Free baggage carts are available both trainside as you disembark, and also at the reception area where you pull in and turn your car over to Auto Train. It's pure simplicity -- hop out of your car, dump your stuff on a cart and off you go to the train. Arriving -- just reverse the procedure.


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Both the Florida and Virginia terminals have concession stores where you can buy newspapers, sandwiches and other items. This is one is in the Lorton VA station.


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After you leave the train, you wait for your car to be unloaded. Each car has a plastic magnetic sign with a number which is slapped on the side of your car when you surrender it. After arrival the cars are driven off the train and the number of your car is announced. When it glides into the reception area (this one is at Lorton, VA), you pounce. I-95 north and south is only a hundred or so yards away.


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Unloading Sequence, Photo #1. The back of the train's auto car is open and a car is heading our way. The auto train cars have two decks. Autos from the upper deck (shown here) are unloaded first, then the ramp is lowered, and the bottom deck is emptied of cars. The procedure goes quickly.


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Unloading Sequence, Photo #2.


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Unloading Sequence, Photo #3.


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Unloading Sequence, Photo #4. Done! The reception area is twenty yards behind us. Hop in your car and go! These photographs were taken at the Lorton, Virginia, yard. In Florida, the loading and unloading sequence is not as easy to see.


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The blog “Railroading North America”, its content and photographs, are the copyrighted © 2011 property of Seine/Harbour™ Productions, Studio City, California, and Peter Michael Crow.
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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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