The Traveling Steve's

The Amtrak Auto Train – Getting there is half the FUN!

After a nice Easter visit with my family in Roanoke, Virginia, it was time to head south once again to our home in Orlando.  As my parents have recently relocated to the English Meadows Retirement Home (former Elk’s Home), they now have a house full of furniture to donate, and Mom and Dad wanted my brother, sister and I to take whatever we would like.  Most of the furniture was quite large for us, but there was a dresser and a couple rocking chairs I wanted.  Have I ever mentioned how I like to rock!  Ever since I was a kid, I always loved a rocking chair, and while I have a couple rockers out by my pool,  I don’t have any indoors.  So the story of our journey home to Florida begins!

Since Steve (DOS) and I had both flown up to Virginia, we needed a rental SUV to bring the dresser and chairs home to Florida. DOS went on a search of rental car companies that had a super-sized SUV we could take rent, AND would allow a one way rental to Florida without huge mileage fees.  We ended up renting a HUGE Ford SUV from Budget, which was a very reasonable $125 a day, with no additional mileage or drop charges.  

As we would need two days for the drive, I came up with what I considered a reasonable add-on; we could take the Amtrak Auto Train home!  At first DOS thought it was ridiculous as it was a four hour drive to the Washington DC area where the train leaves from, but after I convinced him how nice it would be to relax, have a meal, and take a sleeper car, he agreed.  I had taken the Auto Train back in 1998 when I moved to Florida, and really loved it for the convenience, as well as adventure and thrill of it.  We made our reservations for Amtrak online, and we were all set to go for the weekend journey.

DOS first picked up the rental SUV in Roanoke, and we then loaded up the dresser, two rocking chairs, a credenza table, as well as our suitcases and some of the after-Christmas items we had left at Mom and Dad’s house in January.  The dresser was quite heavy but we managed to get it in the SUV, along with the other items. DOS had carefully measured the items and verified the dimensions of the SUV prior to picking up, so he was confident everything would fit.  Well everything (and more) fit, but just barely!

After everything was loaded, we headed out in the SUV to Charlottesville, Virginia, where we stayed for the night.  We first stopped by to see my parents in Bedford, VA at the Elk’s Retirement Home, which was on the way.  They had just finished dinner, and we showed them the packed SUV we were taking back to Florida with a few of their things.  They were glad it worked out for us, with Mom commenting how much I always loved rocking chairs!

We then headed on to Charlottesville, as it was starting to get dark and we still had a bit of a drive.  We stayed at the Hyatt Place Hotel in Charlottesville, Virginia, and secured a nice well-lit parking space right in front of the hotel, mindful that we had an SUV loaded with furniture. The windows were tinted on the SUV, so you really couldn’t see inside, but didn’t want to take any chances with a rental-car break-in.

The Hyatt Place Hotel is in a great location, and we walked a couple blocks in this corporate office park area to dinner, where there were a choice of restaurants to choose from. We had a relaxing late dinner at Travina Italian Restaurant after having had a busy day packing up the SUV followed by the evening drive to Charlottesville.

The next morning, we checked out of the Hyatt Place Charlottesville around 10:30am, and headed out to Lorton, Virginia to take the Auto Train back to Florida.  

It was still a couple hour’s drive to the Auto Train, but we arrived in plenty of time to have lunch in town, and even get my haircut!  The check-in time for the Auto Train does not start until 11:30am, and the final car boarding time is a very strict 2:30pm due to loading the automobiles on the train cars.

When you arrive at the Auto Train, there is a line-up for dropping your car off.  They give you a metallic plaque to put on your car, which indicates your vehicle car number, which is separate from your sleeping or coach car number indicated on your e-ticket.While everyone dropped their call off as they arrived, we headed to the visitor lot instead so we could check-in.  DOS had called ahead to Amtrak to see if we could park and check-in first, and then drop off the car, and they said to enter thru the visitor line instead of the main car drop-off line.  Amtrak has visitor parking spaces, so we first parked and then went inside to check-in, with absolutely no wait.  This was important, as we wanted to make sure we had our preferred dining time of 7pm.  (The dining times are 5pm, 7pm, and 9pm.)  Also it allowed us to drive our vehicle back out of the Amtrak area into town a mile or so away, where we had lunch and I got my hair cut.

After checking in and getting our 7pm dinner reservation, we drove up the street a mile or so to a small shopping village where we had lunch.  I had wanted to get my haircut but didn’t have time before we left, so there was a local barber shop there which worked out perfectly!   Nice and friendly neighborhood barbershop too, where the locals where getting their hair cut, as I could tell by their stories to each other.  

After the haircut, we walked over a couple shops to Antonelli’s Italian sub and pizza shop, and had a nice lunch from this local family establishment.  It was nice to have a quick, but not fast food lunch before getting on the train. 

After lunch we headed back to the Auto Train, and having already checked in, we simply dropped our car off and still had half an hour to walk around the terminal and outside. The  process is quite orderly and fast, and basically you just pull up and an attendant gives you a metallic plaque to attach to your car with your car sequence number, and a receipt with that number you will need when you get to Florida.  

The Amtrak terminal is quite large, and has seating for several hundred people. Note: the Auto Train stations (both in Lorton and Sanford) do not have  a restaurant; only a small gift shop that also sells snacks and drinks, so eat before you get to the train station.

It was such a beautiful Spring day, we put our carry-on bags in the complimentary trollies, and walked along the path next to the train.  Lots of fellow passengers were outside as well, enjoying the great weather in the outdoor seating area and grounds, or doing like us and taking photos of the trains and cars being loaded onto them.

Here is a sign posted with some trivia about the Auto Train:

At 2:30pm, with all of the automobiles loaded, the train was officially open for boarding, with a scheduled 4pm departure for Orlando (Sanford).  

We had accommodations in sleeper car ‘C’ aboard train car 5344, on the upper level.  All of the Sleeper Car accommodations are on the upper level of the train, with the exception of the family and accessible rooms.  We soon realized why they suggested bringing only one small carry-on item for the overnight journey – space was tight-tight-tight!  

We unpacked our toiletries, clothes for the morning, and the suitcase full of snacks DOS had brought with us, plus bottled water, a large single can of Michelobe Ultra, and a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon with corkscrew. (The corkscrew is important as the wines served aboard are twist off bottles.)  Alcohol is allowed in your cabin, but not up in the lounge car, although your water, sodas, and snacks are.  There is a small coat closet, and some room underneath the bottom bunk if your carryon is small enough, and there is also a small shelf to store a carryon. In the photos below, DOS is sitting in the single chair, while I’m on the sofa, which makes into a bed in the evening.

After getting settled in, we then toured the train.  As the Auto Train is one of the longest trains in the world, we had a bit of a walk to get to the lounge and dining cars, down a very narrow hallway.  The Coach and Sleeper cars each have their own Dining and Lounge Cars, which makes sense due to the distance from each cabin class.  We walked thru the Sleeper Dining Car which was being set up for the early 5pm dinner, and settled in for a bit in the adjacent Lounge Car.  It was surprisingly not busy, especially considering how nice and spacious it was.  

 

As we headed out of the station, the train moved slowly across the bridge and entrance road we had driven our car in earlier. We watched out the windows as this lady conductor was walking beside the train doing a safety check as the automobile train cars were being connected into place.

Amtrak had previously made an announcement the train would move forward and then stop a couple times while all of the cars were connected. (I later met this conductor on board.  Her name is Marianne; and we chatted for quite a while in the evening – she had worked on the Auto Train for 34 years!  In fact many of the staff had worked on the Auto Train for years, including our cabin attendant Charles who had been on for some 25 years.)  The staff work one round-trip (3 days), and then have 3 days off.  The Conductors and Engineers work 1/2 the trip going down, and then depart the train at the one quick crew change stop around 1am, and then work the next days return trip on the return at 1am.  It sounded like an adventurous job, and especially the 3 days on and 3 days off sounded appealing.

We later learned from a crew member, this ‘Dome Lounge Car’, was not typical for the Auto Train run, however they do get it on their route for a few days every now and then.  The Dome Car offered great views, and as there were overhead windows in the dome, it was much lighter and felt grander than the dining or any other cars. When they don’t have the Dome Car, Amtrak has a regular Lounge Car, sans the Dome.

We ended up ‘camping’ in the Lounge Car until shortly before our 7pm dinner. DOS and I took turns going back to the room to get things; one trip was our laptops, another the snacks, until we were feeling quite at home in the Lounge Car.  Snacks and alcohol were for sale downstairs in the lounge car, and as we sailed away at 4:30pm, I bought a Mich Ultra from the bar attendant.  At $5.50 for a domestic beer and $6.50 for a domestic beer it was typical of a bar or airplane pricing, but I then figured out why there weren’t many people in the Lounge Car – they had brought their own booze aboard and were drinking up!  Indeed when we walked past a few of the Sleeper Cars, many rooms had their doors open with the passengers having a sip or two of something.  I didn’t mind paying the drink prices as it was so nice to sit in the nice Lounge Car.  They also had wine in the 1/2 bottles (Chardonay Cabernet, and Merlot), and the mini liquor bottles you are served on a plane.  The bar area downstairs, is really more of a convenience store type place, as you take your beer, wine, snacks etc, back upstairs to the Lounge Car, or one of the few chairs downstair, none of which were occupied due to the better view upstairs.  One lady asked for some nice Pinot Noir, and I had to chuckle to myself thinking, this is Amtrak not the Orient Express!  No Pinot for you!

As we railed along towards Florida, we saw many staff members walking by, all willing to answer any questions, and welcomed us aboard.  The Conductor made several announcements on the route (until around 9pm, and then quiet for the night) which were informative, and some even trivia-like in their presentation.  Several of the areas shortly after we left were quite scenic as we crossed the Potomac River, big bridges, and railed thru the town of Ashland, a bit north of Richmond, Virginia.

I took notes as a staff member announced some trivia about our Auto Train journey.   Our ‘rail adventure’ had:

  • 44 cars cars total of which: 
    27 were auto cars7 Sleeper Cars
    1 Business Class Car (sounds good but it’s really Coach Plus)
    4 Coach Cars
    2 Dining Cars (one each Sleeper and Coach)
    2 Lounge Cars (one each Sleeper and Coach)
    and must have missed the other car – maybe officers
  • 268 passengers aboard
  • 145 Cars and 1 motorcycle (30 cars were ‘Priority Car’s meaning
    they paid an extra $50 for the car to come off first.  (Not worth it in 
    our opinion as we didn’t do this, and it still unloaded fast.)
  • 23 Staff positions
  • 2 Conductors
  • 3 Engineers

And I can almost hear the song “City of New Orleans” and adding ’25 sacks of mail’! LOL!

As we railed along towards Florida, we munched on snacks, sodas, and I on brewskis. We kept saying how glad we were to take the train instead of driving the whole distance to Florida.  We talked to several of the other passengers on the train, and it was interesting to hear everyone’s story for taking it.  Some people were moving to Florida (as I did when I took it way back in 1998), other were retired an on holiday for a couple weeks, one couple from Canada had a condo they had just purchased in Florida, a Mom was returning back with her son, and a couple ladies were on holiday driving down from Maine to catch the Auto Train.  All in all, at least the Lounge Car was a jovial bunch, and everyone is there for the same purpose, similar to taking a re-positiong cruise, without all the luxury.

Shortly before 7pm, we walked thru the 4 cars down the tiny corridor to our room to wash up, before walking back to the Dining Car.  We had the 7pm dining reservation, and you bring your blue card they give you at check in to the Dining Car, where you are seated at a table for four.  We were seated with a Mother and grown son from Winter Park, Florida, not far from where we live.  We both love to travel and conversed the whole meal on different destinations of the world.  She also was in amazing shape, and at 60 years old (didn’t look it at all!) was the only person we had ever met that had done the Dopey Challenge at Disney World.  We used to volunteer for the Disney Marathon in January, and met some people in the Goofy Challenge, (3 days of racing 10K, 1/2 Marathon, and full marathon), but had never met anyone to do the Dopey Challenge.  (5k on Thursday, 10K on Friday, 1/2 Marathon on Saturday, and Full Marathon on Sunday!!!)  I didn’t have any cards with me, but would love to have gotten her contact information as she was quite interesting.  (If you’re reading this, drop me a comment and I’ll email back.)

I didn’t have my phone with me at dinner to take any photos, but it was an ok meal; not like the Prime Rib I had a few years ago on the train, but decent enough; beef tips, green beans, potato and bread, along with complimentary tea and water.  A waiter comes by with drink orders, and I had a 1/2 bottle of the twist off Cabernet Sauvignon with dinner.  I should have asked for Pinot Noir to see what they would say!

After dinner we went back to the lounge car for a bit, which was more lively than before, filled with  people getting ready for the final 9pm seating.  We chatted with others for a bit, including an older couple that were train fanatics.  He had timetables from the 1950’s showing trains in service then.  I thought that was cool, and while I don’t have train timetables, I did do a post about airline tables a couple years ago; which are now a thing of the past thanks to the internet.

As the Lounge Car was thinning out, DOS headed back to the Sleeper Car, while I stayed for another 15 minutes or so.  When I got back to the room, the beds had been turned down, and I could barely walk in the tiny room! The lower bed where I slept was a little over 3 feet wide, and the former day-sofa extended out to the sink making it all but impossible to brush your teeth, take your contacts out etc. Meanwhile, DOS was climbing the small ladder to the top bunk, which was a pull-down bunk even smaller than the bottom one.  It was hilarious watching him get into bed!

 

 I felt bad for him because he was so crunched in, if he sat up he would hit his head on the ceiling!  And there were belts attached to the bed to keep him from falling out!  He wouldn’t let me sleep up there as I’m pretty claustrophobic, and getting up to use the restroom in the middle of the night would have been a challenge for me!

Anyway, I closed the window shades, slept with my contacts in, and brushed my teeth the best I could, trying not to splash water all over my bed.

We both ended up having a decent night’s sleep, although there were a couple times it seemed to get bumpy and all I could think about was the train derailing.  The Auto Train makes one scheduled stop half-way to Sanford around 1am or so to change conductors and engineers.  This was announced earlier in the trip, so it was no surprise, but as it’s a quick stop, no one can get of the train.  Indeed most people were probably asleep anyway.

We slept in a bit in the morning, opting to skip breakfast aboard the train, and would get something to eat on the way home, as the train arrive right on schedule around 9am.  Our attendant turned up the two beds when we requested it, so our last half hour or so we could sit in seats and enjoy the view.  

As we arrived at the station in Sanford, Florida, we noticed another Auto Train with passengers!  Not really, it was actually the Coach section of our train that had already been detached, and was moved to the adjacent track, while Amtrak unloaded the other train cars carrying the automobiles. 

We got off the train around 9:15am, and figured we would have up to an hour and a half wait getting our car.  The Coach cars are on the right track and the Sleeper Cars are on the left.  Our staff attendant Charles is shown in the photo behind be at the train door we had just walked out of.The Sanford terminal is quite large and modern, with hundreds of seats and a small gift shop. We watched as the 30 priority cars came out fairly quickly, and I went and got some coffee.  Amtrak announced your automobile number twice:  300, 301 etc, which they had attached to each car at check in.

I went to get some coffee in the gift shop (didn’t see any in the terminal), and by the time I got back, our car was already off-loaded!  Perhaps luck, or perhaps because we loaded our car late, I don’t know, but we had our car by 9:35, which was quite fast.  Shown below are other people waiting for their vehicles.  I don’t know why everyone is standing around outside as the inside terminal has speakers with announcements, and is much more comfortable, but maybe they think their car will come off quicker.  Anyway, we waited inside, and our car was called almost right away.

We got in our rental car, dropped off our numbered car plaque (301) at the exit, and drove home, a fairly quick 15 minute drive to the house. 

Once back home, we unloaded the SUV.  Remarkably nothing was damaged from the long, and sometimes bumpy journey to Florida.  Not that you would expect it to be, but we did have a lot of things in the SUV, including s large piece of glass for the credenza, and the heavy dresser and chairs which I envisioned sliding and breaking one of the SUV windows on one of those fast and bumpy curves.  Nope, none of that, and I must say Amtrak was quite efficient from the start to the end of our one way journey to Florida.

 It was a fun trip, and even with the tiny sleeper room we would do it again in a heartbeat if we had a similar need for moving things to Florida.  Back home safe and soundly, and now just have to figure out where to put everything!  And yes the rocking chairs made it home fine!

Welcome Home!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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