This week, our intrepid editor took a trip on the Auto Train…here is his story.
The Auto Train is non-stop 855 mile trip between Sanford, Florida and Lorton, Virginia. The Auto Train is so named because it is the only Amtrak train that transports both passengers and their cars, vans, motorcycles, boats, etc. The train is scheduled at 17.5 hours, and operates at an end-to-end average speed of 49mph, but often arrives early. This year, it was ontime 88% of the time. The north and southbound trains both leave at 4PM, and are scheduled to arrive at 9:30AM the following morning. My train had 486 passengers onboard, 220 cars, 4 vans, and 4 motorcycles…at least according to the conductor.
Ridership of the Auto Train is about 233,000 passengers and 111,000 vehicles a year, and other routes are being looked at periodically. Such things are dependent on money, but Amtrak did research adding an Auto Train service from Chicago to Phoenix, a route which has the same features as the VA-FL route in terms of demand, probably linking it with an existing route.
They could do better on the speed, but there are restrictions due to freight trains on the route as well as other issues. The train makes a single refueling stop in the middle of the night in Florence, SC. The route is actually one that makes profit for Amtrak, and thus has many amenities.
One-way coach fares range from $93 per person to $228. Roomettes and bedrooms are also available, at a cost of $219 to $1,024 per traveler. One-way fares for vehicles range from $152 to $304 for standard automobiles; up to $339 for oversized cars; and up to $225 for motorcycles. The prices include dinner and breakfast.
My trip started when I flew down to Florida to bring back a relative’s car. I drove to the Sanford AutoTrain station, which recently received 10.5 million dollars to be renovated and updated. This is good, as the current station, while nice, is not befitting such a route. Upon arrival, your automobile is assigned a number and videotaped to document its condition. Then you can check in as a passenger and pick your seating and your meal time. The train had three dinner sittings and a choice of multiple options, including a vegetarian option. You can even pre-order a kosher meal, if your dietary needs are such.
While I was in coach seating, the car had several sleeper cars. I did walk through them, but after we started off, that section of the train wasn’t available to me…and people don’t appreciate you taking pictures of their rooms(Here is Amtrak’s page on sleeping arrangements). it was a full train, so next to me was a complete stranger. Each seat had two outlets, but I did bring a splitter…just in case. Many people, including my seatmate and myself, brought portable computers. I brought a prepaid cellular modem that I’d gotten a daypass on, and had a signal pretty much all of the way.
After boarding the train, you can stop by the dining car for a complimentary wine and cheese tasting. Ironically…wine and cheese free. Bottled water or soda…not. The train stores potable water, and in the middle of the coach car is a spigot and cups.
Superliner coaches have wide two-and-two reclining seats, with foot-rests and retractable leg-rests. The 50-inch pitch of the seats is more than you will get in a business class seat on a domestic flight, but puts the foot-rests out of reach of some passengers. The recline of the seats goes to a near flat position, and travel pillows and blankets are provided. Many people brought along their own pillows for increased comfort.
I’ve done coach seating before, on the Lake Shore Limited, from New York to Chicago(which didn’t have outlets at the time) and wouldn’t have minded trying sleeper service, which I have not, but all the sleeper cars were booked. Sleeping wasn’t bad, although I’m not used to sleeping in that position and I spent much of the time enjoying the scenery, watching the movement of the train on my GPS, and once it grew dark(thus no scenery), I was online.
The train also felt friendlier in some ways. Perhaps it was the large amount of friendly senior citizens. The Auto Train does skew older, and I traveled in a period when there would be fewer families with children. There were also many college-age students, moving their cars elsewhere. When you sat down in a lounge car, it was quite possible someone might want the seat next to you, and a conversation might ensue.
Early, we pulled into Lorton, VA…the end of the line. The Lorton station has been renovated, and the Sanford station’s renovation will bring it more in line with this large glass structure, which befits the popularity of this route.
The offloading of cars was just as organized as the loading, although it seemed more efficient to many I spoke to in Lorton than Sanford…but I have no hard data on this. While you wait in the waiting room, they call the car numbers over the loudspeaker. When your car is offloaded, they expect you to get on the way to clear space for the offloading of other cars.
And that brought the trip to an end…at least on the train. Maybe someday the AutoTrain will have a terminus further north. I could see them, even out of Florida, splitting a train in Lorton, VA or elsewhere and taking it further north, perhaps New Jersey. Admittedly, the tunnel clearance is an issue, but there are alternate routes that could be used. Or maybe the Chicago-Phoenix route will come to be someday.
Who knows what the future may bring? Until then…we have the Auto Train, and its an established Amtrak cornerstone you should try.
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