Last month I took Amtrak’s AutoTrain from Sanford, Fla., to Lorton, Va., the train’s only station stops. The train stops in Florence, SC, at night, but only to refuel, fill its fresh water tanks, and change engineers and conductors.
I enjoyed my AutoTrain trip. The stations’ personnel were efficient and professional, as were the train’s personnel. The passenger portion of the train is comprised of Superliner coach cars, and Superliner II sleeping cars, considered the finest in the world by many. My dad and I stayed in a Bedroom, which was great. The food in the dining car was excellent, and harkened back to my youth when I rode the rails in overnight Pullman cars with superb dining car service, just like in the Hitchcock movie North by Northwest.
The AutoTrain’s scheduled departure is 4 p.m. daily from each station, and its scheduled arrival is 9:30 a.m. the next morning. Amtrak requests everyone arrive at the station by 2:00 p.m., and requires check-in no later than 3 p.m. (2 pm for motorcycles and SUV’s/Vans).
When you arrive at the station, you stop at the check-in booth. If you’re picking up your ticket, you need to have your reservation number, so the attendant can check their list. You’ll need a photo ID to show the attendant, whether or not you already have your ticket. A numbered (It’s the number by which your vehicle will be identified when unloaded at the other station in the morning.) magnetic plaque is put on your vehicle.
Next, it’s vehicle check-in. You’ll leave your vehicle here after Amtrak videos it to document preexisting damage. You must take with you everything you need from the car for the overnight trip. You won’t have access to your car until the next morning after you arrive at the station.
You then proceed to the station’s ticket counter to get your get your dinner seating assignment and your ticket, if necessary. Then your wait until boarding commences. The Lorton station has a modern, spacious waiting area. While they build a large modern waiting area, the Sanford station only has a small permanent waiting area and a larger temporary one. Ticketed passengers may walk the platform to gaze at the train while personnel are getting it ready, and it’s great fun to watch the vehicles loaded into the train. Boarding generally begins between 2:30 p.m. and 3 p.m.
The AutoTrain travels 855 miles each way. Our train included 7 sleepers, 4 coach cars, 3 dining cars, and 2 lounge cars, for the 468 passengers, plus enough vehicle carrier cars to hold 253 vehicles. The train had 27 staff members, plus 2 engineers. The trains are pulled by a pair of diesel powered engines, and are generally more than ¾ of a mile long. Ticketed passengers on the train are entitled to a 3 course dinner plus breakfast. The dinner menu and steak option is more upscale for sleeper than coach passengers. Breakfast is continental; fruit, cereal, juice, rolls and beverage. Often there’s little time between first call to breakfast and arrival at the station. We arrived early at 8:30am.
The Superliner cars are all double deckers. Most passengers are on the second level. Disabled passengers, and those with mobility problems, can take coach or sleeper accommodations on the lower level.
Coach passengers sit in wide reclining seats with foot rests, similar to first class on airlines. Sleeper cars, in which everyone has a fully made up bed on which to sleep, offer a choice of roomettes for up to 2 passengers, family bedrooms for up to 2 adults and 2 small children, and bedrooms for up to 2 adults with a private washbasin, toilet and shower. There are a few connecting bedrooms. Accessible Bedrooms for a mobility-impaired passenger and a companion are available with a communal ADA bathroom and shower. Sleepers have comfortable upholstered seating during the day, and are made up with lower and upper beds at night.
After boarding, wine, cheese, nut mix and crudités are served in the lounges. We took plates back to our room to enjoy in private, along with beverages from the bar. Lounge cars are available for reading, playing cards or simply relaxing. Movies are shown there twice each evening. There are apples, oranges, coffee, tea, cookies and snacks available, but the snack bar closes at 11:00pm. Alcoholic beverages and soda, pizza, peanuts, and other foods are available for purchase from the bar. The top floor of the lounges are non-smoking, but smoking is permitted on the smaller first floors.
We took the 7 pm dinner seating; the most popular. Each table is for 4, and we had 2 interesting table-mates to share dinner. I had a fresh salad, roll, strip steak, fresh green beans, baked potato, and a sundae for dessert. The food was excellent, as was the service. It was fun to watch the beautiful countryside go by as we enjoyed our meal.
In the sleeping cars, attendants keep an urn of coffee and hot water for tea, warmed up into the night, and at your request will bring coffee, tea and juice to your room in the morning.
At 10 pm we had the beds made up. Our excellent attendant was right on time. The sofa became the lower bed, and the upper pulled down from the wall. The beds were surprisingly comfortable. There is a ladder to the upper bed so you don’t have to be an acrobat. While all bedding is supplied for sleeping car passengers, coach passengers get only a blanket and small pillow. Many coach passengers bring their own pillows.
Before bed, I showered, taking advantage of the shower in our room. The bedrooms have a combination toilet/shower. You enter the stall, shut the door, snap the shower curtain in place to prevent flooding the room, make sure the toilet cover is down and turn on the water. There was plenty of hot water.
In the coach cars, many stay up very late, and go back and forth to the lounges. It can be tough to sleep there for some. In the bedroom you have privacy and only hear the noise of the moving train and the occasional muffled blast of the engines’ horn. We slept through the night.
Up at 6 am, after a quick shower, we were dressed and went to the dining car for breakfast. There was plenty to eat. Everything was fresh, and the service was excellent. The attendant had made up our room for daytime by the time we returned to it from breakfast.
We arrived at Lorton early. Shortly after getting off the train, the vehicles began being driven out of the train. As each vehicle comes off, the vehicle number (Remember you got the number when you checked in at the booth.) is announced. You get your vehicle and depart. It takes from 15 minutes to 2 hours to get your car after arrival. We got ours after an hour.
If you live in the Northeast, and need a car for an extended time visiting Florida, this is a great way to get down and back. It avoids the hassles of flying and TSA, and the tiring hours of driving to travel between the Washington, DC area and Florida. For youngsters, the AutoTrain can be a marvelous adventure.
Here’s some tips for the AutoTrain:
• Eat lunch before you get to either station as there is no food service there. If you’re traveling with children, bring snacks and beverages for the wait, and until food is available on the train.
• Arrive at the station between 12:30 p.m. and 1 p.m. Yes I know that’s a long time prior to departure, but you’ll get in before the rush, and your early arrival likely ensures you’ll get your choice of dinner seating (5 p.m., 7 p.m., 9 p.m.), which is assigned at the station on a first come, first choice basis.
• Don’t leave valuables in your vehicle. Keep anything in the passenger area of the car packed in a bag or container with a lock or seal. Amtrak is not responsible for anything left in the car. While theft is a rarity, it’s not unknown.
• If you need a family bedroom, connecting rooms, or an accessible bedroom, book well in advance as there are very few of them.
• While smoking on the train is only permitted on the first floor of the lounges, you can’t miss the smell of smoke on the second floor throughout the trip. The lounges are next to the dining cars and used for overflow seating for dinner and breakfast when the train is packed. To avoid the smell, make sure you sit in the dining cars, so be sure to arrive for your dinner seating a few minutes early. For breakfast, (no seatings) which starts typically at 6:30 a.m., get there early too.
• The lower bed is essentially a full size bed, but the upper is shorter. Six footers will have their legs stick over the end of the upper bed unless they curl up a bit. Keep that in mind when choosing who sleeps where. As the temperature outside warms up, it can be considerably hotter on the upper at night, so don’t forget to adjust the air conditioning vent to blow more air there, and for heaven’s sake, don’t sit up quickly or your head will crash into the ceiling.