After a lengthy stay in Virginia, I was able to convince Steve (DOS) to take the Amtrak Auto train back home to Orlando instead of driving all that way. We had taken the Auto Train together once before (and I took it by myself when I moved to Florida some 22 years ago), but DOS wasn’t too impressed the first time we took it together. Although we had a sleeping car, I think DOS must have been expecting the Orient Express, or something comparable to a Hyatt Hotel room. LOL! Now though, the more serious worries were of COVID-19 and the possibly of catching it on the train.
Amtrak to their credit has done a great job demonstrating they are serious about COVID, starting with their website video presentation given by their Executive VP, explaining the measures they have taken to keep everyone safe. Another video on the Amtrak Facebook page also offers a video by their corporate Medical Doctor who details cleaning procedures of the stations and trains, as well as mask and social distance requirements, and contactless measures they have implemented, (such as credit cards only instead of handling cash in snack bars). Sure enough, from the checkin at the Lorton, VA station and ultimately onboard experience, we both felt comfortable taking the Auto train home, but only since we were in a sleeper compartment. Masks are required everywhere onboard now, with the exception of your room, and the dining/lounge car should you utilize those.
The Amtrak Auto train is the only scheduled train service of its kind in the US, and goes nonstop from Lorton, VA to Sanford, FL, on an 855 mile journey taking approximately 17 hours. the Auto train is also the longest passenger train in the world, hauling autos in multiple train cars, as well as coach cars, sleeper cars, dining/lounge cars and engine cars.
You can check in your car as early as 11:30am, and up until the cutoff at 2:30pm. There are actually two auto-trains, each traveling in the opposite direction. Both trains depart from their respecitve location at 4pm; one train headed southbound for Florida (Orlando area), while the other one heading northbound to Lorton, VA (just south of Washington DC). Both trains are scheduled arrive around 9am at their respective destinations, although as they share the rails with freighter trains, delays occur sometimes, although on weekends they might arrive as much as an hour early due little or no weekend freight traffic.
Williamsburg is 135 miles from Lorton, VA, and we left our Williamsburg Lodge Hotel around 10:30am. We had no traffic northbound, so we arrived at the Auto Train station in a couple hours. The exit is right off of Interstate 95 near Washington DC, and north of Richmond, VA.
At Lorton (unlike Sanford) there is a large guest parking lot you may use (temporarily) to see someone off or like we did to go into the terminal and check in for our sleeper cabin and secure our meal seating preference. Check-in at Lorton is a super quick process with a separate line for sleeper car passengers. Due to COVID Amtrak now allows sleeper car passengers to be served dinner in their rooms, whereas they traditionally had 3 different times for dinner. Most everyone opted for “room service”, but DOS and I asked for the sole seating at 7pm, and got our meal tickets.
We then went back to our car in the visitor lot, and drove a short distance to Antonelli’s restaurant for lunch. We ate at Antonelli’s last time we took the train, and enjoyed this small Italian family-owned restaurant. There are very few places to eat close by, and Antonelli’s is quick as well as just a short ride from the train station.
After lunch at Antonelli’s we drove the five minute drive back to the Auto Train station arriving at 2pm, this time going thru the normal vehicle procedures of the gated check-in and secure area. You do not have to get on Interstate 95 to get to Antonelli’s; it’s right up the road from the Auto Train. You do have to watch out for this semi-confusing turn off to the Auto Train however, as it’s right in the middle of the two exits for Interstate 95; a left turn into Amtrak’s Auto Train facility at the light.
Amtrak has a FIRM cutoff of checking in your vehicle at 2:30pm for cars, and 2pm for motorcycles and specialty vehicles. This is necessary so they can load the cars onto their specially configured auto-train cars, which must then be connected to the passenger part of the train. If you show up late they will offer you a refund or a voucher for a future trip. We’ve heard although can’t confirm the later the cars are loaded, they seem to come off earlier upon arrival (after the people who paid $65 for priority car unloading). In any event most people had already checked in, and there was no line for auto checkin.
You are assigned a numeric decal (magnetic) which they attach to your car indicating what your car number is (they call these out upon unloading) and also for their tracking and loading system. After dropping off your car, in mere moments you are on your way into the adjacent terminal. The staff puts plastic wrap over your seat and steering wheel, takes photos in case there is prior damage, and then loads the car for you. It happens very quickly as there are probably a dozen guys loading up the cars, and upon arrival the same thing in reverse. Here are some of the cars being driven onto the auto-train cars by the Amtrak staff after check-in, including ours!
While the passenger terminal in Lorton is HUGE and is only for Auto Train passengers, we opted to walk around outside the station area and watch the guys load the cars onto the trains, walking past a playground for passenger’s kids, and all the way to the end of the station looking at the various cars. Amtrak has quite an organized operation here, and it’s no wonder the Auto Train is their most profitable route. Note: While they have complimentary luggage trollies as shown below, this doesn’t mean you should fill them up! Even with sleeper cabins, the rooms are tiny, so unlike us on this trip, try to bring a small duffle bag or knapsack. It’s only overnight after all and their is a dining car for dinner, drinks, and snacks.
Boarding time is generally around or slightly after 2:30pm which is the firm deadline for checking in your car. Most everyone has checked their car in well before then, as at 2:30pm the last of the autos have been loaded into their special train cars, and are physically connected to the rest of the train. Here are a couple more photos of the Lorton terminal grounds while we waited to board the Auto Train. Surprisingly I didn’t take any photos in the terminal itself, although we had a short wait before boarding, and didn’t really want to be around lots of people indoors with this COVID thing going around.
We boarded the train shortly after the announcement was made around 2:35pm. We walked past the terminal, and walked, and walked, and walked! So many train cars! Our sleeper car was towards the back of the train, and while we knew not to take much luggage on, fortunately Amtrak has complimentary self-carts for our overnight bags, and our snack and drink bags.
While we were careful to wear our masks in public areas, we didn’t go to extremes such as this person boarding in a hazmat suit, along with his own hazmat-equipped sheets and blankets! LOL! Didn’t see him the whole trip!
Once at our train car, we were greeted by Steve (yes another Steve!) who would be our cabin attendant for the overnight ride. Steve showed us to our cabin, which on this trip is a Family cabin on the ground (first) floor, unlike the last trip where we had a standard sleeper cabin.
While both cabins are sleeper cabins, there are only two Family cabins and they are both on the first floor, while the regular sleepers are on the second floor. The Family sleeper (Amtrak says) sleeps up to five people, but they must mean a couple and 3 infant triplets. It is slightly larger than the regular sleeper car, but there is no lavatory in the family cabins, unlike the sleeper cabins. There are 3 bathrooms and one shower room right down the hall, so it’s really not an issue; there was never a wait for using the lavatories. I know it doesn’t look like it from the video below, but the Family sleeper is larger than the regular bedroom (as there is no bath) and expands the width of the train.
There is one additional accommodation called “Roomettes” which is smaller than a standard sleeper car with an upper and lower bunk, but no bathroom. Mostly these were occupied by singles, and there were five roomettes on our floor of which only four were occupied. Those cabins, like almost all onboard were closed the entire journey by the passengers except for the occasional walk to the loo. One of the tiny roomettes is pictured below, and you can see the others on other side of the train aisle above in the photo looking down the hall.
The Family sleeper spans the width of the car, so it is at the end of the hall and fills in both sides of the train where the tiny roomettes are on either side. We were glad we had booked a Family cabin this trip as it was wider and we could look out on both sides of the train.
One thing we immediately noticed on this southbound trip during COVID was virtually everyone stayed in their rooms for the whole journey, rather than venturing out to the lounge or dining cars, no doubt scared of catching COVID. I’m sure Mr. Hazmat enjoyed the privacy of his room!
Due to COVID, another major change for Amtrak and the Auto train especially, was the meal service. Now meals are only complimentary for sleeping car passengers, although coach passengers may pay for food in their Coach dining car. Also sleeper passengers also have the option of having their dinner meal delivered to their room in lieu of the dining car. On our previous trip (pre-COVID) the train was very full and had 3 dinner seatings for sleeper passengers, and was assigned depending on availability at what time you checked in for 5pm, 7pm or 9pm. On this trip, however, all but four couples (including us) had dinner in their rooms, and there was only a single dinner seating at 7pm.
We left right on time at 4pm, and headed southbound nonstop for Sanford (Orlando) area. At Lorton, the train pulls forward a bit, right across the bridge spanning the highway where we turned into the Auto Train terminal, while they connect the rest of the train cars.
The train then continues on its 850 mile, 17 hour journey while we watch the ever-changing scenery from the lounge car which we walked to. While we brought snacks, beers, and wine, those are to be consumed in the room, so I purchased a beer for me, and diet coke for DOS, credit card only now due to COVID. In the lounge and dining car you don’t have to wear your mask (but do if you get up to leave/come and go etc), and the tables were socially distance and blocked off from one another. Actually there was hardly anyone else in the lounge car while we were there the first hour or so of the trip, except for a conductor or crew member walking by. Like in the room, there are power outlets so you can charge your electronic devices while having a drink and enjoying the view.
We had a nice time at dinner, and met another couple headed back to Florida as well. The tables were alternatively blocked off for social distancing, but you could still chat across the way. Previously the dining car was full, and you were seated with another (unknown) couple at mealtime. Now each couple has their own table for two, instead of four as before; actually quite nice.
The food this trip was actually much better as well from our previous trip. We each had the beef entree with vegetables, salad, and even a cheesecake dessert! One glass of wine was complimentary, although I had purchased a half bottle of cabernet in the dining car which i brought to the table.
We had a nice dinner and chat with the other Florida couple; so much so they were closing the dining car down and very politely asked if we could move over one car to the lounge car so they could clean. What is it with us that we are always the last people to leave restaurants! LOL!
The couple had also bought some vino, and we shared a bottle we had in the room which we thought we would have if there had been no dining car service. We stayed up for a good while until we finished the vino, and then off to our respective cabins for sleep. The train make the one stop as scheduled nightly around 11:40pm (no one allowed off) for refueling and a crew change of the engineers. It’s a short stop, maybe 15 minutes, and with no announcements made most people probably didn’t even notice.
DOS was a sport and took the took bunk in the Family cabin, while I took the lower bunk. The other 3 bunks in the Family cabin were for the small kids that some families might bring aboard (must be horribly cramped!) The Family room was quite tight, but for the two of us was fine, and a bit larger than the regular sleeper.
Oh, and remember those smaller bunks for kids I spoke about? And remember the earlier warning I had said about not bringing too much luggage aboard the train for a single overnight trip? Well, fortunately we had the larger Family cabin and stored everything on one of the kids bunks! Otherwise we wouldn’t have had anywhere to put any of this as it was to big to fit under the bed!
In the morning, we skipped the grab and go breakfast they offer now, as well as the coffee on the end of each train car. We arrived to Sanford around 8:25am, and as instructed we had to stay in our room for a few minutes while they detached the trains carrying the autos.
The ‘debarkation’ process then begins which means waiting for your car out front of the station, or inside the terminal where they call your car number. I don’t know why, but everyone waits outside the terminal in the hot Florida sun. The 30 or so priority pre-paid cars ($65 extra) are unloaded first, and then the rest of the cars. Amtrak says to allow up to an hour and a half for non-priority cars, but this, like last time was no more than 1/2 hour wait.
We then got in our car (no damage) and were on our way. A short 15 minute drive and we were back home in Orlando. Welcome Back!