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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